05 Jun My caffeine free journey
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved tea and coffee. I would always have a stash of loose-leaf tea at home and relished trying out the coffee at different cafés. Once I started uni, having a flat white before an 8am lecture or an afternoon lab was like coming up for air; it cleared my mind and made me feel alert and unstoppable. Inevitably as the trimester would roll on, having those coffees would become less about feeling good and more about making it through it the day. At night, despite being tired, I would struggle to get to sleep. As the weeks wore by, I would start feeling almost constantly tired and my productivity would go down despite chugging more and more caffeine.
So, I figured that starting medicine would be a good excuse to sort out my productivity and sleep issues. Being a student of science, my first instinct was to consult the studies on caffeine, sleep quality and cognitive performance. Now, before doing this investigation, I was convinced – like many people – that caffeine was good for me. We’ve all read those articles quoting research about the health benefits of coffee or tea. My personal experience told me that caffeine improved my cognitive performance, my energy level and my mood. I also assumed that it was just normal to need a cuppa in the morning to get going. I assumed that my struggles with getting to sleep was were due to poor sleep hygiene – I studied till late and used my laptop or phone till the minute I hit the pillow. Surely there weren’t any other reasons for my increasing tiredness and poor sleep quality?
When curious, research!
I started doing some research on caffeine, cognitive performance and sleep quality and made some intriguing findings. One study found caffeine consumption negatively affected sleep quality. Caffeine’s half-life of around 6 hours means that a 4pm double shot is, at 10pm, the equivalent of a single shot still circulating and effecting your system. The studies found that consuming the equivalent of a single shot of espresso at 2pm reduced sleep duration by around 20 minutes on average. Consuming the same amount at 4pm reduced sleep duration by around 47 minutes and participants reported poorer sleep quality with a corresponding reduction in mental alertness the next morning (Drake, Roehrs, Shambroom, & Roth, 2013). So, it seemed that I should just have caffeine in the morning and try and work then.
My research then shifted to how to maximise caffeine’s cognitive boost. However, a review found that studies which showed caffeine improved cognitive performance never controlled for whether the participants were consumers of caffeine. When you consider that around 80% of Americans consume at least one caffeinated product everyday (and most studies come from America), you can begin to see the issue. Limited repeat studies could not replicate these results in non-caffeine dependent populations, indicating that many cognitive benefits could actually just be reversing the effects of caffeine withdrawal (James, 2014).
Trialling the science
These results shocked me. I couldn’t believe that my attempts to improve my productivity with coffee may have just been self-sabotage. The solution seemed clear: I decided to try going caffeine free for 3 months and see how it went. With it being the holidays, I had already reduced my caffeine consumption by virtue of not having much work to do. I continued cutting down over the course of two weeks and I was down to no caffeine (except chocolate, I’m not a masochist) one week before med school started. I also implemented the other part of this plan: a rigid sleep schedule. I made sure I was in bed before 11pm and allowed myself a few minutes to read a book (or watch a 20min episode of Netflix). Everyday I’d wake up between 6:30 and 7am (and yes, that included weekends).
The first couple of weeks went remarkably well. Obviously, it was just after the holidays and I knew this new regime would be tested soon. As the weeks flew by, I was surprised at how well I was handling everything. For the first time in a long time I could make it through a 3pm lecture without nodding off. I didn’t have trouble falling asleep and most shockingly, I could wake up in the morning feeling refreshed and not crave a coffee. What a concept! Of course, there were days I was tired or didn’t sleep well but they were exceptions rather than the rule. I kept up my strictly no caffeine rule religiously – even when severely tempted while ordering brunch at a café.
New habit for life?
Of course, just as I’d settled and started gaining the benefits of this new routine, coronavirus had to come in and disrupt the little the routine I had going. While I do stay up later now, I still make sure I keep a consistent sleep schedule. And to answer the big question, yes I did make it three months caffeine free. Last week, I had my first hot cup of tea, not because I needed the caffeine but because I craved that warm, familiar taste. I don’t plan on having caffeinated tea or coffee more than a couple times a week and I certainly don’t plan on becoming caffeine addicted again.
Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 1195-1200.
James, J. E. (2014). Caffeine and cognitive performance: Persistent methodological challenges in caffeine research. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 117-122.