If you love coffee, then I hope you get some value out of this post. If you don’t like coffee, then you may want to keep reading because the main idea of this blog post is not about coffee, but caffeine.
The main point of this post is to share with you how I use coffee/caffeinated drinks to be more productive at work or university and life in general.
There is a lot of misconception on how caffeine works. I often hear people say, “Oh I feel tired, gonna go get some coffee to wake me up”. In fact, if you are feeling tired, then in most cases it’s more the placebo effect that is giving you the sense of having more energy rather than the cup of coffee itself.
Let’s first talk about what you need to know, and then what you need to do.
What you need to know:
How caffeine affects your brain. To do that, we need to learn about adenosine.
When your body is digesting foods, through a chain reaction, the glucose (think carbohydrates) in the foods breaks down into Adenosine Tri-Phosphate (ATP). ATP is responsible for energy transference between cells. Once the ATP is ‘used up’, the body decomposes it one more time into adenosine. As adenosine builds up in the bloodstream and reaches your brain, it binds to specific receptors. When adenosine binds to these receptors, it sends a signal to your brain that makes you feel sleepy or tired.
Why does this happen? Well, when the body runs out of fuel in the form of ATP, adenosine tells the brain to become sleepy so that we can rebuild our energy reserves. It’s a critical chain reaction that starts the early stages of non-REM sleep and is essential to the natural sleep cycle.
Okay, but why is this important? Aha! Caffeine molecules look a lot like adenosine molecules. When caffeine reaches the brain, the molecules bind to the special receptors which are meant for adenosine. This leaves the adenosine molecules floating around and as a result, the brain does not get the sleepy signal.
Now you know that caffeine does not give you an energy boost; instead, it prevents your energy levels from dipping due to adenosine-induced sleepiness.
Note: Over time, your body adjusts to more and more caffeine levels by producing more and more adenosine. This is why when you consume a lot of caffeine, you feel extra groggy and suffer from mild headaches when you don’t have it.
What you need to do:
For the next couple of days, avoid high caffeinated beverages. Coffee, energy drinks, and even tea.
While you go about your day, make a note of the exact time when you feel tired or sleepy. This will give you an idea of when your energy levels normally crash and the adenosine-induced sleepiness is kicking in.
Now you should have a rough idea at what times of the day your energy level tends to dip. All you need to do is then drink a cup of coffee (or anything that contains caffeine) 1 hour before the time where your energy level crashes.
Experiment with different timings to find what suits you best personally.
Note: it’s important to be sensible with how much caffeine you consume each day. I recommend having a “cut-off” time after which you don’t consume any caffeinated beverage at all so as to not affect your sleep.
Additional tip: caffeine naps
One non-traditional way of taking advantage of the caffeine-adenosine-mechanism is to wait until you get tired, have some caffeine followed immediately by a 15-minute nap. The idea behind this is that the caffeine takes a while to reach your brain, and therefore the light sleep clears out the adenosine receptors in your brain. When you wake up, the caffeine shows up and you feel recharged.
A study has shown that adults who took part in a caffeine nap before being placed in a driving simulator for 2 hours felt less sleepy behind the wheel than those who didn’t . This may or not work for you but it is still worth trying if you are already feeling sleepy.
Reyner LA, Horne JA. Suppression of sleepiness in drivers: combination of caffeine with a short nap. Psychophysiology. 1997 Nov;34(6):721-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1997.tb02148.x. PMID: 9401427.