There’s nothing I love more in the morning than coffee. From the acrid smell of the grounds and the steam wafting upward with the first sip to the slightly bitter taste and the thrill of my world coming into sharper focus, no drink comes close to satisfying me like a piping hot café au lait.
But I came of age when drinking caffeinated beverages was frowned on for people like me. Sleep experts exhorted people with insomnia to “stay away” from caffeine; a story in Working Woman stated that “the stimulant effect of coffee may last as long as 20 hours.” Warnings like these made me feel guilty about indulging my java jones. Were my two cups of coffee, one at wake-up time and the other later in the morning, keeping me awake at night?
Unlikely, is the message I came away with from a sleep seminar I attended a year ago. “They’ve gone overboard on this one,” said behavioral sleep medicine specialist Michael Perlis, referring to the recommendation to steer clear of caffeine as part of good sleep hygiene. Studies where subjects have taken caffeine right before bedtime show that the drug interferes with the timing and quality of sleep. But used judiciously in the morning or even mid-afternoon, Perlis says, caffeine can reduce the daytime impairments associated with insomnia without harming sleep at night.
Moderate Use of Caffeine in the Morning
A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine bears this out. Researchers reviewed data collected from 65 insomniacs and 29 good sleepers with three questions in mind:
1) how did the use of caffeine – and the plasma concentrations of its main metabolite, paraxanthine — compare between the two groups,
2) was use of caffeine related to increased caffeine and paraxanthine plasma concentrations in the insomniacs compared to the good sleepers, and
3) did caffeine consumption affect subjects’ sleep, and did the effect differ in insomniacs and good sleepers?
Researchers found no differences between the two groups in the amount of caffeine they consumed (no one drank more than 4 cups of coffee a day) or plasma concentrations of caffeine and paraxanthine. Nor did subjects differ in when they used caffeine, with most reporting use early in the day. And – here is the key finding – the caffeine had little if any impact on any of the subjects’ sleep, assessed both subjectively and objectively in a sleep lab.
“This study demonstrates that low to moderate caffeine use” (mainly in the morning) “did not have a powerful effect upon sleep in either good sleepers or primary insomniacs,” the authors conclude.
People differ in their sensitivity to caffeine and the speed at which their bodies metabolize it, so decisions about when and how much to use are individual matters. Me, I turn a deaf ear to caffeine purists these days. No way am I going to break off my steamy morning affair with Java Joe.