One more cup of coffee for the road?

| October 2, 2018

Do you love your morning coffee jolt a little too much? Do you follow your first double shot with a second a little too quickly? Chances are you’re one of the caffeine addicts making Australia’s sleep specialists worried.

Experts at the Sleep Health Foundation are working to uncover the full extent of Australia’s caffeine addiction out of concern that too many people are using the stimulant to mask their sleep deprivation.

The national sleep authority is using this week’s Sleep Awareness Week to raise awareness of caffeine masking sleep disorders and sleep deprivation.

“We suspect there are many people out there using caffeine to push their body to the limit to find energy that they’re missing after a poor night’s sleep,” says the sleep expert Associate Professor Siobhan Banks. “What they don’t realise is that if they could prioritise getting that good night sleep in the first place they’d get all that same energy naturally.”

Caffeine is a popular, naturally-occurring psychoactive substance that promotes alertness by blocking the actions of sleep-related chemicals in the brain. It reaches peak levels in the blood 30-70 minutes after consumption, giving the consumer a burst of energy and alerting effects lasting 3-7 hours, and remains in the body for up to 24 hours.

“It can be a real sleep ruiner if consumed too close to bedtime, making it harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep,” Associate Professor Banks warns. “Complicating matters is the fact that your caffeine sensitivity depends on your age and your genes, so it’s vital to recognise how you as an individual respond to it.”

Many overseas guidelines recommend consuming no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day, about three cups of brewed coffee or six cups of brewed black tea.

“That is a lot of caffeine, and the trouble is many people don’t stop there,” she says. “With cafes and office coffee machines everywhere and more people burning the candle at both ends it’s common to reach for your third and fourth coffee as the day progresses.”

“Sure you get that boost often accompanied by a feeling of elation, but you’re also likely to get a faster heart rate, muscle tremors and headaches,” the specialist says. “And when it comes to bedtime, a long and restful sleep is very unlikely.”

The Sleep Health Foundation has some important advice for caffeine lovers with questionable sleep. Learn how much caffeine is in the products you’re consuming. Consider how much you’re having each day, and when you’re having it, Associate Professor Banks says. “Even the simple change of avoiding all caffeinated products 3-6 hours before bed in normal circumstances can be enough to improve the quality of the shut eye you’re getting.”

If you do try to cut back do it gradually. Going cold turkey can bring on headaches, tiredness and anxiety.

For children, small doses of caffeine in chocolate and chocolate-based drinks are okay but experts recommend coffee, tea and energy drinks are avoided by anyone under 12.

For shift workers, caffeine can be helpful. “There are many safety sensitive jobs and night time shiftwork environments where people can benefit from a coffee or two to improve alertness, and we would encourage people to still use caffeine to help them overcome fatigue,” Associate Professor Banks says.  “But the message we would send them is to use caffeine strategically, don’t overload and consider the potential impact on their sleep between shifts.”

Sleep Health Foundation is using Sleep Awareness Week from October 1 to 7 to issue a new factsheet on safe caffeine use and conduct a study to find out how much is being consumed. It asks consumers how many caffeine-rich drinks and foods they have had in the past week.

“There is a huge list of products in there, from energy drink brands to products like chocolate ice cream, green tea, hot chocolate, milky iced coffee and Kahlua, which many people don’t think of as stimulants,” Associate Professor Banks says.

The take home message in all this is that caffeine might help mask your sleepiness but it doesn’t replace the benefits of a good night’s sleep. “It’s important to remember the effects are only temporary,” she says. “It really only offers a short-term spark that won’t make feel better in the long run. For that you need to prioritise getting your 7-8 hours sleep.”