Caffeine or Sleep? Which Performance Enhancer Should You Choose?

Caffeine is a powerful performance enhancer that negatively affects sleep when it’s not consumed moderately. Learn more about the relationship between caffeine and sleep.

Written by:


Last Updated: Mon, September 2, 2019

To caffeine or to sleep, that is the question? 

Hey friends! It’s 2 p.m. somewhere, which means someone is reaching for their 6th cup of coffee right now to try and push through the rest of the day. Hey, we’ve all been there. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 90% of American adults consume some type of caffeine on a daily basis.

And for good reason. Caffeine is a powerful natural substance that improves mental and physical performance. Just one dose can significantly enhance exercise performance, mental focus, fat burning and cognitive output for several hours after ingestion. And in our increasingly busy world where we need to perform at our best from sun rise to sun set, it’s pretty much the easiest thing we can grab to stay functioning. 

Heck, even the US Special Forces uses it to enhance performance and awareness in their troops. 

But do we need to be so dependent on caffeine in order to perform each day? In this video, I’m going to explore this question while discussing the sleep and caffeine cycle, when you might prioritize one over the other and if we even need caffeine the way we think we do. My name is Kelly Benson and I’m a performance sleep specialist and proud coffee lover, so I’m excited to dive in. 

How Does Caffeine Enhance Our Performance?

Caffeine is one of the cheapest, easiest and safest stimulants available. It’s found naturally in over 60 plants including the coffee bean, tea leaf and cacao pods. These days, it’s readily available in almost every form, including drinks, snacks, chews, gels, sprays, gum and pills.

Caffeine works to help us feel more alert and wired in part because of how it’s received by what are called adenosine receptors, which are located in your brain. Adenosine is a central nervous system neuromodulator that has it’s own specific receptors. During the day, it builds up in the bloodstream and bind to its receptors, which then slows down neural activity, causing you to feel sleepy. By the end of the day, enough adenosine has been created that your level of sleepiness will reach a critical peak and you’ll soon find yourself drooling on your pillow. However, caffeine has the ability to bind to the same receptors, but without reducing neural activity. The two of them essentially battle for the same receptors, with caffeine being a little stronger than it’s opponent adenosine. This then increases neural activity when it otherwise would begin slowing down. 

In other words, caffeine prevents your brain from feeling sleepy. 

By activating neural circuits, caffeine also causes the pituitary gland to secrete hormones that cause the adrenal glands to produce more adrenalin. As the fight or flight hormone, this increases your level of attention and gives the whole system a burst of energy. It’s this feeling that many coffee drinkers are so eager for each morning. 

With moderate consumption, it has incredible effects on many cells throughout the body, including muscle cells and brain cells. It’s quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and reaches peak levels within just 30-90 minutes and remains high for 3-4 hours. While it’s in our system, it improves focus and energy, increases alertness and speed, activates muscles and increases thermogensis and helps us feel more positive and happy. 

In other words, caffeine is nature’s most beautiful performance enhancer. 

Now although there is no real nutritional need for caffeine, moderate intake is NOT associated with any recognized health risks and in fact, may have some profound benefits. According to Harvard Health, moderate consumption has been linked to a longer lifespan and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cirrhosis to name a few. Now when I say moderate, I mean three 8 oz. cups of coffee or 250 milligrams. More than six cups of coffee per day is considered excessive and could have negative health effects, in fact a dose of 500 mg or 600 mg of caffeine can affect you much like a low dose of an amphetamine.

That said, not all individuals respond the same way to caffeine and some may have a more difficult time processing it. It’s also possible to build a tolerance to caffeine, which happens to people who consume it on a daily basis. They’ll find that it’s less effective as a stimulant and may cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches, nausea and difficulty sleeping if they don’t take it for 1-2 days.

Which! Brings me to the love-hate relationship between caffeine and sleep. 

Caffeine and Sleep

Although caffeine isn’t necessary Unhealthy, it does have to be consumed strategically and carefully. With a half-life of around 6 hours, your body will still be processing a 9am cup of joe until the late afternoon hours, even if the noticeable effects have worn off. Now for most people who just have one, maybe two cups before noon, this won’t impact their sleep. However, most American adults are now drinking more cups of coffee and consuming them well into the afternoon to get through all of life’s increasing obligations with some semblance of high-performance. 

When you increase your caffeine dose and you consume it later in the day, your sleep is guaranteed to be negatively impacted. The adenosine receptors, which should be helping to make you feel sleepy aren’t able to, because they’re blocked by the caffeine compounds. This will cause you to feel wired and alert, much like someone with insomnia, when you should be getting tired. 

Studies have even shown that caffeine may delay the timing of your internal body clock, which signals to your brain when it’s time to go to bed, leading to a possible circadian rhythm disorder that may stick around even if you stop consuming caffeine. 

To make matters worse, caffeine can also restructure the architecture of your sleep entirely and reduce the amount of deep sleep, which is the phase that’s critical for physical and mental rejuvenation. 

Consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime has been shown to reduce total sleep time by at least 1 hour and cause greater micro arousals through the night, leaving you niiiiice and groggy the next day. Now the older or more sensitive to caffeine you are, the stronger these effects will be too. 

By overdoing it on caffeine and not sleeping well, you’ll initiate a painful cycle of caffeine dependency and deteriorating sleep. You’ll begin feeling like you need more in order to function, but then experience worsening sleep and other possible side effects like anxiety, irritability, rapid heart beat, nervousness and more aggressive caffeine crashes. Soon, the caffeine won’t give you the same enjoyable high as before and you’ll develop a caffeine tolerance. 

Around this time, you’ll realize that your performance levels are starting to decline and you may be well on your way to developing a more chronic poor sleep pattern. By not sleeping well, you’ll be susceptible to impaired muscle growth, mental fatigue, slow healing, changes in cognitive function, reduced immune system and a susceptibility to weight gain, to name a few. 

And unfortunately, the answer isn’t in another cup of coffee. But rather, a detox from caffeine and a focus on sleep. Which! brings me to my recommendations.

How to Use Caffeine to Enhance Your Performance?

No matter what, caffeine should never be used as a substitute for sleep or poor sleeping habits. The FDA has even cautioned consumers that products marketed as “energy shots” or “energy drinks” are not alternatives to sleep.

If you haven’t developed a caffeine dependency yet and your sleep is good, then stick to healthy caffeine habits like having your last dose no later than 2 PM and consuming no more than about 250-350 mg per day. If your body doesn’t tolerate caffeine well, then reduce this amount and consume it earlier in the day. 

If you’re interested in strategically taking caffeine purely as a performance enhancer for sporting competitions or fitness, the recommended dose ranges from 1.5 to 4mg per pound of body weight taken one hour before exercise. For a 150 pound person, this corresponds to 225 to 600 mg, which is a big enough range to allow for personal experimentation. 

Now if you’re someone with caffeine dependency and poor sleep, you may benefit from a caffeine detox of a few weeks and then reinstating the habit slowly and carefully. Be warned that withdrawal symptoms will take place and you may feel worse before you feel better, but it’ll help to reset your sleep and health in ways that’ll make you feel better than before. If you’re going to wean yourself off coffee, we recommend doing so under the supervision of a licensed medical professional. 

Lastly, it’s important to know that you do not need caffeine in order to perform optimally. It is a performance enhancer, which means it can only elevate the mind-body performance capabilities you naturally have. By focusing on getting high-quality sleep, eating well and exercising often, you may find that you don’t even need caffeine. 

If that’s you, enjoy not spending $6 on daily double shot lattes and instead go buy yourself a performance-enhancing mattress.


Sleep Related

Was this post helpful?

+ posts

Kelly is a Performance Sleep Coach who works with athletes, entrepreneurs, and people looking to optimize their rest for ultimate energy and recovery. With a background in holistic health and wellness, she blends ancient principles with modern sleep science to help her clients overcome insomnia, daytime fatigue, and disturbed sleep.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *