Most of us are doing consuming caffeine wrong so let’s chat about how to UP YOUR COFFEE GAME.
When I was healing my body from an accident, trauma, and burnout, I was eating healthy, working out daily, and trying to reduce as much stress as I can but my A1C levels were higher than normal. I’m pretty passionate about metabolic health and understand keeping our blood sugar stable is a secret weapon to optimal health so I went on a deep dive.
Because my body was stuck in fight-or-flight for so long, the chronic stress raised my resting glucose levels— but I was doing everything right?! Or so I thought.
Studies show caffeine decreases insulin sensitivity in the short term causing blood sugar to rise so my cup of coffee every morning paired with other random habits probably wasn’t working.
The long-term compounding effects of coffee such as protection against oxidative stress and inflammation are more beneficial. I took take a huge interest in learning so I can work on better caffeine habits since we are all about peak performance if we want the HEALTHY x WEALTHY life.
I know what it feels like to be at my best— energy, mood, cognitive function— and habit creation is fun so I was down for a new challenge.
The Hard Truth: Most Of Us Are Drinking Coffee Wrong
In my 20s, I’d roll out of bed and make a cup of coffee while getting ready for work. Bike to work. Perhaps head to the company gym to lift weights, all fasted. Shower, and grab another coffee before heading to my desk. I’ll have another coffee around 3pm. Sip green tea throughout the day (which also has caffeine).
When we were younger, we could do anything we want—seemingly immune to the negative effects of caffeine. I was literally invincible until I was 33 (but only because everything happened at once because if it was only one incident, my body would’ve weathered the storm: car accident, pandemic, isolation, starting 2 businesses simultaneously, trauma from a super toxic relationship, etc). The worst but the best thing that’s happened.
Because I took it upon myself to fix my body, I know more than ever and I’m passionate about teaching because we can truly have the power to heal ourselves.
As we age, stress, toxins, and inflammation wear down our bodies so it’s in our best interest to switch strategies and adapt t really appreciate science and want to learn new environments.
*These notes in this post are a breakdown of Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast on caffeine. Click here to watch the full episode and reference the studies.
Basic Guidelines Around Coffee Consumption:
- Wait 90-120min until after waking for your first cup of coffee to prevent the ‘crash’.
- Everyone’s caffeine sensitivity is different.
- Don’t drink caffeine 8-12 hours before bed.
- Stop drinking coffee with sugar. Cut the fraps. 🚫 Caffeine has a bad rap because most people lack control, and drink too much with too much cream and sugar.
*Note that these are best practices. It’s okay if you can’t do these every day but you can slowly build these habits into your routine over time.
Benefits of Coffee & Caffeine:
- May have certain neuroprotective effects— caffeine increase neuromodulators for motivation and drive such as dopamine and epinephrine.
- Increases dopamine and acetylcholine needed for focus.
- May have anti-depressant effects.
- Performance enhancing: improves reaction time and enhances accuracy by stimulating certain neuromodulators that make circuits for learning and memory more accessible. Hugely beneficial for sports and cognitive performance
- Gives you ‘privileged access to our reward system’ because caffeine acts as a powerful “reinforcer” for experience— subconscious preference drivers that help us anchor an experience.
1. Caffeine is a Potent Subconscious Reinforcer
Caffeine is in some plants in super low quantities that are barely detectable. In this study, bees preferred certain nectars because it contained caffeine and they liked how those flavors made them feel— alert, thus more productive which has a further reinforcing effect. They weren’t aware of caffeine so it was subconscious.
Caffeine’s effects don’t only work when you’re ingesting coffee but affect things that preceded that cup of coffee.
It stimulates dopamine and acetylcholine in our forebrain, two neuromodulators that increase focus, alertness, and feelings of well-being.
It stimulates dopamine directly in parts of our brain that are associated with:
- clarity of thought, the ability to rule switch
- the ability to move from one context to another
- changing and understanding the rules of engagement (social, mental, physical)
- adjusting strategies for social situations in mental and physical demands
- increasing our reward pathways
How to use this to your advantage:
- I’m trying to get my partner to enjoy healthy foods like kimchi and beets— so maybe I should use caffeine as a reinforcer. 😁
- I anchored caffeine with deep work in the morning. I literally cannot wait to work because my first cup of coffee signals I’m about to sit down in front of my computer to do my first round of deep work.
- Avoid caffeine to stop habits you want to stop (eg. sugar cravings). If you like to have your coffee with a pastry, try to stop that terrible habit.
Caffeine makes things that feel good even better.
When we regularly ingest caffeine, it stimulates an increase in our reward pathways— so when dopamine is released during positive experiences, there are now more receptors — parking spots — for dopamine to park in to increase your feelings of mood, drive, and excitement. This increases the probability you will return to, engage in certain activities, eat a certain food, etc. It also provides a super potent effect on feelings of well-being.
2. Why You Shouldn’t Drink Coffee Right When You Wake Up
Your cortisol peaks shortly after you wake up (around 7am for some people) so you’re better off waiting until it levels off to give you a second buzz. Unless you had a terrible sleep, you should be pretty peppy in the morning— and if you’re not, then coffee isn’t your answer because you need to fix your sleep first otherwise you’re creating a domino effect of bad habits that’s detrimental in the long run.
But caffeine is an incredible molecule so if you understand how it works, you can use it strategically to get you back on track for peak performance.
Caffeine Is An Antagonist to Adenosine.
Caffeine blocks our body’s ability to absorb adenosine which builds up in our body throughout the day, and causes us to get drowsy. It helps set our “clock” for the day. As we sleep, our body clears it so we can begin the next day refreshed.
When we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we may have adenosine in our system so when you drink coffee right when you wake up, you’re blocking the clearance of the adenosine that is supposed to occur.
Delaying caffeine sets a cascade domino effect for better sleep and alertness in the future.
Caffeine Blocks Adenosine.
Caffeine literally parks in receptors for adenosine.
Adenosine is a non-negotiable aspect of your biology.
When you block adenosine receptors you will offset fatigue but you are only borrowing energy — once the caffeine metabolizes, you have a backlog of adenosine which will make you even more tired. Watch out if you are groggy in the morning because that means the body has not absorbed all the adenosine, possibly because you had too much caffeine the day before so your body has a surplus.
The only solution is to let it drain completely before your first cup of coffee.
When you wake up, your adenosine levels are low, if not at zero— it may not be completely cleared out.
How to Completely Clear Adenosine
Cortisol reduces adenosine. When you wait 90-120 minutes after you get up, you’ll be drinking the coffee in a body that’s already alert because you have no adenosine and your cortisol levels have peaked. That first cup of coffee will give you a second buzz, allowing you to feel even more alert, preventing a crash, and you may not need that afternoon cup in the afternoon which is going to have cascading effects and disrupt your sleep.
However, there are strategies to clear adenosine:
- Get a good night’s sleep.
- Nap throughout the day.
- NSDR (non-sleep deep rest).
- Deliberately spike cortisol.
- Early morning sunlight viewing increases the peak of cortisol pulse by 50% and will clear out residual adenosine that’s still in your system in the morning.
- Certain forms of brief and intense exercise such as 10min of skipping rope, even a walk if that’s all you can do.
- Try a cold shower in the morning. It’s the best feeling ever!
3. Caffeine and Sleep
Don’t drink 8-10-12 hours before you sleep (depends on sensitivity). Caffeine will disrupt the quality and architecture of your sleep
- Sleep is the foundation of wellness.
- Seep is better than any nootropic, prescription drug, and any health-promoting tool for your overall health and immune function.
- 80/20 rule when it comes to sleep: try to get good sleep but 20% of the time you don’t get quality sleep for legitimate reasons (children, occasional parties because we only live once).
4. Caffeine and Athletic Performance
- The way you take caffeine is important.
- Increase the peak of cortisol early in the day by consuming coffee shortly when that peak occurs to enhance performance. The “second coming”.
- 5 days absence of caffeine with significantly increase performance-enhancing benefits of caffeine when you take it on the 6th day (race day, adjusting to new time zones, etc).
- You can also ease into this by decreasing caffeine intake and going back to your ‘normal’ intake after a few days. It just wouldn’t be as robust as if you completely abstained from caffeine.
- Try the every-other-day caffeine protocol if you don’t want to do long abstinence— especially on days you are resistance training.
- Test caffeine while training but don’t try anything new on race day.
- If you’re not caffeine-adapted, don’t drink coffee on days when you have an important event because it can be detrimental to your levels of anxiety and focus.
- Ingest coffee prior to exercise if you don’t like it so use caffeine as a reinforcer— will subconsciously make exercise more enjoyable and can change your relationship with exercise.
5. Caffeine and Mental Performance
- Using caffeine at the end of the learning bout enhances the memory of things we are trying to learn.
- 1-3mg per kg of body weight to spike adrenaline after you complete a course, research for a grant, study, etc.
- Why? Increases in catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) lock in the memory of things that preceded those catecholamines. Refer to the “reinforcing” theory above.
6. Caffeine and Dopamine Stacking & Dopamine Detox
- Using coffee prior to exercise increases dopamine after exercise may be considered dopamine stacking, which can be detrimental because it will raise your baseline making you need more and more — don’t do it every time!
- Pay attention to how you feel in the hours and days and how you feel when it wears off to let your baseline go back to normal.
- Do a dopamine detox every once in a while aka go a few days without caffeine to reset your baseline.
7. Caffeine and Food
Why you should avoid drinking coffee on an empty stomach:
- Coffee relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter so it may not shut completely, causing acid reflux and increasing the risk of heartburn and acidity in the stomach.
- Protein and fiber with coffee will slow down the jitters (eg. eggs, avocado, sourdough toast).
- Only drink coffee on an empty stomach occasionally if you need its performance-enhancing benefits such as on race day or before a long and hard workout. I do this on my bike rides and eat on the road later.
8. More Best Practices When Consuming Coffee:
- Dose matters. Body weight is a good measurement tool (1-3mg of kg of body weight).
- If you are not caffeine adapted, start on the lower end.
- Are you caffeine adapted? if it increases heart rate and anxiety, you’re not.
- Hydrate! Caffeine is a diuretic so consume an equal volume of water (best with electrolytes, a pinch of salt) to offset jitters.
- Drink caffeine every other day to maximize performance.
- Caffeine on an empty stomach to maximize the performance benefits of caffeine (but don’t do this often).
- Try Theanine to counteract the jitters. Theanine blunts pro-alertness neurons in your brain so it evens caffeine out. The effective dosage is 200-400mg to offset caffeine.
- Delay 90-120 min on most days to avoid the ‘crash’ and when you drink another cup in the afternoon, you’ll begin a disruptive cycle.
- If you can’t delay caffeine, start with baby steps: 15 minutes per day.
- Drink decaf if you need a second cup in the afternoon (which still has a little caffeine in it).
Notes: these are only best practices. If you want to optimize your energy, you can begin with baby steps and slowly incorporate these into your life. Be kind to yourself and be patient. Celebrate the small wins along the way.
My Morning / Coffee Routine:
- Habit-stack: meditate before I get out of bed: 10-30+ minutes depending on schedule. My body wakes me up automatically at 6am— I can literally feel the cortisol flowing through my body but I LOVE meditating. This new habit ‘buys me time’ so I’m not tempted to drink coffee right away which I’ve been doing my entire life.
- Sit somewhere I can have lots of direct sunlight, journal, read, answer important messages, and do some LinkedIn engagement. I get this over with in the morning because I rarely go on my phone or social media the rest of the day. I really trained my brain to hate social media and takes a lot of willpower to go on it. A good place to be though! Hehe.
- Do a round of deep work.
- Reward myself with my first cup of coffee and a light breakfast.
- Habit-stack: I put a couple of scoops of collagen in my coffee which I’ve been doing daily since 2016. My hair, skin, and nails have been glowing and growing!
- Looking back, I may have anchored coffee to exercise because I used to work out at 5 am every day before work— I always woke up looking forward to my cup of coffee which probably strengthened my relationship with exercise.
TL;DR: Caffeine Is Incredible AF
But only if you do your coffee game strategically
- Can enhance focus, alertness, and mood.
- Reduces fatigue.
- Improve mental and physical performance.
- Increase strength and VO2 max.
- Caffeine is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight inflammation and cancer-causing free radicals.
- Can be used as a reinforcer to anchor onto building good habits.
- Potent reinforcer of things, food, people, and experiences.
Knowledge is motivation. When you put in the effort to learn new things, it increases your reward pathway because you “earned it.” You can leverage this new knowledge of caffeine in all these in any direction you like once you truly understand how drinking that cup of coffee every morning works in your body.