Struggling to keep your eyes open by 11am? Might your morning latte have something to do with it? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi investigates…
There’s nothing like lying in bed with a steaming cup of coffee. For years, I’ve woken up an hour before I need to get out of bed so I can enjoy that mug of energy. But every now and then, studies and experts make their way back into journals and websites warning against reaching for that early morning caffeine hit. Instead, they recommend abstaining from coffee until you’ve been up and about for an hour.
Why? Well, it’s all to do with our stress levels.
When we wake up in the morning, our body is flushed with cortisol – the stress hormone. It’s only by having that spike that we have the energy to throw off the duvet and get on with our day. And that’s an example of healthy stress: you need peaks throughout the day to exercise, stay alert when driving and yes, even to wake up. It’s when that cortisol level stays elevated that you start to run into trouble (ie you’re chronically stressed).
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Caffeine and energy – what’s the link?
Cortisol (stress) is always highest in the morning
Caffeine increases our cortisol levels, both when we’re at rest and during periods of stress. In fact, one study found that caffeine increases our cortisol secretion over the day, especially when faced with natural stressors like exams and exercise.
It’s not just cortisol responsible for making us feel more alert after an espresso though. Caffeine “boosts alertness by stimulating the central nervous system and blocking adenosine, a molecule that reduces the heart rate and promotes sleep,” explains Rhiannon Lambert, registered nutritionist and author of The Science Of Nutrition.
Now that might sound like a good thing if you’re not a naturally early riser. We don’t want to feel sleepy in the mornings, and if that means our brains adapting to expect that caffeine hit, might that also mean the body is naturally ready to move in the morning to get that cup of energy?
Does caffeine override that natural energy spike?
But some experts believe that consuming caffeine too early could mean overriding our natural alarm clock – making it even harder to feel energised in the morning. While that might be OK if you have a never-ending supply of coffee, being dependent on it for energy could be slightly more painful if you ever run out.
In fact, Dr Karan Raj went viral on TikTok a while ago, talking about the fact that when we wake up, that natural cortisol spike is essentially the body “naturally caffeinating itself”.
“If you’re consuming caffeine when your cortisol production is already high, you’re not getting the full benefits of coffee. The whole point of the cortisol peak is to give you a boost – you don’t need caffeine at this time. If you drink coffee when cortisol is already high, it can push [your levels] even higher. It’s going to throw off your body clock, affecting sleep, energy and mood.”
“Every day, so many of us rely on caffeine or coffee for a wake-up boost. There is limited scientific evidence behind the effect of delaying caffeine intake on cortisol and more studies are needed to confirm the link, as well as any potential longer-term health implications.”
Everyone’s responses are unique
When asked if she recommends that people try to time their caffeine intake with natural energy dips, Lambert stresses that, as with most things in nutrition, “our bodies are all unique and the way in which caffeine or drinking coffee affects us and our energy levels may be different between individuals.
“This can mean it’s difficult to make general recommendations as to when we should have caffeine, as there may be several other factors that impact our energy levels throughout the day that need to be considered too.”
How vulnerable are our energy levels to the food and drinks we consume?
“The food we eat is what gives us the energy for us to go about our daily lives, so we need to make sure that we have a healthy, balanced and varied diet to make sure our bodies are nourished and well-fuelled,” Lambert says. Think: plenty of slow-release carbs like oats and wholegrains for long periods of energy, and fat – the most energy-dense macronutrient.
But she also says that things like stress can be hugely important.
The more stressed we are, the higher our cortisol levels – and cortisol lowers blood sugar. If you’re constantly on edge, that might actually mean feeling lethargic and lacking energy (even if we’re giving a frenetic energy vibe).
Does delaying coffee actually make you feel more energised?
For two weeks now, I’ve made a conscious effort to wait before making my first cafetiere. Either I’ll try to read the paper for 30 minutes with a glass of water or I’ll hold on until I’ve cycled into the office to have my first cup (over two hours after I’ve woken up). The only time I have an early cup or two is before a long run or exercise class.
Do I notice any difference in energy? Not really. I always drink three cups of coffee a day and over the past 14 days, I’ve probably consumed the same amount – just at different times. If anything, the delay has made me appreciate the taste of the first coffee when I do get it… but I’m just as energetic without it in the morning. Perhaps that’s confirmation that I don’t need a cup to get out of bed and that saving it until later on in the morning is a case of delayed gratification.
As with anything, it’s probably not a great idea to be dependent on any substance, so if you do feel like you can’t function without caffeine, that might be worth looking into. If you just enjoy consuming it, however, then I’m not massively convinced it makes much difference when you drink it.
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