Caffeine and Insomnia

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Are you having difficulty falling asleep at night? Do you regularly drink coffee, tea or energy drinks in the afternoon and at night? Or perhaps you only drink it in the morning but do you seem to be quite sensitive to the effects of caffeine?

If so, this article is for you.

Caffeine has a half life of 5-7 hours. It means that after 5-7 hours, 50% of the caffeine has already been removed from your body. It also means that after 5-7 hours, you still have 50% left in your body, which could be around much longer and may be the reason why you can’t fall asleep at night.

For example, you drank a cup of brewed coffee with around 114 mg of caffeine at 4 pm. At 10 pm, you’ll still have 57 mg of caffeine in your body. It’s like having a cup of instant coffee at 10 pm.

Some people won’t be bothered by this, but if you’re like me, this would mean that your mind would still be wide awake after midnight! Not fun.

Caffeine is Everwhere

80% of the world’s population use caffeine. It is the second most traded commodity after oil. It has truly become a natural part of human life, particularly because of its ability to perk you up.

Caffeine is actually the most commonly used drug in the world. It is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, softdrinks, chocolate, energy drinks and snacks, and some medications and supplements.

It would help you if you have an idea of how much caffeine is in your food and drinks so you’ll know how to control your caffeine intake and timing.

Different brands have different caffeine content depending on the type, origin and preparation method. This is the caffeine content of 1 cup (240 mL or 8 oz.) of common beverages:

  • Brewed coffee – 70-140 mg (average of 95 mg)
  • Instant coffee – 30-90 mg (average of 60 mg)
  • Energy drinks – 50 – 160 mg
  • Black tea – 47 – 90 mg
  • Green tea – 16 – 36 mg
  • Soft drinks – 20 – 40 mg
  • Chocolate drink – 2-7 mg

Decaffeinated” does not mean “non-caffeinated”. Decaf can contain up to 15%-30% of the original caffeine content.

  • Decaf coffee – most have 8-14 mg, but others have up to 20-32 mg of caffeine
  • Decaf tea – < 5 mg

Chocolate contains caffeine, as well. 1 oz (28 grams) of chocolate has:

  • Milk chocolate – 1-15 mg
  • Dark chocolate – 5-35 mg

Check out your favourite beverage and snack and its caffeine content here. How are you after 390+ mg of caffeine in one drink? I’d be shaking and puking all over the place, if you ask me.

How Much Caffeine is OK?

Most health literature including that of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) state the following:

  • 200-300 mg of caffeine a day is considered to be moderate That is equivalent to two to three cups of coffee, or 4-5 cups of tea per day. 1 cup is approximately 240 mL or 8 oz.
  • 400 mg is the recommendeddaily limit of caffeine. That’s 3-5 cups of coffee, or 8-10 cups of tea per day.
  • Excessiveintake is more than 400 mg, such as eight to ten cups of coffee per day.
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women should not exceed 200 mg of caffeine per day, or two cups of coffee.

Aside from the amount of caffeine, you also need to consider when you take it if you want to have a good night’s sleep.

Different people have different speed and efficiency at which their bodies break down caffeine.

Some (gifted and annoying) people have no problem falling asleep and staying asleep even after drinking coffee after dinner.

But if you’re like most people, you may find it difficult to fall asleep if your last caffeine intake was after 2 pm.

Much worse is if you’re like me who is very sensitive to caffeine, which means that the effects of caffeine last longer (especially if it’s brewed coffee).

I never really drank too much coffee or tea because I experienced a lot of its side effects. I also drank my coffee and tea before noon, usually at 10 am because I learned my lesson the hard way: drink it in the afternoon and I’d still be staring at the ceiling at 4 am.

My usual intake was only 1 mug of coffee and sometimes I would add 1 mug of tea. In total, it would only be around 150 mg of caffeine for the day, but the after-effects were pretty strong, particularly if I had brewed coffee:

  • Hyperacidity, heartburn and acid reflux (sometimes vomiting acid with some of the coffee)
  • Shaky hands and muscle tremors
  • Racing heart
  • Nervousness and anxiety
  • Insomnia

I tolerated these for over 20 years because I thought I needed what caffeine could give me in return: energy and alertness after my sleep deprivation the night before.

Never have I thought that it was actually my caffeine intake that was worsening my insomnia and my fatigue the following day.

How Caffeine Affects Your Sleep

The effects and clearance time of caffeine vary from person to person, depending on age, weight, gender, and genetics. However, it has two effects on your body that may be worsening the quality of your sleep.

(1) Caffeine blocks your body’s natural signal to go to sleep.

As you already know, caffeine is a stimulant that helps increase your alertness, especially when you’re feeling sleepy. It does that by blocking the effects of adenosine.

Your brain naturally releases a chemical called adenosine as soon as you wake up. The longer you are awake, the more adenosine is built up.

The more adenosine that has been built up, the more sleep pressure you feel, and the more sleepy you become.

After sleeping sufficiently, your adenosine stores are cleared, ready to build up once again while you are awake.

But if you have caffeine in your body, it blocks adenosine receptors. Basically, the sleepiness effect of adenosine is ignored.

So even if you have plenty of adenosine in your body, you won’t feel sleepy after taking caffeine.

Remember, though, that just because you feel awake doesn’t mean that your body no longer has the high levels of adenosine. Caffeine simply blocks it. It’s defying your body’s natural signal to go to sleep.

The problem is when you’re actually trying to go to sleep but you can’t, because you still have caffeine in your body.

Remember the half-life? You may still have 50% or more of the caffeine you ingested in the afternoon!

Caffeine is one of the most common causes of onset insomnia, which is the difficulty to fall asleep. It’s normal for people to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes in bed (this is called sleep latency).

Back when I was still drinking coffee, it could take me 1-3 hours to fall asleep. My mind would still be racing at 2 am, no matter how much deep breathing and meditation I tried to do.

Never have I seriously thought that it was caffeine causing it. I thought it was just stress and ineffective meditation!

This difficulty to fall asleep reduces your total sleep time and reduces the overall quality of your sleep. Prolonged sleep deprivation leads to a variety of health problems.

(2) Caffeine can wake you up a few times each night to urinate.

Caffeine stimulates your bladder, which leads to frequent urination. Have you noticed that you go to the toilet more after your caffeine intake?

And it’s not just the frequency that’s the issue, but also the urgency! Prolonged bladder stimulation can lead to incontinence, as well.

Urinary frequency leads to water loss. You feel thirsty more quickly because of this, and so you drink more fluids to make up for the water loss.

With this diuretic effect and your increased water intake, you’re expected to get up a few times at night to urinate. I used to get up 3-5 times a night to visit the loo.

That doesn’t really help you get a peaceful, uninterrupted sleep. For the elderly, this also increases their risk for falls and injury.

Cut Down or Cut Off Caffeine?

Responses to caffeine vary from person to person. If it does not affect the quality and quantity of your sleep, your energy level, anxiety and other aspects of your health, there’s no problem at all.

But if it does, maybe it’s time for you to consider reducing your caffeine intake, or even giving up caffeine entirely.

How would you know if caffeine is affecting your sleep? If you constantly find yourself wanting to go to sleep before noon time unless you get your boost of caffeine, it is highly likely that you are suffering from sleep deprivation that may be worsened by caffeine.

Here are some tips for you if you want to cut down or control the quantity and timing of your caffeine intake:

  1. Take your last caffeine before 2 pm, or even earlier if you are sensitive to caffeine. See which caffeine-cutoff-time works best for you by observing your ability to fall asleep and sustain sleep, as well as your energy level the next day.
  2. Use halfof your usual amount of coffee or tea, or brew it half of the time you usually do.
  3. Try decaf, but remember that it still has some caffeine in it, and it’s still additional fluid that can increase urination at night, so it’s best to avoid it close to bedtime.
  4. Also cut down on the sugaryou put on your beverage. Sugar is a topic for another day, but it’s worth noting here that lessening added sugar every day compounds to big health benefits in the long term.

If you are ready to quit, here are some tips for you:

  1. Be very clear with your reasonfor quitting. Your reason must be more important to you than the pleasures and benefits you get from caffeine. I loved drinking coffee so much, I really did. But I realized that I love my health more, and if I could sleep better and feel better, that would mean the world to me. Knowing clearly what is more important to you will help you make the habit change sustainable in the long-term.
  2. Be prepared for withdrawal symptomsfor up to 10 days, such as: throbbing headaches, insomnia, tremors, palpitations, fatigue and drowsiness (yep, I experienced all of them when I gave up coffee). If you go to work, it’s best to quit on a Friday so you can have Saturday and Sunday at home. Expect to be pretty much shattered in the first 4 days, but after that, the symptoms slowly disappear and you’re free! Woohoo!
  3. Talk to the people who could provide supportfor your decision. This may be your significant other, your children, relatives, friends and co-workers that you normally drink coffee and tea with. Some of them may make fun of you, some of them may tempt you to take caffeine again. Some of them will be happy for you. Some of them won’t understand your decision, but as long as you understand your reason 100%, that’s all that matters. Most of them, though, would be happy to support you. You’d be surprised that they’ll offer you a non-caffeinated drink the next time you visit them.
  4. Also remember that you can still have funwith your caffeine-loving friends during their coffee break, or when you go to a cafe together. You don’t need to disown them because you’ve quit caffeine and they haven’t. You can simply drink something else and enjoy the moment with the people you enjoy being with. And they like being with you, too, with or without caffeine.

After I Gave Up Coffee

Because of the side effects that I experienced with coffee, I finally decided to give it up right after my 40th birthday. I still drink tea because it does not give me the side effects that coffee does, and I enjoy drinking it, not because I absolutely need it to keep me awake. However, I still make sure that I don’t drink caffeinated tea after 2 pm.

In my 20 years of coffee dependence, it was normal for me to fall asleep 1-3 hours after going to bed and to get up 3-5 times each night to urinate.

Now, it normally takes 15 minutes or less to fall asleep. I get up 0-2 times a night to visit the loo, versus 3-5 times before. I still have to work on my fluid intake at night, but this is a big improvement!

I feel more relaxed because I’m sleeping better and no longer have coffee to trigger palpitations and anxiety.

Because I’m sleeping better, my body is recovering better. I feel better overall and I have more energy the next day. I never needed coffee to give me energy.

No more coffee-related headaches! No more dependence. I’m free!

My teeth stains have started to disappear, as well.

Has my sleep quality reached 100%? No, but it has improved so much since I’ve given up coffee. My sleep tracker has been giving me a sleep score of 88-96, which is very good, and I get that in most days.

I’m not saying that quitting coffee fixed my sleep all by itself. I practice other things that help me improve my sleep, from deep breathing to wearing yellow-tinted glasses and everything in between, but it was definitely being coffee-free that has allowed all the other factors to work.

Do I still have trouble staying asleep sometimes? Yes. “Someone” is snoring. Cough and colds happen, stress happens, coronavirus happens, and it’s not always easy to get optimal sleep.

It’s normal to occasionally experience difficulties sleeping. What’s not normal is when it happens regularly, leaving you exhausted and sleepy during the day over a long period of time.

Before quitting coffee, it was difficult for me to fall asleep and stay asleep regularly. Now it’s a different story, and for someone who’s had insomnia for a long time, this is a big achievement. Having good sleep had always been in my birthday and Christmas wish list.

If you are suffering from insomnia, please consult your doctor. I understand how frustrating it is. I hope that you will explore lifestyle-related changes and natural sleep remedies and steer away from sleeping pills and alcohol, which cannot provide natural sleep. Go ahead and read my article on Why Alcohol Does Not Give You A Good Night’s Sleep.

Choose At Least One Simple Habit You Can Start Now

My goal is to inspire you to develop simple health habits one at a time. You’ll be surprised to see how your new habit will eventually make you feel better about your health and about yourself.

Your habits also have a compounding effect, and they’ll lead you to the kind of health and the kind of life that you’ll have 20, 30, 50 years from now. It would be great if you work towards the kind of health you want to enjoy in your retirement years.

Which one of these would you like to start with today?

  • Have an idea of how much caffeine is in your drink, food or medicine. A lot of people don’t know that there’s caffeine in chocolate, for example. You have to know yourself. Google is here to help you.
  • Be more aware and in control of the timing of your caffeine intake. Most people sleep well if they take their last caffeine before 2 pm, but you may be different.
  • Brew your coffee or tea for less time.
  • Gradually shift to decaf and non-caffeinated drinks.
  • Quit caffeine, particularly if you have insomnia or anxiety.

Which new habit did you choose? Please let me know by commenting below. I’d also love to know your thoughts after reading my article. I wrote this for you and I hope it will help you.


“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker (2017)

“The 4 Pillar Plan” by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee (2018)

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