If there’s one thing expected to rouse the world from a post-weekend stupor, it’s caffeine.
As the only certifiable way to guarantee that mornings aren’t spent in a shuffling, zombie-like trance, caffeine has come to form the backbone of dawn routines everywhere. Though there are a few mavericks that lean on the sugary rush of an energy drink, for most of us, our fuel comes from one source. Thanks to aggressive marketing and the perpetual slumber seen in its absence, coffee has become the lifeblood of the modern working world.
We get through a lot of coffee. According to figures from the Huffington Post, Americans manage to down an astonishing 400 million servings per day. Scientists believe that much of this consumption is down to our unshakeable belief that we can’t wake up properly unless we have a freshly brewed cup coursing through our veins.
However, despite our faith in the limitless power of the coffee bean, it has become clear that wakefulness is not simply a matter of gulping and waiting.
New research from Dr Stephen L Miller at the Geisel School of Medicine suggests that there are actually specific times of day when you should and shouldn’t be drinking coffee, in order to maximise the drink’s positive effects. According to Dr Miller, following his guidelines should not only assist wakefulness, but also ensure that the drinker avoids building up an unwanted tolerance.
The research is rooted in the field of chronopharmacology, which looks at how certain drugs affect the body’s natural biological rhythms. Much of the science focuses on the circadian clock - the body’s internal device for monitoring the levels of certain hormones throughout the course of the day. One of the hormones controlled by the clock is the stimulant cortisol.
Cortisol is typically released when the body is under extreme stress and is responsible for instigating our natural “fight or flight” responses. When cortisol levels are elevated, we feel awake, alert and ready for anything. When our levels drop, we become lethargic, sleepy and ready for a long snooze.
Hormone levels are not simply random peaks and troughs, but are instead predictably regulated by the circadian clock. This means that there are certain times of day when we are most naturally awake. For the average person who wakes up at 7AM, these times are between 0800-0900, 1200-1300 and 1730-1830.
The trick behind Dr Miller’s proposal is to manage your coffee intake to effectively coincide with these natural spikes in energy. Instead of taking on caffeine during a peak, Miller recommends supplementing the lulls with an injection of artificial energy, drinking between 0930-1130, 1330-1530, and never after 1900 unless you’re working a particularly taxing nightshift. This should, in theory, help drinkers maintain focus throughout the working day.
Of course, every body is different and a one-size fits all approach won’t work for everyone. However, given the sound science behind Dr Miller’s advice, it seems that this coffee regime is an approach worth following if you’re looking for a better way to stay awake.