When we think of caffeine, we generally associate it with a temporary increase in wakefulness and alertness. It can help us to get revved up in the morning and keep us on task throughout the day. However, this is only one side of caffeine’s story.
For most people, caffeine in modest amounts is basically harmless. It might even have some health benefits – and, yes – it can also trigger some short-term energy and focus chemicals in the brain. It’s fairly well known that caffeine isn’t good for everyone. Pregnant women, children and people with caffeine sensitivities or allergies should avoid it. But for most people, caffeine in moderation is fine. When it’s overused or used at inopportune times, though, it can keep us from falling asleep, disrupt us with awakenings during the night and overall decrease the quality of any sleep we do get. When caffeine use becomes severely detrimental to sleep, it’s designated as a psychiatric disorder called caffeine-induced sleep disorder.
Caffeine can affect different people in different ways. Biological, metabolic and lifestyle factors can make people more or less susceptible to caffeine and caffeine-induced sleep disorder. These things can also affect a person’s tolerance to caffeine, affecting its severity and need for treatment.
So, what exactly is caffeine-induced sleep disorder?
Caffeine-induced sleep disorder is characterized by a disruption of sleep onset, sleep duration and sleep quality resulting from caffeine use. A study done by the Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Research Center and the Wayne State College of Medicine revealed, surprisingly, that even caffeine consumed up to six hours before bedtime produced significant sleep disruptions and shortened sleep duration time by over an hour. The study was done over several nights, using the same participants. Coffee to bed time lengths were tested at 6, 3 and 0 hours. The closer caffeine was consumed to bedtimes, the more sleep time was lost.
In addition to delaying the onset of sleep and shortening sleep duration’s, caffeine can reduce times spent in slow-wave as well as REM sleep. It can also trigger wakeful episodes throughout the night. In addition, though it’s still being studied, there may be a relationship between caffeine consumption and the prevalence of sleep apnea (obstructive).
Over time, caffeine-induced sleep disorder can cause chronic insomnia, persistent sleep deprivation and detrimental effects on daily life and tasks. Ironically, when one is suffering from caffeine-induced sleep disorder, it is essentially negating any helpful effects caffeine has had; and, in fact, causing much more severe sleep problems. It can eventually lead to a delayed sleep disorder syndrome.
Caffeine-induced sleep disorder shouldn’t be ignored. Caffeine-induced sleep disorder seriously impairs those who suffer with it. It can worsen existing mental and physical health problems and cause moodiness, anxiety and depression. When it becomes very entrenched, it can also lead to voluntary or involuntary job loss.
The symptoms of caffeine-induced sleep disorder are far-reaching and disruptive.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring chemical found in over 60 different types of plants. It can also be made synthetically. Caffeine is categorized as a psychoactive drug. It’s the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. Almost 90% of adults in the U.S. consume some caffeine every day.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Among other things, it blocks adenosine (adenosine promotes drowsiness; therefore, caffeine postpones or lessens drowsiness), enhances dopamine signals in the brain and causes the release of neurotransmitters that enhance alertness. Caffeine can delay the desire for sleep. This is why we associate it with helping us to wake up.
The amount of time it takes for caffeine to reach peak blood concentration, as well as the amount of time it takes for caffeine to clear the body, can differ vastly among people based on age, health, medications, substances being used and a number of other factors. For the average age, healthy adult, caffeine will reach its peak effect 1-2 hours after consumption. Its half life (the time it takes for half of the caffeine to clear the body) is generally between 3 and 7 hours. For some people, though, particularly those who are taking oral contraceptives or are pregnant, those who smoke and those who take certain medications such as SSRIs, it can take up to 50 hours or more for caffeine’s half life to be reached. Even once caffeine reaches its half-life, remaining caffeine can stay in the body for a long time. Caffeine may have some positive health effects when taken in moderation, but very few studies on these have been proven. Research, however, continues.
On the down side, caffeine can increase respiratory rates and constrict blood vessels. It can also harden arteries, produce excess gastric acid and trigger heart palpitations. Caffeine also increases the frequency of urination, and its over-stimulation of brain chemicals can cause symptoms resembling a panic attack. Furthermore, large amounts of caffeine can induce sweating, nausea, diarrhea and muscle tremors.
Some people see caffeine as a cure-all for sleep deprivation or a weight loss aid. This can (and has) lead to dangerous overdoses. Between 2005 and 2009, caffeine overdose emergency room visits increased by 1000 percent, mostly due to the proliferation of energy drinks, along with energy drinks consumed in combination with drugs and alcohol.
The energizing effects of caffeine are temporary and are not a replacement for a good night’s sleep. What’s more, over time, tolerance to caffeine’s wakeful effects will build to the point where it’s helping very little. So why do we consume so much caffeine? Perhaps because we’re not getting enough sleep. Sound like a vicious cycle? For many, it is.
Caffeine is found everywhere. It’s legal, accessible, generally unregulated and the most commonly used drug in the world. Sometimes we’re consuming caffeine without even knowing it. It occurs naturally in over 60 different types of plants. Most of the world’s caffeine producing plants are located in Asia and South America. Below is a partial list of products containing caffeine. The source of caffeine used, the original bean or plant type as well as brewing methods, durations and processing can make caffeine content vary widely within each of these product categories. This is particularly true with fresh-brewed coffee and tea.
Start by seeing a trusted doctor. Let them know what your symptoms are and provide them with a few weeks worth of sleep and work history. Your doctor should start by reviewing this with you, asking and answering questions and then proceeding with tests and exams that can rule out other health issues and disorders. This is particularly important because many underlying disorders can produce sleep problems and tiredness that look a lot like caffeine-induced sleep disorder.
If the culprit does indeed appear to be caffeine, your doctor should refer you to a sleep specialist. A sleep study is often used in diagnosing caffeine-induced sleep disorder.
Recognize that better sleep will produce more authentic and steady energy and decrease the need for caffeine. Over time, better sleep practices might make you feel more awake without the help of any caffeine at all. If you have depression, consider limiting or avoiding caffeine to see if it helps improve your mood. Caffeine’s ups and downs tend to worsen depression.
The best way to prevent caffeine-induced sleep disorder is to avoid caffeine altogether. Beyond this, it is best to consume caffeine in moderation. Getting a good night’s sleep is important, and there are things we can do to improve our bedtime strategies. Below are some ideas that can help to get you started on a more rewarding and restful pattern of sleep. Hopefully, these will work for you, and you’ll stop desiring caffeine to help you feel ‘awake’.