Drinking coffee first thing in the morning has become just as normal as brushing your teeth.
Unfortunately, many people have developed a dependency on caffeine just to keep them awake throughout the day.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Today, we will show you how to stay awake without caffeine, even if you work 24 hour shifts.
Welcome to the third installment of the WCT series on sleep, where we go over proven methods to improve the rest you get at night.
- In Part 1, The Amazing Benefits Of Deep Sleep [3 Tips To Help You Fall Asleep] we discuss the benefits of sleep, and how to determine how much sleep you actually need
- In Part 2, we cover 7 proven strategies to help you sleep better immediately. You can find it at 7 More Ways To Increase Deep Sleep [Even With A Busy Schedule].
This post will cover
– The role caffeine plays in your sleep-wake cycles
– Is caffeine good or bad for you? Should you be drinking it?
– How much Caffeine is Too Much
– Natural Ways to Stay Energized Without Coffee
Let’s get started…
How To Stay Awake Without Caffeine (For 24 Hours or More)
I don’t drink coffee. Neither does Brittany.
When I first started residency, I was afraid that I would be forced to join the caffeine crowd. The thought of working for 24 straight hours (on a labor and delivery floor) was daunting, especially since I had never stayed up that long before.
I am proud to say that I have not fallen off the wagon.
Long calls have come and gone, including working 24-hour shifts every 3 days for several weeks at a time, and I have yet to drink any caffeinated beverage.
Brittany is up every day at 4:30 AM to commute to residency- and she has never been a coffee drinker.
So how do we do it?
So, how do we maintain a state of wakefulness without caffeine?
- We have figured out how many hours of sleep we need per night to function, and
- We ensure that we eat the right kinds of foods in our diet.
Your Body Can Stay Awake Naturally If You Optimize Sleep
Humans are designed to go through regular sleep-wake cycles, and this CANNOT be changed, no matter how hard you try.
If you go long enough without sleep, your body will fall asleep eventually.
We are meant to sleep 6-8 hours every single day, but due to busy schedules, people usually get 4-6.
What’s worse is that many people claim that they ‘only need 5 hours of sleep,’ yet they go through the day chugging several cups of caffeine.
In addition, it is important to block off an appropriate amount of time to ensure that you get an adequate amount of sleep. Just because you go to bed at 11 pm and set your alarm for 6 am, it is unlikely that you actually slept 7 hours that night.
You need to account for the time that it takes to actually fall asleep, as well as the number of times you wake up or are restless throughout the night.
There are many apps and other devices that can predict how long you’ve been sleeping based on the quality and quantity of body movements.
It truly doesn’t matter if these devices are accurate or not, just as long as you consistently use the same device and compare your sleep times night after night.
I personally use a Fitbit tracker to record my sleep progress. I learned that if I block off 8 hours of sleep, the Fitbit tracks approximately 7hrs and 20 minutes of actual sleep time.
It usually takes me at least 15 minutes to initiate sleep and I tend to wake up several times (without actually remembering) throughout the night.
Furthermore, after trial and error, I have determined that I only need a little over 7 hours of sleep to function for an entire day and have enough energy left over for a 30-45 minute training session without any caffeine or “pre-workout” supplements.
If I am working a 24 hour shift, I will block off more time to get closer to 8 hours.
In addition, it appears that you can average your sleep hours throughout the week.
For example, some nights I may only get 6 hrs and 45 minutes, but if I recuperate and get 7 hours and 15 minutes on a subsequent day, it still averages out to 7 hours per day and my energy doesn’t fluctuate much.
Similarly, If I’m able to manage 8 hours on a given day, I notice that I don’t have to sleep for quite as long on another day that week.
Including These Foods In Your Diet Will Help You Sleep Better
Eating the right kinds of foods will also be a critical component to maintaining energy levels for 16-24 hours at a time.
It is ideal to get a wide variety of vegetables and high quality fats, along with foods that are high in Tryptophan.
1) Foods to Maximize Your Energy Levels
Eating foods that are high in sugar (carbohydrates) will only lead to a quick spike in energy that is not long lasting. This is why it is important to consume foods that are high in the other two macro-nutrients: Fat and Protein.
It starts out with consuming a high-quality breakfast. Check out 5 Healthy Breakfast Options for the Busy Professional to learn the best way to get your day started right. Some options include a few servings of vegetables, while other options are high in fat and protein.
This is why we make our Green Power Smoothies first thing in the morning.
These smoothies consist of at least 3-4 vegetables with a touch of healthy fats like almond butter, pumpkin seeds or avocado to give us lasting energy throughout the day.
The next thing you need to focus on is hydration.
If you choose to drink caffeine, understand that it is a diuretic and therefore has the potential to dehydrate you. It is absolutely critical that you drink a lot of water to keep your body moving. We have written an entire post on How To Stay Hydrated With A Busy Schedule.
2) Foods to Improve Your Sleep Quality
There are also a handful of foods that can help you improve your sleep quality.
The best foods to help you sleep are ones that are high in Magnesium.
These include Spinach, Almonds, Black Beans, and Avocados. Learn more about some of these at 5 Common SuperFoods You Should Consume Every Day.
You should also consume foods that are high in Tryptophan, a precursor to Serotonin. Serotonin has been implicated in helping to establish a normal sleep wake cycle.
In addition, higher levels of Serotonin will also improve your mood to help avoid those miserable Monday mornings.
This is why how Selective Serotonin Receptor Inhibitors (SSRIs aka antidepressants) work.
Tryptophan-rich foods include animal products such as Eggs, Salmon, and Poultry.
Plant based options include Almond, Bananas, Oats, Quinoa, Chickpeas, and Potatoes.
Incorporating Magnesium and Tryptophan into your diet will likely help boost the quality of sleep you are getting each night, as well as provide your body with key nutrients to help you function optimally.
When Is It Appropriate To Drink Caffeine?
All of this is fine and dandy, but what if you can’t optimize your sleep and obtain these nutrients in your diet?
Surely, consuming coffee or other caffeinated drinks can’t be that bad right?
Caffeine can provide a much-needed boost to an otherwise difficult day. It should not be used exclusively at all times just to wake up.
How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
Are you the kind of person who needs it first thing in the morning?
Unfortunately, caffeine addiction and dependence is extremely common in our society. Just look at the number of people waiting in line at your local Starbucks every morning.
Is Caffeine Good For You?
Caffeine is a substance that occurs naturally in many plants, including coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoanuts.
Caffeine makes its way to your brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier and imitating a molecule known as Adenosine. Adenosine binds to receptors in your brain and causes you to feel tired as the day goes on. Caffeine blocks this process by binding to the Adenosine receptors.
This causes a change in your perception, mood, consciousness, behavior, and cognition, ultimately promoting a state of wakefulness.
Caffeine does have benefits. Moderate caffeine consumption has been associated with
-Improved Performance in certain Physical Activities
-Decreased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus,
-Decreased Risk of Alzheimer’s Dementia
-Decreased Stored Fat in your body (Caffeine has been shown to act on the adrenal glands, which releases epinephrine (aka adrenaline) causing it to cleave fat stores at a very rapid pace, decreasing the amount of stored fat in your body.
But as with most things in life, there is always a trade-off…
Side Effects of Excess Caffeine Consumption
Depending on a personâ€™s metabolism, caffeineâ€™s half-life is about 6 hours. After 6 hours, there is still 50% of the substance circulating in your body. After another 6 hours, there is 25% and so on.
As a result, caffeine can cause serious issues with your sleep cycles, especially if you drink it within 6 hours of your bedtime.
In addition, the more caffeine you consume, the more your brain will continue to produce Adenosine receptors to induce a state of fatigue.
As a result, you will need more and more caffeine just to maintain the same levels of wakefulness.
Relying on caffeine on a daily basis creates a dependency reaction, and your body becomes extremely tolerant to it.
Have you ever seen someone get severe headaches and other withdrawal symptoms if they do not get their morning fix of coffee?
Why become dependent on an external source just to do something so basic as being awake?
Exceptions exist, and there are certainly instances where getting a ‘boost’ is justified, but it should not be a routine practice.
If you cannot maintain any level of energy without a dose of coffee, then you probably need to take back control of your life.
How Much Caffeine is Too Much?
So where do we draw the line between getting the benefits of caffeine and becoming dependent on it?
Experts recommend keeping caffeine consumption under 400 mg/day.
This equates to about 2-3 cups of coffee a day.
I personally think this is still too high a dose of caffeine for something you can achieve through normal bodily functions. But that’s just me.
The Bottom Line On Caffeine Consumption And Staying Awake
Don’t fall into the trap of relying on an artificial energy source to maintain normal levels of arousal. Our bodies are designed to do this process naturally.
Make an effort to get the right amount of sleep each night and to consume the foods listed above. You will be shocked at how amazing you’ll feel and how quickly your body adapts to what it is meant to do.
You can never make up time for lost sleep, so get your zzz’s, stop relying on coffee, and regain your wakefulness!
Now we turn it over to you.
How many cups of coffee or caffeinated beverages do you consume?
Do you develop withdrawal symptoms whenever you don’t drink it?
How many foods do you consume on a regular basis that have Magnesium and Tryptophan?
Comment below and let us know!
Also be sure to check out our top 10 ways to improve the quality of your sleep if you haven’t already. You can find them at The Amazing Benefits Of Deep Sleep [3 Tips To Help You Fall Asleep]Â and Â 7 More Ways To Increase Deep Sleep [Even With A Busy Schedule].
Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT
Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.