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Do you roll over in the morning and immediately reach for a cup of coffee? If so, a handful of researchers suggest that you’re using coffee the wrong way. According to a few research studies over the past 11 years, coffee drinkers aren’t doing themselves any favors when they drink coffee first thing in the morning. Instead, they suggest, people who want to maintain their levels of alertness and ability to focus on work should time their coffee intake to coincide with low-energy periods — typically, between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. and again from 1:30 to about 4:30 p.m.
SIDENOTE: While the original research for the best time to drink coffee was done in 2004, it has periodically come back again as it is rediscovered by coffee lovers around the Internet. BBC News reported on the research in May 2004. The story was resurrected in 2011 with coffee blogger I Love Coffee JP created an engaging infographic version of the information. It’s enjoying a third go-round of popularity in the coffee world, thanks to a fun video version of the best time to drink coffee posted by ASAP Science . The video went viral in early June 2015, and has been featured at such blockbuster news sites as Time, Fortune and INC. magazines.
While most folks are familiar with the concept of tanking up on caffeine to boost energy and attention levels, a group of researchers at several hospitals decided to figure out the best caffeinated schedule for people whose aim is to stay alert at work. The original research was done in 2004, and it involved scientists working at Harvard School of Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Rush University Medical Center. The scientists concluded that caffeine is most effective when people use it between times of peak cortisol production – exactly the opposite of the way most people drink coffee.
The body’s sleep cycle is controlled by a number of different mechanisms. The best known of these are the Circadian Cycle (also known as Circadian Rhythm) and the homeostatic system. The Circadian system is tuned into the the difference between night and day, and promotes healthy sleep cycles by encouraging the body to release certain chemicals – notably melatonin and cortisol – based on an internal clock that is attuned to light and dark. The homeostatic system, on the other hand, is driven by demand. The longer someone has been awake, the more it tells the body it needs sleep.
Cortisol is best known as the body’s stress hormone. The body reacts to heightened levels of cortisol by increasing the sensitivity of the senses, and making you more alert and aware of what is going on around you. When the levels of cortisol in the body are at their highest, you are the most alert and attentive.
The Circadian system triggers the release of cortisol on a fairly typical schedule throughout the day, with peak levels of cortisol occurring three times during the day: between 8 and 9 a.m., between noon and 1 p.m., and between 5 and 6 p.m. For people who have “disrupted” sleep schedules because, for example, they work unusual shifts or are up much earlier than the typical 7 to 8 a.m. waking time, the body adjusts. In that case, cortisol production usually peaks about one hour after waking.
Scientists discovered that people who drink coffee during that first two to three hours after waking actually interfere with the body’s own natural alertness system. When caffeine kicks in, the body decides it doesn’t need to produce as much cortisol to remain alert. The effect is two-fold: first, the caffeine has less of an effect on your body because you’re already naturally “caffeinated,” so you get less of a kick from your caffeine. At the same time, your body starts building a tolerance to caffeine, so you’ll need to drink more coffee – or take in more caffeine – to get the same effect.
In short, for most people the worst times to drink coffee are between 8 and 9 in the morning, between noon and 1 in the afternoon and between 5 and 6 in the afternoon.
If that’s the case, then there should also be an optimal time to drink coffee – and of course, scientists think they know that, too. The best time to drink coffee, according to science, is when your cortisol levels are dropping. In fact, the scientists who did the original 2004 study recommended small amounts of caffeine throughout the “slump” times to make up for the decrease in the body’s natural chemical stimulant.
In other words, for most people, the best time to drink coffee is between 10 and 11:30 a.m and again between 2 and 4:30 p.m.
Of course, this is just one bit of research that was widely disseminated via various media and social media outlets. The subject group was small and the circumstances were tailored to a specific subroup – people who work extended shifts in environments that disrupt the Circadian cycle. The findings do, however, make sense, which is probably why they keep coming around and around again. The one part that is frequently left out of reports on this particular bit of research is this: