Coffee App Tells You When to Take a Coffee Break

Will a cup of coffee now keep you up all night? Should you sip an espresso mid-afternoon to keep you going through the end of the day? If you find yourself wondering whether now is the best time for a cup of coffee, you don’t have to think about it anymore. Now there’s a coffee app for that.

“Caffeine Zone”, a new iPhone app developed by researchers at Penn State, lets you enter information about how, when and how fast you drink a cup of coffee and spits back a graph to show you how long the caffeine from that coffee will linger in your bloodstream.

Frank Ritter, professor of information psychology, science and technology, and computer science and engineering, says that most people don’t understand how caffeine levels in their blood go up and down and how those levels affect their performance, alertness and sleep patterns. He and other researchers at Penn State teamed up to develop the software to help people determine when a cup of coffee can give them the mental boost they need and when it could make sleep difficult.

The coffee app lets you enter information about your caffeinating habits — when you drink, how much you drink and even how fast you drink it — and integrates your personal information with data on the half-life of coffee in the bloodstream. The end result is a graph that charts out how much caffeine will be left in your bloodstream at bedtime if you drink that quad shot of espresso right now.

The researchers used data that suggests the optimal caffeination level for regular coffee drinkers is between 200 and 400 mg of caffeine circulating in their bloodstream. It also suggests that anything above 100 mg of caffeine in your bloodstream will cause difficulty sleeping. With the caffeine app, you can tap in your drink, the time you’re drinking it and how long it will take you to down it. The resulting graph will show you the rise and fall of caffeine in your blood over the next several hours. That allows you to time your work to fall in the optimal alertness zone and figure out when you need to knock back another espresso to keep the productivity going.

You can also use the Caffeine Zone coffee app to decide whether you should drink that after-dinner cappuccino or opt for a decaf or cup of tea instead.

Ritter and assistant professor of computer science and engineering said that drinking a cup of coffee rapidly can produce a spike in mental alertness, but the caffeine can linger in your blood for hours and make it difficult to sleep hours later. In addition, people who drink too much caffeine too fast can spike their caffeine level above the 200 to 400 mg optimal zone and end up nauseated and nervous.

The Caffeine Zone coffee app may be just fun information for some people, but Ritter says that maintaining a proper caffeine balance is important for many workers. Sailors on submarines, for example, must be aware of their sleep patterns and the effects of caffeine because their sleeping patterns vary from day to day. If they drink too much coffee during one shift, they may not be able to sleep when they have to, and drink even more coffee during the next shift, boosting their caffeine and making it difficult to sleep — and so the cycle gets established and continues.

But the coffee break app is much cooler than that. It doesn’t just display how your cup of coffee will play out. It will tell you when it’s time to get a caffeine fix via a pop-up alarm that warns you when you’re about to drop out of your optimal caffeine zone. And if you’re about to down a coffee or caffeinated drink that will keep you up tonight, it will pop up a warning screen to let you know so you can make another choice.

The coffee app also allows you to customize your profile to reflect your personal optimal caffeine zone and sleep zone.

The coffee break app is based on research sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, whose sailors will obviously benefit from being able to track their caffeine levels. It’s available on iTunes for free with ads, or for $.99 without ads. Currently, it only works on Apple devices, including the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, but expect someone to port it to Android soon.