May 11, 2004
Scientists Demonstrate Best Way To Use Caffeine

Here is some useful news you can use. Morning "big gulp" coffee drinkers are misusing the power of caffeine. Researchers at the Sleep Disorders Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago along with colleagues at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have shown that caffeine is best administered in a larger number of smaller doses with the doses coming later in the day.

Chicago - People who take small amounts of caffeine regularly during the day may be able to avoid falling asleep and perform well on cognitive tests without affecting their nighttime sleep habits.

Researchers from Rush University Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School have discovered that caffeine works by thwarting one of two interacting physiological systems that govern the human sleep-wake cycle. The researchers, who report their findings in the May issue of the journal SLEEP, propose a novel regimen, consisting of frequent low doses of caffeine, to help shift workers, medical residents, truck drivers, and others who need to stay awake get a bigger boost from their tea or coffee.

"I hate to say it, but most of the population is using caffeine the wrong way by drinking a few mugs of coffee or tea in the morning, or three cups from their Starbuck’s grande on the way to work. This means that caffeine levels in the brain will be falling as the day goes on. Unfortunately, the physiological process they need to counteract is not a major player until the latter half of the day," said James Wyatt, PhD, sleep researcher at Rush University Medical Center and lead author on the study.

Though many studies have measured caffeine’s sleep-averting effects, most do not take into account that sleep is governed by two opposing but interacting processes. The circadian system promotes sleep rhythmically—an internal clock releases melatonin and other hormones in a cyclical fashion. In contrast, the homeostatic system drives sleep appetitively—it builds the longer one is awake. If the two drives worked together, the drive for sleep would be overwhelming. As it turns out, they oppose one another.

Caffeine is thought to block the receptor for adenosine, a critical chemical messenger involved in the homeostatic drive for sleep. If that were true, then caffeine would be most effective if it were administered in parallel with growing pressure from the sleep homeostatic system, and also with accumulating adenosine.

To test their hypothesis, the scientists studied 16 male subjects in private suites, free of time cues, for 29 days. Instead of keeping to a 24-hour day, researchers scheduled the subjects to live on a 42.85–hour day (28.57-hour wake episodes), simulating the duration of extended wakefulness commonly encountered by doctors, and military and emergency services personnel. The extended day was also designed to disrupt the subjects’ circadian system while maximizing the effects of the homeostatic push for sleep.

Following a randomized, double-blind protocol, subjects received either one caffeine pill, containing 0.3 mg per kilogram of body weight, roughly the equivalent of two ounces of coffee, or an identical-looking placebo. They took the pills upon waking and then once every hour. The goal of the steady dosing was to progressively build up caffeine levels in a way that would coincide with—and ultimately, counteract—the progressive push of the homeostatic system, which grows stronger the longer a subject stays awake.

The strategy worked. Subjects who took the low-dose caffeine performed better on cognitive tests. They also exhibited fewer accidental sleep onsets, or microsleeps. EEG tests showed that placebo subjects were unintentionally asleep 1.57 percent of the time during the scheduled wake episodes, compared with 0.32 percent for those receiving caffeine. Despite their enhanced wakefulness, the caffeine-taking subjects reported feeling sleepier than their placebo counterparts, suggesting that the wake-promoting effects of caffeine do not replace the restorative effects gained through sleep.

Coffee, tea, and other caffeine-containing beverages are tools. Don't drink more than you need to and slow the rate of your drinking to spread it out. Keep in mind that once you reach the point where you don't need to maintain a high feeling of wakefulness that you should immediately stop drinking it. If you need something more powerful then consider Provigil (modafinil). My strongly felt advice is to stay away from methamphetamine or other amphetamines because they cause brain damage. I don't have any specific knowledge about toxic effects of caffeine or modafinil on neurons. But sleep deprivation is definitely harmful. A life lived with a constant need for anti-sleep stmulants is a life that is in need of some serious restructuring to allow for more sleep time.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 May 11 12:14 PM  Brain Enhancement

Rob Sperry said at May 11, 2004 2:02 PM:

"A life lived with a constant need for anti-sleep stmulants is a life that is in need of some serious restructuring to allow for more sleep time."

I wish I could convince my 8 month old of this :)

Brock said at May 13, 2004 8:05 AM:

Not sure it will ever happen in the USA, but probably what would be a lot healthier are work environments that allow for siestas. As long as we have the same level of output, it should be ok, right? Right?

/pointy haired men not listening.

Nancy Lebovitz said at May 13, 2004 10:17 AM:

I'd gotten an impression that caffeine works better as a drug than a beverage from personal use.

Chris Riley said at May 14, 2004 8:44 AM:

Am I reading this article wrong? Their conclusion seems like a non-sequitur. Their experiment didn't function to isolate homeostatic sleepiness from circadian, so how can they have demonstrated that this is the primary functioning of caffeine? Worse than that, all they compared was 'caffeine in low frequent doses' to 'no caffeine'. Of course there's better functionality. They didn't compare 'morning hefty doses of caffeine' to 'caffeine in low frequent doses'. There are plenty of rationalizations to argue that morning caffeine is just as effective, and this experiment does nothing to prove them wrong.

More detail on my take:

Chris Riley said at May 14, 2004 8:45 AM:

Am I reading this article wrong? Their conclusion seems like a non-sequitur. Their experiment didn't function to isolate homeostatic sleepiness from circadian, so how can they have demonstrated that this is the primary functioning of caffeine? Worse than that, all they compared was 'caffeine in low frequent doses' to 'no caffeine'. Of course there's better functionality. They didn't compare 'morning hefty doses of caffeine' to 'caffeine in low frequent doses'. There are plenty of rationalizations to argue that morning caffeine is just as effective, and this experiment does nothing to prove them wrong.

More detail on my take:

B. Lim said at May 15, 2004 12:54 AM:

I've been doing this for years. I find that coffee drunk quickly is unpleasant on top of anything but a large breakfast. It can also cause headaches. In my experience drinking one-and-a-half cups of coffee slowly over 8 hours keeps my performance level up. I suspect that a large breakfast helps slow the rate the caffeine gets to the brain so while breakfast helps it's not nearly as slow as it needs to be. Sipping coffee is the way to go.

RedHotFreak said at November 28, 2005 6:10 PM:

i don’t know, I’ve consumed caffeine in all ways possible and i still think that i am immune to it. i have even done caffeine pills but i have an escalated heart rate of 115-120 at rest and they dramatically speed it up which makes being awake painful and distorting. Don’t really know what else to try but while i am still in school i have to stay awake AND alert without anything synthetics or kinds of ridlines, speeds, or amphetamines. If anyone can help, please do.

z said at November 29, 2005 8:58 AM:

RedHotFreak - no medical advice to offer - but cutting out for a while will mean you regain sensitivity.

Stonie said at December 28, 2005 11:32 AM:

Recently i had my day turned around because of the vacation so i decided to turn it back with more extreme measures, i have adhd so for me waking up early is a very hard thing and insomnia keeps me from going early to sleep too. I decided to stay awake for 30-36 hours, that is skip 1 night and go to sleep early the day after.

I drank about 7-10 cubs amount of caffeine, got caffeine poisoning. was nice euphoria for 40 minutes. Then i didnt feel very well (typical poisoning effects, irregular heartbeat, tremors). Most people get hyperactive of coffee (stimulant) but i have adhd so stimulants calm me rather down.

I dont recommend overdosing on caffeine as it can be hell after 30-40 minutes. I felt quite tired at around noon but as the day progressed i stopped feeling tired at all. Even went to the gym. Then at around 10-11 pm after staying awake for 33 hours i still didnt feel very tired even though it had passed almost 18-20 hours since i drank the coffee. I ended up postponing "going to sleep early to turn my day around" until 3 am, at which point i realized that my attempt to correct my day had failed (damn adhd, chronic postponing follows adhd) so i just stayed awake until 5 pm, even though i wasnt really tired i still went to sleep.

I dont know if it was my hyperactive disorder or the big amounts of caffeine that helped me stay awake for so long without getting really tired but big amounts of caffeine def gives you a good lasting boost.

I've done this once before, consumed 8-12 cubs amount of caffeine at around 1 in the morning, read a geology book for 10 hours straight, went to bed at 12, didnt fall asleep until 4 pm (prolly thnx to caffeine). woke up at 7 but didnt feel really tired even though i only got 3 hour sleep, propably cause i still had caffeine in my blood, drank 1 extra cub of coffee and aced the exam.

caffeine can really help me with my adhd but i WARN you not to overdose on caffine. Caffeine can kill and there are confirmed deaths. The "crash" is also not very nice and much coffee can induce anxiety and stress.

ShawnMills said at November 2, 2006 10:52 PM:

I agree with the previous poster about caffeine, its a shitty drug for some people. I have ADHD as well so I used to try and self-medicate using caffeine just because I felt more interested in work when drinking it. The problem is that on days off when I would not consume caffeine I would crash and be very lethargic and occasionally have inexplicable thoughts of suicide, though at that time my life was really quite good being that I was living with my wonderful girlfriend whom I loved very much and I had a high-paying job...

But therein lies the rub my friends. The stresses of the job (and relationship) drove me to drink more caffeine to stay more focused which eventually started reducing my quality of sleep, which drove me to drink more caffeine, which further reduced my sleep quality... All that lost sleep continued to affect my job performance which drove my boss to be a shit, which made me angry, which contributed to arguments and friction with my girlfriend, which added to stress, which reduced sleep.. and well you get the idea, it was a vicious cycle. It got so that through the week I would sleep maybe 15-20 hours total, then on the weekends totally crash making up the other 20-25hrs on Sunday and Saturday. Then with my sleep schedule totally fucked I would proceed to further the chaos the next week.

This went on for about 6 months.

Eventually I started to lose it, told my boss to go fuck himself, got dumped by girlfriend within a couple months of losing my job, moved into a studio apartment, got a job at Starbucks (yeah, talk about fueling the addiction), drank caffeine like there was no tomorrow, floundered for a few months, used up savings, started missing bills, got even more fucked in the head, finally I realized I was probably allergic to caffeine which was producing an abnormal response. So I cut WAY back on the caffeine, enforced some financial discipline to get bills back in order, worked freelance to meet debts not covered by meager wages at Starbucks, ate nothing but soup and bread for a couple months, went 2 days without eating, first time I ever did that in my life, began to exercise like a madman, used my Starbucks health insurance to see a Psychologist, got diagnosed with moderately severe ADHD (probably appeared more severe due to my unsatisfied caffeine addiction), started on medications and now I am starting my own tech business and making money again on my own terms this time.... PHEW! A lot can happen in a year. But, thats how my life has alway been, I'll find some stability and then it will just gradually all come loose until it's like a helicopter without a tail rotor, spiraling haphazardly towards a fiery impact with the ground, and I honestly blame the ADHD for it all.

But, in the end it was worth it. Nothing rounds out a person like experiencing the bottom of life. Being hungry all the time, having no one, having to sell possessions to buy food, not seeing a way out... It's like jogging in a blizzard. You can't see anything, all you sense is yourself being slowly sapped of your body heat, each step getting harder and harder... then suddenly right in front of you... home.

Dave said at June 13, 2007 11:32 AM:

@RedHotFreak who wrote "i still think that i am immune to it. i have even done caffeine pills but i have an escalated heart rate of 115-120 at rest and they dramatically speed it up"

Not really immune, then, are you.

What's your diet like?

Jackson F. said at June 13, 2007 7:28 PM:

Rufus: you're an idiot. ADHD is very real. there are things that worsen it (web surfing, electronics). Coffee indeed helps focus. You have no idea what it's like to have 5 things going on in your head ALL THE TIME. sometimes its good for problem solving but other times you just want it to stop.

graham said at June 13, 2007 7:34 PM:

I agree with chris riley, it was a poorly designed study. They need a third arm of subjects who just use morning doses of caffiene.

Mark Johnson said at June 13, 2007 9:48 PM:

When someone told Voltaire that coffee was slow poison, he quipped, "I think it must be, for I have been drinking it for 65 years and am not dead yet!"

Jenny said at June 14, 2007 2:17 AM:

Why would one assume that long-term use of constant, small amounts of factory-produced amphetamines is dangerous without evidence? The only thing I found that took this into account was a detail-free study performed on nonhumans using a maximum 1mg/kg per dose.... way more than I would take at one time or even in one day. (I'd take a lower dose of time-released)

Everything else I found focuses on non-pharmaceutical (possibly unclean, un pure, and/or inconsistently dosed) methamphetamine abuse.


Caimlas said at June 14, 2007 5:22 AM:

Stonie, you can do what you did without caffeine without a problem, in my experience. Hardest part is getting over the 'hump' - mid to late morning, which is accompanied by fatigue and heavy eyes. Very easy to fall asleep during that time period (or at least when your body makes you think it does; insomnia makes it all but impossible): it's usually when I'll take a walk so i feel less like crap.

But then that period of the day is always "urg find bed must sleep" time for me, regardless of how many hours I've had. Waking up from 7-11am is all but impossible for me regardless of when I go to sleep (3 different alarm clocks). If I can wake up around 5am, I'll be OK, but don't even think of touching me at 7am. Not sure why it works that way, but it does.

I've never gotten "caffeine poisoning" before, that I know. To do so would require a bit more caffeine than that, I believe. Sounds like probably just fatigue...

Watch out for long-term accumulative sleep deprivation. That's nasty stuff - you'll start seeing things. Happened for me after 48 hours and several days before that of 2-3 hours a night max. Don't do that to yourself, it's stupid. There are those of us who have no choice due to an inability to bad insomnia... just get on a freaking decent schedule.

ShawnMills - ALLERGIC to caffeine? No mate, you were addicted!

Carlos Colon said at June 14, 2007 10:42 AM:

Caffeine is a very useful drug. I take 4-5 expressos a day and helps to keep my active status all day, but it disrups my circadian cycle, as I tend to get to sleep at 4:00 am, and sleep an average of only 6 hours. It seems to keep up my weight in check, possibly by raising my metabolism, a known and very documented effect.

When I tried going by without my morning cup, headaches develop, which subside after taking a caffeine dose. Maybe it triggers a release in serotonin.

I gather that more research is needed.

Anonymous said at June 14, 2007 7:16 PM:

Avoid drinking caffeine, it's diuretics. It will just make you thirty, and crave for another cup of coffee. Just drink 1.5 - 2L of water everyday. If you want to stay focused in jobs, find supplements that has ginseng / royal jelly and taurine in it.

Just my 2 cents.

Wilson Kerby said at July 11, 2007 9:00 AM:

To Anonymous: I drink lots of coffee and I'm still not thirty, but I'm not giving up on it.

esraa said at August 11, 2007 3:08 PM:

hi my comment is that iread this article and i read the study but am confused what is the perfect time of having coffee?? as a student i need to be healthy and a wake as long as i can to study so what is the pefect dose and when??

Trent said at October 17, 2007 9:50 PM:

Hey, just want to say that water is a good supplement to caffeine. If you drink a half quart, more or less before each meal, skip the evening meal if you can, and do not eat meat; than, you will feel lots of energy without the risks of caffeine!!

Marcus said at December 4, 2007 8:10 AM:

My problem using caffeine was insomnia. If I drank it all day I wouldn't be able to get to sleep until very late, which meant that the next morning I would feel terrible due to inadequate sleep, which in turn created dependency on caffeine. The overall effect is that I was constantly sleep deprived, and relied on caffeine during the week (and sleeping binges during the weekend) to get me through.

To get to sleep earlier I took to drinking lots of it in the morning and cutting it out in the afternoon, which helped somewhat, but it meant that I felt really down after lunch. If you're an office person, as many caffeine addicts are, getting exercise during the morning or afternoon helps aswell. The problem is fitting it into your busy schedule.

I'd like to see more and better research on caffeine effects in the real world, it has become an important health issue of the general population.

SRS said at December 19, 2008 9:11 PM:

Great study; great story.

the coffee dramatist said at April 19, 2010 12:02 AM:

I wish so so so much, coffee would be used as a pleasure Drink and not as a drug and that people would observe closely what is it that does not let them be awake, so they depend so much on caffein. It is perhaps better and healthier to consider that, instead of compensating through incredible amounts of coffee.

Yes, the best way to ENJOY the 'advantages' of caffein is by distributing the coffee intake throughout the day in small amounts. Many scientific studies show this repeatedly. This way the system gets no big shocks, and - as it is written above - the effect of the drug is more constant, if you indeed need coffee because of the caffein.

Aside from medicinal aspects, I stronly believe coffee is to be enjoyed and not to be used as a drug. If this is the case, the use turns much too quickly into abuse and this abuse is one we seldom notice and thus do not take very seriously, until it is a bit too late.

Aristippos, the Coffee Dramatist

Rob T. said at May 2, 2010 12:57 PM:


No one who takes his first sip of beer, or his first drag of tobacco, immediately goes, "ah, that's great!". Like the taste for beer or tobacco, the taste for coffee is an acquired taste for almost everyone, which should clue you in to the fact that its primarily value to most people is as a drug, and not as a beverage to be enjoyed. Myself, I hate the taste of coffee, and do very well with caffeine pills, thank you very much!

the coffee dramatist said at June 1, 2010 2:14 PM:

Yes, Rob, this is something I have considered for a long time. I have yet to meet someone who loved the first sip of coffee or of red wine or of rum, beer and other such things. And yes, it might be that many start due to the here-say and they also wish to have their pick-me-up drink. Nevertheless, the fact it is a drug is in my view not the reason why it has become the "primary value" in many sections of our society. I attribute much of the importance of coffee to its role in social live. It is not caffein which has instigated great coffee cultures, where people sit 3 hours on one singular drink.

No, I do not think coffee is primarily popular and valuable due to caffein. I am convinced for most people it embodies much more than just a drug. Why do many drink decafinated coffee? why do many look for substitutes? Because they do not want to miss the taste and because coffee exemplifies also - to an extent - a way of life, even though many people - like you - do not like its taste.

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