Sorry Coffee Lovers: Study Suggests Caffeine Only Helps So Much

Brian Meusborn, PA-C

If you’re no stranger to not getting enough ZZZ’s, then you’re most likely also no stranger to a strong cup — or cups — of coffee, tea or an energy drink to get you through the day. Once the caffeine hits, you may feel alert enough to take on your tasks, but a new study suggests you may not actually be performing them all that well. 

 

The Study

Imagine rising from your bed after a sleepless night and being asked to complete a test that recorded how quickly you react to something as well as performing a series of tasks in a specific order without skipping or repeating any steps. You’d probably ask if you could make yourself a cup of coffee first — or whatever your caffeinated beverage of choice is. Sure, you’d probably be able to complete the tasks, but how well would you do? Furthermore, would the results be similar to the results you may have after getting a good night’s rest? 

That’s exactly what researchers set out to find according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. In a press release about the study, Kimberly Fenn, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of psychology at Michigan State University, notes that sleep deprivation impaired performance on both types of tasks, but having caffeine helped people successfully achieve the easier task. However, caffeine had little effect on performance when it came to the tasks that required participants to do something in a specific order without skipping or repeating steps. 

“Caffeine may be able to help you stay awake and pay attention to a task, but it does not help to prevent errors,” she adds. “We are interested in procedural errors because they can be quite dangerous.” 

Additionally, caffeine may keep you awake, but not necessarily alert, experts say. 

 

How Sleep (and Lack Thereof) Affects Our Bodies

Fenn adds that a good rule to follow is that you should not attempt any task while sleep deprived that you would not (or should not) attempt while intoxicated, regardless of if you have caffeine in your system or not. 

While that may seem a bit extreme, did you know that Texas leads the nation in drowsy driving accidents? Texans die in drowsy-driving-related car crashes at a rate almost four times higher than that of California, a state that has nearly 10 million more drivers on the road than Texas.

When broken down, that means roughly one in every five exhaustion-related traffic deaths in the United States occur in Texas. In fact, Texas had more sleep-related fatalities in 2016 than the next five highest states combined (Alabama, California, Ohio, Kentucky and Arizona). 

Brian Meusborn, PA-C, a physician assistant on the medical staff at Texas Health Family Care in Flower Mound, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, sees increasing numbers of sleep-deprived patients. Meusborn believes that sleep is a hot topic at the moment because many of us are simply not getting enough. In fact, he believes a lack of sleep is emblematic of American life today.

“Based on my practice, it’s clear that North Texans are not getting enough sleep, and I believe that deficit is a bigger issue here in the U.S. than in other parts of the world,” Meusborn shares. “I have patients who were born in other parts of the world who tell me they were never tired, overweight or stressed until they came to America. To me, the larger issue is how inadequate sleep causes so many health problems.”

Meusborn says the symptoms of not enough sleep are lengthy. Among them:

  • Lack of focus
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Lightheadedness
  • High blood pressure
  • Lower cognitive functioning
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Lack of motivation
  • Higher susceptibility to infections and injury
  • Slow healing from illness and injury

In addition, lack of sleep can make chronic illnesses worse, and contribute to slower recovery in those who work out, and slow growth in children, Meusborn adds.

 

Remedy for a Good Night’s Sleep

While caffeine can help you get through a midday slump, it’s not a substitute for a good night’s sleep. During deep sleep, our bodies go into repair mode and our brain is cleared of any plaque buildup. Additionally, during REM sleep, neural connections are formed in our brains and our memories are established. These are all things that coffee, tea or energy drinks can never replace or replicate. 

The good news is that we’re in the driver’s seat and can make choices to re-train ourselves to sleep better. Meusborn offers these tips:

  • Mealtime: Avoid eating right before bed. When you go to bed soon after you’ve eaten, your body will spend energy digesting your meal, disrupting sleep and keeping you from getting a good night’s rest.
  • Eat healthy meals: Eat healthy foods to promote proper digestion.  If you’re eating unhealthy foods and not watching what you eat, your diet will inhibit gut function.  You won’t feel well, and the resulting bloating, gas and nausea will keep you from sleeping well.
  • Avoid screen time: Stay off all electronic devices — that also means TVs — for a minimum of 30 minutes before bedtime. Keep screens away from the bed. Looking at devices in bed trains our brain to expect a screen and keeps us from falling asleep.
  • Get moving: Exercise plays a huge role in promoting good sleep at night by releasing sleep-inducing hormones, inducing fatigue and contributing to weight loss and other health benefits. But people who have trouble falling asleep should avoid working out 2-3 hours before bedtime because it can increase heart rate, blood pressure and hormones that may ‘wire’ them for a couple of hours after exercise.
  • Curb your alcohol, caffeine and tobacco use: Avoid alcohol and caffeine within three hours before bedtime. Drinking too closely to bedtime disrupts quality sleep, as does caffeine. Quitting smoking or other tobacco use is a must for good sleep. Tobacco is a stimulant and plays havoc with rest.
  • Read labels: It’s always smart to read drug labels, and that applies to both prescribed and over-the-counter medicine. Certain medications can affect sleep, so arm yourself with that knowledge when taking meds.
  • Strive for good health: Live a healthy lifestyle accented by a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. Drink plenty of water and get some exercise each day. If you don’t currently exercise, start slowly with a short walk and build up the length over time.

By making these choices, you’ll be making important steps toward getting a better night’s sleep! If you’d like to speak to a physician about your sleep habits, visit our website to find a physician.

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