It’s morning. The switch flips, the hot water drips and the coffee pot fills with the steaming elixir that energizes so many people to start the day.
Whether you take yours black or with milk and sugar, many people rely on coffee to jolt their foggy brains into action every morning.
Caffeine wakes us up by blocking the chemical receptors in our brains that encourage us to sleep. It heightens our ability to pay attention, but it does little to help us with complex tasks that require a lot of thought and coordination.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University examined how well sleep-deprived people who consumed caffeine could perform simple and complex tasks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that sleep deprivation negatively affected performance in both types of tasks.
Consuming caffeine helped counter the effects of sleep deprivation to help participants perform the simple task, but it had little effect on participants’ ability to perform a more complex procedural task that required them to perform certain steps in a specific order without skipping or repeating the steps.
In short? The study found that caffeine simply cannot substitute for a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is the time when our brain does its housekeeping — clearing out waste products and sorting memories into long-term storage, says Tidelands Health family medicine physician Dr. Mark Owolabi, who practices at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road in Myrtle Beach and is a faculty member at the Tidelands Health MUSC Family Medicine Residency Program. A good night’s sleep is a vital part of maintaining good physical and mental health.
“There are a lot of studies that show that a lack of sleep increases accidents on the job and on the road,” Owolabi says. “Poor sleep is associated with weight gain and can precede mental health issues such as depression. Caffeine simply can’t substitute for quality sleep.”
He says it’s important to avoid caffeine – whether in the form of soda, tea, coffee or an energy drink – for at least six hours before bedtime because it can remain in your bloodstream and affect your ability to get needed shut-eye.
“It can become a vicious cycle,” Dr. Owolabi says. “When you rely on caffeine to help get you through the day, it can impede your ability to sleep the following night, which can prompt you to turn to caffeine again to get through the next day.”
Ultimately, the more we depend on caffeine to compensate for poor sleep, the worse we’re likely to feel and perform over time, he says. That’s why it’s important to talk to your family medicine physician or another qualified provider if you are routinely struggling to sleep.
“We sleep for so many more reasons than being alert,” Owolabi says. “If it gets to the point that you need caffeine every day just to get going, that’s something you want to talk about with your physician. We’re here to help.”
Dr. Mark Owolabi
Family Medicine Physician, Tidelands Health
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Dr. Mark Owolabi, a board-certified family medicine physician, practices at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road. He is a faculty member at the Tidelands Health MUSC Family Medicine Residency Program.Learn More
East Carolina University
Stanford University, Family Medicine
University of Michigan, Integrative Medicine
- Family Medicine (ABFM)
- Obesity Medicine (ABOM)
Meet the Expert
Dr. Mark Owolabi
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Dr. Mark Owolabi, a board-certified family medicine physician, practices at Tidelands Health Family Medicine at Holmestown Road. He is a faculty member at the Tidelands Health MUSC Family Medicine Residency Program.