The pros and cons of caffeine (And when to drink electrolytes instead)

From the desk of
Robb Wolf
ScienceThe pros and cons of caffeine (And when to drink electrolytes instead)

When you wake up, what’s the first beverage you reach for? If it’s coffee, I can relate. I’ve started thousands of mornings by staggering to the coffee pot to perform the sacred rites.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest that you abandon caffeine entirely. I still enjoy a good cup of joe, but these days I start my day by rehydrating with fluids and electrolytes. Heating up a mug of LMNT Chocolate Salt is a quick and cozy go-to, and here or there I’ll play around with some hot LMNT recipes like this Raspberry Tea. I’ll also admit, when I’m feeling indulgent, I’ve also added Chocolate Salt straight to my coffee for a sugar-free mocha.

After all, coffee and caffeine have benefits — including that pleasant buzz of productivity — but they also have potential downsides, mostly relating to caffeinating too late, too early, or too much. Consequently, it’s wise to enjoy beverages that help keep you hydrated (rather than caffeinated) early in the morning and later on in the day.

In this article, I’ll cover the pros and cons of morning caffeine, the wisdom of delaying your first cup of coffee, the importance of morning hydration, some delicious hot beverages you can try, and hydration strategies for both AM and PM. Let’s start with how caffeine affects sleep.

Caffeine, Sleep, and Wakefulness

Caffeine increases wakefulness by blocking a relaxative chemical called adenosine from binding to the brain. (Fun fact: adenosine is a product of your brain breaking down adenosine triphosphate, the cellular energy known as ATP.) In the absence of caffeine, adenosine builds up gradually over the day, increasing the feeling of tiredness and promoting restful sleep at night. This gradual build-up of tiredness over the course of the day is called “sleep pressure.”

The degree to which caffeine affects your sleep and wakefulness depends mainly on 3 factors:

  1. When you consume it
  2. How much you consume
  3. Your ability to metabolize caffeine

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s unwise for anybody to drink caffeine in the evening. It impairs sleep latency (time to fall asleep), sleep efficiency (how continuous your sleep is), and other aspects of quality rest. And too much caffeine — early or late — can barricade adenosine from applying sleep pressure. What’s less obvious is the 3rd bullet: your specific metabolism.

The average half-life of caffeine (the time it takes to metabolize half of the caffeine in your system) is about 5 hours in healthy individuals. That means that when the average person drinks 1 cup of coffee — about 100 mg of caffeine — they will still have 50 mg of caffeine in their system 5 hours later. 5 hours after that, 25 mg of caffeine will remain, and so on. But half-life varies widely between people, likely between 1.5 and 9 hours.

To illustrate, the metabolism of LMNT co-founder Luis Villaseñor can make caffeine disappear faster than a toupee in a tornado. He’ll sleep like a rock no problem. Meanwhile, other folks may have trouble sleeping after 2 cups of coffee in the morning. Your individual metabolism plays a big role in how much caffeine you can tolerate.

Speaking of tolerance, let’s dive deeper into caffeine’s potential cons.

Potential Cons of Caffeine

Even when folks develop caffeine tolerance — which somewhat blunt its positive effects — the negative impacts on sleep and stress remain. It can become a nasty cycle: You need more caffeine to wake up, which blocks more adenosine, which makes it more difficult to sleep, which encourages you to reach for more coffee the next day, and so on.

Interestingly, neurobiologist Dr. Andrew Huberman suggests delaying your first cup of coffee 90 minutes after waking. The idea is to allow adenosine to bind to your brain before the caffeine blockade begins (remember, caffeine doesn’t remove adenosine, but competes with it by dominating its brain receptors). This may help prevent a crash later, when the caffeine wears off and the adenosine hits all at once. I haven’t seen research testing this strategy, but anecdotally, avoiding caffeine for 1–2 hours after waking has given me more stable energy. One caveat: Delaying your coffee means less time to metabolize caffeine before sleep. If you’re a slow metabolizer, consider reducing your caffeine intake in addition to delaying it a little while.

Beyond sleep impairment, too much caffeine can cause stress, anxiety, and jitters, especially in folks who are already prone to anxiety or panic. In one analysis of 237 patients with panic disorders, 51% had a panic attack following caffeine consumption, compared to none after a placebo.

I’m definitely not anti-caffeine — I just think we should use it wisely. Now that you know how, let’s switch gears and talk about its potential benefits!

Potential Benefits of Caffeine

Caffeine’s most evidenced benefits relate to strength, endurance, and power in various athletic contexts. Caffeine also has cognitive benefits associated with focus, motivation, and mood. For instance, observational research has suggested that regular caffeine intake may protect against depression.

Other slices of epidemiology link coffee consumption to lower risks of chronic disease and all-cause mortality. For example, a 2019 meta-analysis analyzing nearly 4 million people found that consuming 3.5 cups of coffee per day reduced mortality. And a 2011 analysis observed that men who consume more coffee — caffeinated or decaf — are at lower risk of lethal (but not low-grade) prostate cancer.

As I’m fond of saying, correlation IS NOT causation. It’s likely that the antioxidants and tannins in coffee drive these benefits, not the caffeine. You can find these (or similar) compounds in decaf coffee, herbs, spices, and vegetables.

Lastly, some research suggests caffeine enhances the ability of light to activate the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is the region of the brain that governs circadian rhythm. In other words, it helps light wake you up.

All this interesting caffeine knowledge… time to hone in on hydration!

Are Caffeinated Beverages Dehydrating?

Let’s first address the common misconception that caffeinated beverages cause dehydration. While caffeine is a diuretic much like alcohol, it’s not a very powerful one. You may pee a little more than normal, but you’re not going to net water loss. The water content of caffeinated beverages like coffee, tea, and even energy drinks will simply outweigh the diuretic effect.

A neat study from 2015 helped quantify the hydration power of several common beverages in comparison to that of plain water. The beverages were given a hydration rating, called a Beverage Hydration Index (BHI) — the higher the rating, the more hydrating the drink.

Since plain water set the baseline, it had a BHI of 1. Coffee scored very slightly lower, whereas drinks with high electrolyte content such as milk, orange juice, and oral rehydration solution (ORS) scored closer to 1.5. Your morning cup of joe isn’t dehydrating you, but better options exist to rehydrate you upon waking. As I like to say, hydration = water + electrolytes.

The Importance of Morning Hydration

Morning caffeine has pros and cons, but morning hydration has zero downsides. The first thing to understand is that sleep dehydrates you. You lose significant fluids and electrolytes through sweat, urine, and respiration overnight. Meanwhile, folks often avoid chugging water before bed to cut down on midnight bathroom breaks. Your best friend is hydrating after waking with water and electrolytes, especially sodium.

Why sodium? For one, sodium is a crucial electrolyte for both fluid balance and brain function. When folks overhydrate with plain water, the classic symptoms are neurological, such as brain fog and fatigue. Other sodium deficiency symptoms include muscle cramps, weakness, and headaches. The takeaway is that sodium can help jumpstart your brain and perceived energy after a deep slumber.

The Optimal Way to Start and End Your Day

Let’s combine our learnings to uncover morning and evening beverage routines. I enjoy these hydration rituals daily for better daytime energy and nighttime rest.

Starting your day:

Caffeine’s potential cons can be abated by adjusting your dose and timing, and accounting for your unique metabolism. To get a sense for your caffeine half-life, conduct this simple experiment: Consume 1 cup of coffee each day next week, maintaining consistent sleep and wake times. Drink the coffee 1 hour later each day, paying attention to your quality of sleep. And to avoid crashing midday, try waiting 60–90 minutes after waking before you wade into that tasty bean juice on day 1.

If you get a sense for your optimal caffeine cutoff, that’s great. But if coffee is disrupting your sleep regardless of the time you drink it, consider replacing it with an alternative.

Herbal tea, green tea, decaf coffee, and hot LMNT can help you curtail caffeine intake while still enjoying a cozy beverage. Green tea and decaf have considerably less caffeine than standard brew but still have plenty of antioxidants linked to health benefits. Personally, my favorite way to wake up and warm up is a hot mug of LMNT Chocolate Salt.

Ending your day:

When hydrating before bed, the key is to be sufficiently hydrated while also limiting sleep-interrupting trips to the bathroom. Drinking to thirst during the day (not beyond it) is the most obvious way, but sodium can help too. Along with cognition and energy, sodium supports the production of antidiuretic hormone, a chemical that prevents you from waking up to pee every 2 hours.

If you’re itching for a beverage to warm up and wind down, I recommend decaf tea, decaf coffee, and LMNT’s Enjoy Hot recipes, like this zero-sugar Raspberry Hot Chocolate.

That’s all, folks! I hope these tips help keep you alert and energized throughout the day, without the nasty crashes or restless nights. Shift your focus from caffeine to proper hydration, and you might just find that your focus shifts for the better. ⚡️

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