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Does Drinking Coffee Before Bed Disrupt Your Sleep?

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 06 Aug 2023

Sueño Labs does not provide medical advice. See our terms and disclaimers.

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In many European countries, it’s common to drink coffee after dinner. Black coffee with a shot of cognac if you want to be French about it. But — at least in my experience — this kind of freaks Americans out. Won’t it mess with your sleep? I know plenty of people who insist on decaf only after 2 pm or some other self-imposed restriction because they’re convinced that a single sip of that café will have them tossing and turning for hours. So, will it?

Before writing this I read a Sleep Medicine Reviews article called “Coffee, caffeine, and sleep: A systematic review of epidemiological studies and randomized controlled trials” (#riveting) that on the eternal question of does coffee affect your sleep essentially concludes “it depends.” How sensitive are you to caffeine? How old are you? What are your genetics? What else did you eat and what else did you do that day? All of these factor into the equation, making it hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer. But if you’re curious about your coffee, here are some general guidelines to follow.

Does Drinking Coffee Before Bed Disrupt Your Sleep?

How Caffeine Affects Your Body

Here’s a quote from that study I mentioned: “Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world.”

While you might be getting illegal-drug vibes from the word psychoactive, it really just means “affects the mind.” Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, which means it speeds up the transfer of messages. When you consume caffeine, you actually think a little bit faster, and the rapid processing can postpone fatigue and lift your mood. This is the energy boost most people are familiar with.

But caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors. If it’s been a minute since you last took biology, adenosine is a chemical in the body that increases sleepiness. More technically, it’s a neurotransmitter that promotes the sleep drive. Think of it like a conversation:

Your body: I’m cranky and low energy and I think I’m getting sick.
Adenosine: Maybe you should sleep.
Your body: Nah, I’m just gonna watch YouTube on the couch.
Adenosine: Sleep, you fool. Go. To. Sleep.

Caffeine interferes with the adenosine and keeps it from joining with the proper receptors. In other words, your brain doesn’t get the message.

So Can You Sleep While Caffeinated?

Of course, the brain sends billions of neural signals every second. While maybe some of those adenosine receptors are blocked, that doesn’t mean they all are, and adenosine isn’t the only mechanism by which your body knows it’s bedtime. Falling asleep is a complicated process that depends on dozens of factors. Perhaps it’s accurate to say that caffeine makes it harder to fall asleep, but it doesn’t make it impossible.

We also have to remember that caffeine wears off. Different online sources say caffeine stays in the body for about 4-7 hours, depending on your biochemistry and physical activity. Some people seem to be more sensitive than others. While some people report the effects of caffeine wear off after an hour or two, others say they still feel the effects up to ten hours later.

If we stick with an average of 5-6 hours, drinking a cup of coffee at 2 pm should be out of your system by 8 pm. Even if you drink a cup of coffee with a late dinner, depending on how late you stay up and how strongly caffeine affects you, it may be mostly out of your system by the time you’re winding down.

Can You Speed Up the Metabolism of Caffeine?

Like a cure for a hangover, the best advice is to drink some water and wait it out.

Your liver takes caffeine out of the body, and there isn’t much you can do to speed up the process. Staying hydrated and raising your heart rate with some light physical exercise will help a little, but — let’s be real — doing a workout before bed might be counterproductive to the whole falling-asleep thing.

Eating some food can also help slow down the rate at which caffeine is absorbed into your system. Maybe this is why so many Europeans can handle the coffee at night — it comes with a full dinner.

Since you really can’t make your body’s mechanisms move faster, the smartest move is to be preventative: Don’t drink a ton of coffee right before bed if you know it affects you strongly.

What Can You Drink Instead?

Herbal teas, ginger ale, lemonade, good old-fashioned water.

Avoid energy drinks as these often have as much or even more caffeine as a cup of coffee. You also might think about how you drink your coffee, too. Maybe get the tall instead of a venti. Maybe add a few mix-ins instead of taking it black. (I’m probably biased here because I add so much cream to my coffee that it’s practically milk.)

No matter what you decide to do, remember that the key is to enjoy it and not overthink it. Stress makes it hard to sleep, too. If you’re thinking, “Oh no, I ruined my sleep because I had an afternoon coffee!” and worrying about that all day, it will likely be worse for you than if you just trust that the caffeine will wear off in a few hours’ time.

Try It: Track Your Caffeine

If you have a concern that caffeine is messing with your sleep, it’s helpful to look at the data — at least qualitatively. Keep a journal, or maybe just a note on your phone, of how much caffeine you consume each day and at what time. Also keep track of your bedtime, and, in the morning, assess your quality of sleep. If you use the Health app or something similar, you can pull data from that.

Then, look for patterns. You may notice that coffee at a certain time of day always coincides with a poor night’s rest, but you may also be surprised to find that your sleep similarly on days with and without an afternoon cup of joe. If that’s the case, you may be stressing for nothing.

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He is a strong advocate of sleep journaling and actually prefers tea over coffee.

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