As I get older and lose the ability to pull all-nighters for assignments and leisure, I’ve become more mindful about the importance of having a good night’s rest. I’m sure there are many others like me who rely on coffee and alcohol (sometimes) to achieve that goal; some people can’t start a day without the former, while others can’t end one without the latter.
After consuming them for hundreds of years, you’d assume that mankind would have a pretty good understanding of coffee and alcohol. Maybe it’s just me, but as it turns out, we don’t! If you haven’t watched this video by Dr Matthew Walker of UC Berkeley, you’ll be in for a surprise. Here, the best-selling author of Why We Sleep reveals five ways the two substances affect the length and quality of our sleep.
A word of caution though – this video may change your perception of tour favourite beverages forever. If you can’t handle the truth, I suggest you turn away now. Otherwise, I’ll see you on the other side 🙂
Congratulations, you’ve made it past the video! Is your mind blown yet? Well, mine sure did. If this made you rethink about your relationship with coffee and alcohol, you’re not the only one. That said, I did find this video to be very insightful; with the right perspective, we can make this newfound knowledge work for us!
1. Caffeine stays in your system 10-12 hours after your last coffee 2. Caffeine and alcohol messes with deep, non-REM and REM sleep 3. Alcohol is a sedative, and sedation is not to be confused with deep sleep
Takeaway #1: The caffeine in coffee stays in your body longer than you think.
The caffeine found in coffee is a psychoactive stimulant which helps people stay alert. Historical accounts suggest that coffee was first discovered by an Ethiopian sheep-herder named Kaldi. In the 9th-century, Kaidi noticed that his goats became hyperactive after eating the berries from a certain tree. This berry was later revealed to be the fruit of the coffee plant, and the rest is history.
After lunch, I’d usually like to have another cup of coffee to counter the effects of the dreaded “food coma”. However, the research of Dr Walker’s research reveals that caffeine can stay in our bodies for more than 10-12 hours. By the time it’s time for bed at midnight, there might still be some caffeine circulating in our brains to keep us up. This might then make it more challenging for us to fall and stay asleep.
Takeaway #2: Caffeine & alcohol affects the quality of our sleep
To be honest, I don’t have a problem falling asleep; I’m one of those people described by Dr Walker in the video who can have an espresso at dinner and still doze off five seconds after getting to bed. Occasionally, I like to make myself a glass of G&T (or two) to unwind for the day. However, little did I realise that these practices could be the reason why I have challenges waking up the next morning.
Studies suggest that caffeine and alcohol compromises our ability to go into the deeper stages of non-REM* as well as REM sleep. These two stages of our sleep cycle is responsible for our physical and mental recovery respectively. Without it, we’ll wake up not feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Sometimes, this ends up with us getting double the amount of coffee in the morning.
* If you’re wondering what’s the difference between REM and non-REM sleep, check out my other post here.
Takeaway #3: Sedation (or drunkenness) is NOT sleep
“… alcohol is perhaps one of the most misunderstood sleep aids out there. In fact, it’s anything but a sleep aid.”Dr. Matthew Walker
Unlike caffeine, alcohol is a sedative. When ingested, alcohol induces a form of artificial sleep by chemically-inhibiting brain activity in the cortex. In contrast, the deep, non-REM sleep we naturally experience boasts a huge amount of coordinated brain activity. Therefore, while it might look like we’re sleeping like a log after a night of drinks, we are actually not getting the quality sleep we need for recovery.
How it got better for me
I used to think that it’ll be an almost impossible task for me to give up my post-lunch coffee or my Friday night G&Ts. However, after understanding more about what caffeine and alcohol does to our sleep, it’s made me reconsider my relationship with my two favourite beverages. Over the past two weeks, I limited my coffee consumption to the mornings only, and constrained alcohol consumption to social events only. The results, as I observed, were rather intriguing.
Firstly, there were no observable differences in alertness in the latter half of my days without the second cup of coffee. This suggests that I probably didn’t need that second cup of coffee to stay alert. It might have just been an artefact of my “afternoon routine”, where the act of getting a second cup of coffee is the trigger for me to enter my flow state after lunch. Also, isn’t it extremely ironic when I’m writing about cutting down on coffee on a blog named after coffee?
Secondly, I do find it easier to go to bed earlier 1-2 hours before my usual time. I usually go to bed around 1-2 am. Obviously, this makes it a challenge to wake up at 7 am in the morning. However, I now tend to feel tired between 11-12 pm, signalling my time for bed. This had made it slightly easier for me to get up earlier in the morning. Even though it’s still not 7 am, but I’ve been making good progress towards that mark.
Thirdly, I do notice a stark difference in “restedness” between the nights with and without alcohol intake. Nights after drinks feel rather shallow and short, while those without felt deep and long. Perhaps it is the increased mindfulness of the effects of alcohol, but I do feel better about my sleep and that’s what matters most.
Overall, I must say that I’m quite pleased with the results that I’ve observed so far. I do intend to keep up with this practice and optimize my sleep for better health and productivity. If you’ve also done the same, do let me know about your experiences in the comments below! If you also have other great tips to share, I’d love to hear them as well. Feel free to also share this post with your friends on social media! Don’t forget to tag Kopithoughts in your posts!