woman having coffee at a coffee shop

How to Get the Benefits from Caffeine—Without the Drawbacks

By Jared Minkel, Ph.D. and Natalie Ellencewig Melamud, M.D.
July 14, 2023

There’s a reason so many of us are so desperate to get our morning coffee, and it's probably not just because we like the taste. Coffee contains caffeine, which has several benefits, including boosting alertness, energy levels, mood, and even improving some medical conditions. These benefits make caffeinated drinks some of the most popular in the world.

But even if you’re an avid coffee drinker or rely on caffeine supplements from time to time, there’s a chance you’re not reaping its full benefits and may, in fact, be overdoing it. Here are five tips to help you tailor your caffeine intake to work best for you.

1. Note How Much Caffeine You're Getting

Caffeine is considered a drug, because it stimulates your central nervous system. Having too much of it may cause anxiety and trouble falling asleep at night. Though you might be keeping tabs on how many cups of coffee or cans of cola you drink on a given day, it may be more helpful to think about just how much caffeine that represents so you don't go overboard. According to the New England Journal of Medicine:

  • Eight ounces of coffee brewed at home contains about 92 milligrams (mg) of caffeine
  • Twelve ounces of coffee from a coffee shop has about 235 mg of caffeine
  • An 8.5-ounce energy drink contains around 80 mg of caffeine

Keep track of your caffeine consumption throughout the day, regardless of what form it’s in, on a notepad or your phone. In general, a moderate amount, around 40-200 mg, is recommended. Most people should try to limit their intake to under 400 mg per day.

2. Get Your Timing Right

For most, small doses of caffeine over time can help you stay alert. Caffeine generally lasts in your system for about six hours, so it’s best to avoid it after lunch so it doesn't interfere with sleep at night.

However, there are many factors that influence how caffeine affects you, including age, sex, hormones, and diet. Medications like birth control pills and some antibiotics, among others, may increase how long caffeine stays in your system. Ask your doctor if any of your prescription medications can influence your response to caffeine.

To find your caffeine sweet spot, consider drinking one to two cups of coffee slowly throughout the day. If you have more trouble sleeping than usual, try stopping caffeine use earlier. If that doesn’t work, reduce the amount as well. You might be someone who does best with half a cup of coffee between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. or you could be someone who is less sensitive to caffeine and can have it in the afternoon without negatively affecting your sleep.

3. Know When to Cut Back

Regular caffeine use may cause you to develop a tolerance. This means the effects of caffeine become less noticeable over time, which may cause you to use more or too much of it. You may have developed a tolerance if you notice you’re drinking more coffee or taking more caffeine supplements to get the same energy boost.

In these cases, reducing the amount of caffeine you consume is best. Go slow, especially if you’re used to consuming a lot of caffeine every day. Try cutting your intake in half for a few days, then halve it again if needed. You may experience some withdrawal symptoms like headache, fatigue, irritability, or difficulty concentrating, but they typically peak one to two days after you cut back and will likely improve from there.

4. Don't Use Caffeine As a Substitute for Sleep

Caffeine can temporarily help you cope with a lack of sleep, but it isn’t a replacement. Sleep is restorative for the body and mind and is a key component of good physical and mental health. Lean on caffeine when you need it, but be sure to prioritize getting solid sleep at night.

5. Find Other Ways to Boost Energy

Caffeine is an effective way to increase energy—but it’s not the only one. Instead of reaching for another cup, try engaging in exercise and other fatigue fighters like social interaction, listening to upbeat music, or taking a walk with friends. You may find that you feel more energized without having caffeine.

If you have a chronic medical condition or are pregnant or breastfeeding, be sure to check with your doctor about caffeine use.

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