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Caffeine: An enemy for Australia’s most sleep-deprived?

Sleep experts have advised that consuming high amounts of caffeine can exacerbate sleep deprivation for Australia’s most fatigued.

Many sleep-deprived Australians rely on caffeine as their morning wake-up call or “saviour”, as caffeine lovers can feel like angry bulls in a china store before consuming their first double or quadruple shot cuppa joe.

But Australian sleep specialists have flagged a warning to those who consume high amounts of the licit stimulant as a rescue remedy for inadequate hours of sleep throughout the week.

Dr Siobhan Banks, co-director of the Behaviour-Brain-Body Research Centre at the University of South Australia, said: “We suspect there are many people using caffeine to push their body to the limit to find energy that they’re missing after a poor night’s sleep.

“Sure, you get that boost [of energy], often accompanied by a feeling of elation, but you’re also likely to get a faster heart rate, muscle tremors and headaches.

“It can be a real sleep-ruiner if consumed too close to bedtime, making it harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep.”

As a naturally occurring psychoactive stimulant of the methylxanthine class, caffeine is a substance that promotes alertness by blocking the actions of sleep-related chemicals in the central nervous system.

According to the Sleep Health Foundation, caffeine reaches “peak levels in the blood” between 30 and 70 minutes after consumption, giving consumers a burst of energy that can last between three and seven hours and remain in the body “for up to 24 hours”.

Overseas guidelines suggest consuming “no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day” — which is around three cups of brewed coffee or six cups of black tea.

However, Dr Banks asserted that consuming 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is still an excessive amount and “the trouble is many people don’t stop there”.

The Sleep Health Foundation advised caffeine lovers who suffer from sleep deprivation to know how much caffeine is contained in the products they consume, the amount of caffeine they ingest on a daily basis and at what times they do so throughout the day.

Dr Banks added: “Complicating matters is the fact that your caffeine sensitivity depends on your age and your genes, so it’s vital to recognise how you can as an individual respond to it.”

According to Dr Banks, people should — in an ideal world — prioritise getting a good night’s sleep seven days a week to receive all the energy they crave from coffee naturally.

But in reality, many humans are naturally inclined to behave spontaneously to live life to the fullest or overwork themselves to accelerate pathways to “success”, which may result in taking hours of leave from their beloved beds without the intention of neglecting their circadian rhythms.

Most people are familiar with the feeling of staring wide-eyed and wired at their bedroom ceiling, as their minds crossover upcoming duties of tomorrow and beyond, which only lengthens their imprisonment in the land of consciousness — especially after binging on caffeine.

Understandably, consuming several shots of coffee after a few hours of weak sleep — particularly prior to commencing a long work day or, God forbid, an extended family gathering — can seem like a knight in shining sleep substitution.

“But the message we would send them is to use caffeine strategically; don’t overload and consider the potential impact on their sleep between shifts,” Dr Banks recommended.

On the other hand, according to the Sleep Health Foundation, caffeine can actually be helpful for some Australian workers struggling with fatigue throughout their daily grind.

“There are many safety-sensitive jobs and night-time shift work environments where people can benefit from a coffee or two to improve alertness, and we would encourage people to still use caffeine to help them overcome fatigue,” Dr Banks added.

But for caffeine lovers suffering from sleep deprivation, Ms Banks concluded: “Even the simple change of avoiding all caffeinated products three to six hours before bedtime in normal circumstances can be enough to improve the quality of the shut-eye you’re getting.”

The Sleep Health Foundation further recommended that caffeine lovers wishing to cut back their intake of the stimulant do so gradually, as going cold turkey can bring on “headaches, tiredness and anxiety”.

Clearly, with great coffee comes great responsibility, so practising moderation and timeliness when consuming caffeine will be needed to balance out circadian rhythms of the night.