Why Does Coffee Make Me Tired?
For most of us, coffee is an acquired taste.
And new coffee drinkers may wonder why anyone would even want to acquire a taste for that bitter, dark brew.
Well, my friends, let me introduce you to caffeine - the real reason most of us started drinking coffee.
By now you may truly love the taste of coffee. But most of us started reaching for it in the morning as a way to wake up.
But have you ever been enjoying your 2nd or 3rd cup and started to feel tired?
It’s a perplexing situation, so today we have some reasons why your wake-up call may be putting you right back to sleep.
Just a Spoonful of Sugar May Take You Down
That tiredness you’re feeling may have nothing to do with your morning cup of coffee itself. Instead, the real culprit may be what you put into the cup with your coffee.
Adding a lot of sugar, by the spoonful or through sugary syrups and creamers, may lead you to experience a quick drop in blood sugar levels.
Nutritionist Amanda Dale tells us that "most human beings are 'sensitive' to simple sugars because they hit the bloodstream so quickly." But those simple sugars also wear off quickly, leading to a crash.
Sugary coffee definitely fits the bill here for simple sugars. They hit quickly (along with the caffeine), giving an immediate feeling of energy and happiness.
But they also leave just as quickly, causing mayhem to your blood sugar levels and other hormones, along with causing a variety of other issues.
One main one? You guessed it: fatigue. After the energy comes the crash, leaving you feeling more tired than before you drank your sugary coffee.
So if you’re in love with sweet drinks, just realize the sweetness may leave you with a not-so-sweet need to nap later.
Caffeine: The Other Culprit
The average 8 oz cup of coffee contains 95 mg of caffeine. Compared to 22 mg in the same size Coke or 42 mg in an Honest Tea, coffee has, well, a lot of caffeine.
And companies like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts serve up coffee with almost double the amount of caffeine in an average at-home brew.
Given that most Americans drink 1-4 cups of coffee a day, it’s safe to say we’re a caffeinated bunch of people.
So what exactly does all this caffeine mean for us coffee lovers?
Caffeine’s Effect on the Body
Caffeine, a naturally occurring stimulant, affects the brain, heart, and muscles of its consumers. In lower doses, it provides “increased alertness, energy, and ability to concentrate.”
Check. These are definitely abilities that most of us appreciate about caffeine. And they’re the opposite of tiredness.
But too much caffeine can lead to “anxiety, restlessness, insomnia” and many more negative side effects.
So how does a stimulant that usually causes me to feel more awake leave me feeling sleepy?
Caffeine & Adenosine
The chemical adenosine helps our bodies regulate sleep cycles by causing drowsiness. But when we introduce caffeine into our systems, our bodies can no longer detect adenosine.
In essence, caffeine tricks the body into blocking adenosine and so blocking tiredness too.
When the caffeine wears off though, that “‘block' on the sleepy feeling neurotransmitter is released, and it can cause a feeling of tiredness as it runs through your central nervous system,” says registered dietician Brooke Alpert.
So the thing we drink to make us feel more alert may actually contribute to us feeling more tired. Funny how that works!
Caffeine & Adrenaline
At the same time caffeine is working to block adenosine, it’s also working on the pituitary gland to increase neural activity.
That little kick in the pants we feel after drinking coffee - the excitement, energy, and focus - comes from the pituitary gland.
It emits adrenaline, actually putting us into “fight or flight” mode. And this excitement works great in the short term (thank you caffeine for helping us get through that exam or morning meeting).
But since our bodies are responding to caffeine instead of to true external stressors, our continued consumption of coffee can actually put a lot of stress on our adrenal glands.
And too much of this stress can lead to adrenal fatigue, a type of tolerance to caffeine that your body develops when overly stressed.
So what do stressed adrenal glands feel like? You guessed it again: adrenal fatigue causes feelings of tiredness and even exhaustion.
Instead of picking us up in this case, our coffee consumption actually stresses us out more. And leaves us feeling more tired than if we never drank coffee.
Caffeine & Our Sleep Cycle
Coffee may be the world’s most acceptable drug. Or at least, the high amount of caffeine in coffee is.
Caffeine shares characteristics found in other drugs like cocaine and heroin. Like them, it also works to increase brain activity and affects the dopamine or “feel-good” receptors in our brain.
Small amounts of caffeine increase the dopamine in our brain, making us feel more alert.
But once we start consuming larger amounts of caffeine (around 3-4 cups of coffee a day or more), we run the risk of eventually shutting off those dopamine receptors.
How? High amounts of caffeine can cause “jitteriness, tension, and disrupted sleep.” With continued disrupted sleep, dopamine loses its ability to help us stay awake.
And the end result? Yep, extreme fatigue.
It’s all really a terrible cycle: sleep disruption from too much caffeine, then the need for more caffeine to help us feel awake, that in the end doesn’t help and only causes us to feel more tired - but at the wrong times and in the wrong places.
What Can We Do About It?
If you’re tired of feeling tired after drinking coffee, we recommend following these tips:
- Drink coffee with less added sugar. Instead of reaching for sugar or syrups to make your coffee sweeter, try honey, agave, or even cinnamon.
- Drink only 1-2 cups of coffee a day. More than that, and you run the risk of getting too much caffeine.
- Drink coffee only in the morning or early afternoon. Having a cup of coffee after 2 pm may still affect your sleep cycle, causing you to feel more tired the next day. But a cup in the morning still gives your body time to process out all the caffeine.
- Drink coffee because you like it, not because your body needs it. If you feel like you can’t make it through the day without coffee, you may have a bigger problem on your hands (ahem, adrenal fatigue perhaps).
Instead, drink it for the pleasure of drinking it. But consider avoiding it if you feel like you must have it. Trust your body.