Why Morning Coffee Is Suboptimal (and Other Best Times to Drink It)

The answer lies in a single hormone.

Coffee is popular. In fact, many countries seem to live on coffee — for its consumption levels run second only to water. Being born in India, I’d been drinking tea and coffee from a relatively young age. But I had no love for it — when it was served, I drank it. When it wasn’t served, I couldn’t care less.

Then about eight years ago, we were about to board a flight and my father stopped at a little (or so I thought) store called Starbucks and ordered a fancy drink called an “Americano.” When the barista wrote my father’s name on the cup and handed the freshly brewed coffee to him, I was hooked.

For some reason, I’ve seen Indians be particularly disinterested in black coffee, green tea, and the like. They always love to put milk, sugar, and other condiments into their drinks. Naturally, when I started to drink black coffee I was seen as an outlier. I loved that feeling — “What! Black coffee? How can you drink that s***?”

From then on, coffee became an obsession. I drank it first thing in the morning and several times throughout the day. Until a few months ago, I couldn’t start my day without coffee. I’d stocked packets on packets in the lockdown. All that stopped until a few weeks back when I quit for good.

As I enjoyed my new-found energy after quitting caffeine, I was still offered the beverage time and time again. From that, I learned an important lesson — it’s not about if you leave coffee, it’s about if coffee leaves you!

Anyway, even though I didn’t drink a single cup when I was at home, I knew that going cold turkey would create more social problems for me. So I started making a contingency plan. My goal was to define limits around my consumption. To define when I’d say yes and when I’ll politely decline.

From that analysis, emerged a great understanding of when and how to drink coffee to minimize the adverse effects.

Should You Drink Coffee on an Empty Stomach?

It’s a common belief among some people that drinking coffee on an empty stomach, which I reckon most people do, is harmful. Research shows that coffee’s bitterness may stimulate the production of stomach acid

As such, many people believe that coffee irritates your stomach, worsens symptoms of gut disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and causes heartburn, ulcers, nausea, acid reflux, and indigestion. People around me have often mentioned how coffee on an empty stomach is harmful since there’s no food to prevent the acid from damaging your stomach lining.

Yet, research fails to find a strong link between coffee consumption and digestive issues. According to a clinical trial, while some people are extremely sensitive to coffee and regularly experience heartburn, vomiting, or indigestion, the frequency and severity of these symptoms remain constant regardless of whether they drink it on an empty stomach or with food.

Personally, I’ve had no major troubles with having coffee on an empty stomach. But I will say this — it somehow feels better to have it after a light meal. Since science is in the grey area for this one, I’d suggest listening to your body and adjusting accordingly.

I no longer drink coffee on an empty stomach and I feel much better. Another option I’ve tried is to have some tea instead of coffee which contains less caffeine and thereby has mild problems if any.

**Bottom line: **Drinking coffee on an empty stomach won’t kill or harm you! There’s no strong link to any digestive problems. Yet, listen to your body and proceed with caution.

The Hormone That Messes with Your Coffee Intake

Time for a quiz: Which hormone in the human body makes us feel alert when it’s present and sleepy when it’s not — just like caffeine?

It’s cortisol (a.k.a the stress hormone)! There’s a part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that controls your cortisol.

The SCN releases cortisol according to your circadian rhythm, a 24-hour cycle that’s slightly different for everyone. Early birds and night owls, for example, have circadian rhythms that are offset from each other by about 12 hours.

According to neuroscientist Steven L. Miller, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, drinking coffee when your SCN is already releasing plenty of cortisol limits its positive effects because you’re already “wired up.”

Why? Because caffeine also releases cortisol. And higher than normal levels of cortisol lead to more stress than you need thereby causing all sorts of problems in the long run.

In short, coffee + cortisol = extra stress which is bad. Remember the coffee jitters you get? Yes, that’s what this “extra stress” feels like.

So, by adjusting your schedule to drink your coffee when your cortisol levels are low, you can take full advantage of the beverage and avoid the side-effects.

Let’s take John Doe. John wakes up at 6:30 a.m every morning. His cortisol levels peak at:

  • 8 to 9 a.m.,

  • noon to 1 p.m., and

  • 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

You can adjust your numbers according to when you wake up. Now then, once you know when your cortisol levels peak, you can vary your intake accordingly.

For example, if your cortisol levels start rising the moment you wake up, then it’s not the best time to drink coffee. I wake up at 5:30 and don’t have my first cup of coffee before 10 am.

Similarly, drinking coffee around noon or 1 pm (if you wake up like John) can again lead to higher cortisol levels that you’ll need. So apparently, the best time to drink coffee is the 2–3 hour window (between 9 am and noon) to get in your caffeine intake for the day.

I know you may think there are other slots later in the day when cortisol levels dip. But not all cortisol dips are created equal! This brings me to my next point.

Consider Your Sleep Cycle

Caffeine half-life is about 5 hours for most people. After 5 hours, about half the caffeine you consumed will still remain in your bloodstream. It will then half again in the next 5 hours.

To avoid coffee from messing up with your sleep cycle, you should aim for a 10-hour gap between your last cup and your zzz time.

Going by that logic, if you go to bed by 10 pm then your last cup should be before 12 pm. So even though your cortisol levels dip in the afternoon, consuming coffee then can reduce the quality of your sleep.

For me, it’s been much safer to stick to the morning cortisol dip and keep at least an 8–10 hour window to let my body flush out the caffeine.

Final Thought

After quitting it for a long time, as I learn to make space for coffee in my routine, I had to be quite selective. I could not leave my consumption unchecked.

The above guidelines have helped me develop a healthy relationship with coffee without getting the adverse effects.

If you too want to make your coffee consumption optimal, drink it when your cortisol levels are low and keep your sleep schedule in mind. Everything else will take care of itself. I hope you find new levels of energy and productivity after putting these principles into practice.

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Written on March 23, 2021