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Maybe your coffee maker is set to go off every morning at 7am so you can roll out of bed and pour yourself a cup, or maybe you’re the kind of person who has ready-made cold brew waiting for you in your fridge at all times. Either way, if you rely on coffee to get you from bleary-eyed and barely functioning to sharp and ready to take on the world, we can’t blame you.
But what if we told you that you’ll probably get more bang for your buck, from an energy perspective, if you wait an hour to drink coffee instead of reaching for it first thing in the morning? If this sounds completely horrible to you, hear us out – there’s a solid reason we’re recommending this. Here’s what you need to know.
We need to talk about cortisol
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone. It tends to get a bad rap – studies have shown that it contributes to abdominal fat – and many of us have an excess of it due to too much stress in our lives. But it does serve an important function in the body: In the morning, for example, it naturally spikes, along with adrenaline, to give us energy and help us focus. So supplementing that extra cortisol with a hit of caffeine is kind of a waste, since you’re already getting a natural energy spike – and waiting for your cortisol levels to die down before consuming caffeine lets each power source shine individually. So rather than getting one big jolt, you’ll get a prolonged period of calmer energy.
And on that note, adding caffeine into the mix when your body is already high on cortisol could cause a jittery feeling for anyone even slightly sensitive to coffee. “There is some science behind isolating caffeine and peak cortisol so they don’t go head to head and have negative compounded effects in the body [like the jitters],” explains Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, registered dietitian and author of The Better Period Food Solution. “You basically want the caffeine in the coffee to shine as a solo artist and not be influenced by the strong effects of cortisol.”
She explains that thanks to cortisol, your alertness and focus tends to peak 30-45 minutes after you wake up. “So in order to experience the true caffeine buzz, you may want to wait a beat before sipping your coffee, which will allow cortisol to mellow out,” she said.
However, if you’re looking for a huge kick of caffeine and don’t tend to get jittery from coffee, don’t worry about holding off. Dr. Steven Gundry, a cardiothoracic surgeon at the International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine, says combining caffeine with a natural morning energy spike can be a great way to take on a tough task, like an early morning workout.
“Cortisol generally starts to rise around 4am, as does epinephrine (adrenaline), to get you ready for the day. Both cause blood sugar (glucose) to rise so you have plenty of available fuel,” he explained. “The caffeine in coffee also increases glucose, so if you want to get up and going, especially for a workout or just walking the dog, have that cup of coffee.”
That being said, this effect will be more like a short-lived energy jolt, and it might not last throughout the morning.
There could be a psychological advantage to waiting to sip your morning brew, too. “Anticipation brought on by delay can heighten your senses and satisfaction with any substance, including caffeine,” explains Peter Douglas, licensed clinical social worker and founder of Humantold. “Also, once your morning cup of joe becomes a part of your routine, it’s predictable. Consistency is an agent of dullness, and you’ll create novelty by delaying your first cup.”
Alison Stone, LCSW and a holistic psychotherapist based in New York, adds that it also might be worth it to experiment with delaying your coffee until you can actually savor and enjoy it, not when you’re doing a million things and running out the door. “If your mornings are chaotic and you find yourself gulping down coffee out of habit, it might be worth a try to experiment with delaying that cup until you have two to three minutes to actually enjoy it,” she said.
How to time your breakfast
If you’re someone who tends to get jittery from your morning cup of coffee, you may want to take Lockwood’s advice over Gundry’s advice, as piling caffeine on top of a natural cortisol and adrenaline spike probably isn’t a great idea for you.
Then there’s the timing of eating breakfast: If you’re prone to the caffeine jitters, you should probably sip your morning coffee with your food. “In order to get a calm energy, I would definitely recommend having it alongside breakfast so you aren’t pouring caffeine into your system without a protective layer of food to blunt it’s rapid absorption,” Lockwood advised. “Be sure to drink a nice tall glass of water, too.”
She adds that reactions to caffeine vary from person to person. So if you’re not someone who gets jittery from caffeine, try experimenting with different breakfast times.
“Make this a morning experiment and assess your energy levels after one day of drinking coffee before breakfast and the other day after breakfast,” Lockwood suggests. “Caffeine is an extremely individualized experience, so it’s important to tune into your own body and make judgment calls based on that.”
When it comes to caffeine, you do you. If you want an extra boost of energy for a hard workout, combining it with your cortisol and adrenaline spike might be a good idea – but if you want sustained energy throughout the morning, try letting your natural cortisol spike and caffeine boost shine individually.
First Thing is a weekly series on HuffPost UK Life giving you tips and advice on how to enjoy your mornings. Whether you’re an early bird or night owl, starting your day off right will make for a happier and healthier day. We’ll be sharing exercise advice, nutrition guidance, as well as ideas on forming new habits. (And no, the answer to a productive morning isn’t just setting an alarm for 5am!)