Many people love their cup of joe – recent estimates reveal that people drink around 2.25 billion cups of coffee every day. But for a drink that a third of the world’s population enjoys, it can still raise a lot of questions, especially when it comes to when people should drink coffee to make the most of its benefits. In a recent study, medical researchers from the U.S. Army developed an online tool to suggest how much coffee a person should drink, as well as what time of day it should be drunk to boost alertness throughout the day.
The online tool, which they presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies and published in the journal Sleep, demonstrated how it can either reduce caffeine consumption by as much as 40 percent – while still maintaining the same level of alertness – or increase awareness by 40 percent. In particular, the research team explored the effects of caffeine on service members, since many of them are sleep-deprived. The National Sleep Foundation notes that over 40 percent of active-duty military members sleep less than five hours straight, a figure far lower than the seven-hour recommendation by the CDC.
Millions of people rely on coffee to perk them up and keep them going throughout the day. Coffee is the biggest dietary source of caffeine, the stimulant responsible for the drink’s energy-boosting effects. It acts on the central nervous system to increase energy, and multiple studies have shown that it aids in improving memory, sharpening focus and even boosting physical activity. Many people associate caffeine with coffee, but it’s also present in 60 other plants, including tea leaves, cacao pods and kola nuts.
For this study, Army researchers sought to improve current recommendations for caffeine. While it’s great for boosting memory, drinking too much of it can lead to side effects, which include:
“Our tool allows an individual (in our case our service members) to optimize the beneficial effects of caffeine, while minimizing its consumption,” explained Dr. Jaques Reifman, a research scientist for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the study’s senior author.
The online tool, which the team calls 2B-Alert Web 2.0, builds on data from earlier studies on sleep deprivation, including clinical trials for sleep loss. An earlier model was found to improve brain performance in individuals by 64 percent, as well as reduce caffeine consumption by 65 percent. The current tool provides a recommended dose of caffeine in terms of milligrams, based on self-reported data like desired peak-alertness periods, minimum desirable level of alertness and maximum tolerable daily coffee intake. It also predicts a person’s “average” alertness based on his sleep/wake and caffeine schedules, even if the person did not have a good night’s sleep.
“For example, if you take someone who’s been awake all night but needs to be as alert as possible between 9:00 and 17:00 and needs to consume as little caffeine as possible – when and how much caffeine should they consume?” added Reifman. “This is the kind of question 2B-Alert is meant to answer.”
For Dr. Nitun Verma, a sleep medicine physician who wasn’t part of the study, these findings not only benefit service members – given that alertness plays a role in many life-or-death situations that they face – but can also be applied outside the military.
“I think this tool would also be really helpful for people who are shift workers in fields where it’s important to stay alert, such as nurses, commercial truck drivers, and air traffic controllers,” explained Verma, who is also the spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
While the online tool’s algorithm can greatly boost a person’s alertness, he was quick to add that it can never replace proper sleep – which carries many short- and long-term health benefits.
“Caffeine doesn’t fix everything,” he said. “Even perfectly timed caffeine won’t remove sleep debt.”
You can freely access the 2B-Alert Web 2.0 tool online after completing a short registration.