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Staying Alert Without Caffeine

wangonya profile image Kinyanjui Wangonya Originally published at wangonya.com ・4 min read

After my first post on "Caring for your Health as a Developer", I decided to do a bit of research on caffeine, specifically in coffee. I did learn quite a bit but what I found most interesting was that after oil, coffee is the 2nd most traded commodity in the world 🤯. People are really drinking a lot of coffee (2.25 billion cups of coffee on a daily basis). But while many may love and enjoy the momentary energy boost provided by caffeinated drinks, is it really the best way to go in the long term?

How caffeine keeps us awake

In our bodies, we have a chemical known as Adenosine. After a good night sleep, levels of this chemical are low in the body, and that's why many feel more productive in the morning than later in the day. While awake, levels of adenosine rise each hour, making us feel more and more tired as the day goes by. Our brains have adenosine receptors, and the more adenosine molecules attach to the receptors, the more tired we feel. Now caffeine has a very similar structure to adenosine and is, therefore, able to attach to these receptors, therefore tricking the brain into thinking that it is not tired. This leads to it making more adenosine receptors, which means that you might need more coffee with time to feel as alert.

I don't know much about biology but this sure looks like it can cause problems in the long term. It's really just a hack. Definitely not how things should work.

Healthier ways to stay alert

1. Have a good night sleep.

Here are some great reads on the topic:

I also made a note on it in my previous post 🙂

2. Take a power nap

I know I've already talked about sleep, but this is a bit different. I remember back when I was at high school, I had a system when doing taking my exam papers: Skip the hard questions and answer what you can, take a nap, wake up and try the hard questions. I found this to be surprisingly effective. Sometimes I could wake up and the answers would just flow from my mind. I didn't know it, but I was taking advantage of what is known as a "power nap". How to do it? Just find a quiet place and take a few minutes nap during the day (6-15 minutes should do it).

According to this Harvard study:

In 2008, British researchers reported results of a study that compared getting more nighttime sleep, taking a nap, and using caffeine as ways to cope with the afternoon hump. The nap was the most effective.

If you've never, I'd recommend you try it. Just make sure to keep it short. Sleep too much and you'll wake up with "sleep inertia", leaving you feeling even less ready to work.

3. Take a good break

This just means that you should take your mind off things for a while and relax. I found this post interesting:

One of the reasons I liked that post is because it lists "power nap" and "taking a walk" as "How NOT to take a break". This doesn't mean that these are not ways you can use to take a break. It's just a challenge to get more creative with your breaks and find what works for you - not just what is commonly done.

I'll also quote from my previous post:

Sometimes our minds work best when we step away from it all and take a break. Again, taking walks work great! I took a course on Coursera some time back called "Learning How to Learn" that explains the science behind how this works. You can check it out.

4. Try out a healthier diet

Sometimes a clogged system resulting from unhealthy diet choices does more than anything else to make us feel groggy and tired. Always favor unprocessed foods high in fiber to keep you energized throughout the day. This study found that high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich breakfasts were "associated with the highest post-breakfast alertness ratings and with the greatest cumulative amount of alertness during the period between breakfast and lunch." This alertness is best and lasts longer as opposed to the momentary high given by sugary foods and caffeine.

5. Find out what works for you

At the end of the day, we are all different and what works for me might not work for you. There is no silver bullet for this and although it might take a while, finding out what works for you is always the best way to go. Feel free to share what non-caffeine ways you use to stay alert at work or just generally.

Discussion

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Nick Shoup

I don't know if I can give up coffee. Actually, I just don't want to. I enjoy it too much. However, I've experienced the burnout from not enough rest, and drinking to much coffee and caffeinated beverages. My new rule is to not drink coffee or caffeine after 1:00 in the afternoon. Other than that, if I can get a quick nap, I do that too.

I think most people underestimate the influence that getting quality rest has on the rest of there life. When I was a bit younger, I know I sure did.

Thanks for the post.

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vier31 profile image
Jan Schröder

I gave up caffeine completely, because I couldn't handle it. My brain just does not respond well to substances.

After shopping around a bit, I found that there are some decent caffeine free blends out there that deliver the taste, that I too really enjoy. Maybe it's something worth considering. ☕

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Kinyanjui Wangonya Author

Nice. Any particular brands you would suggest? I doubt if I'll find them in my part of the world but I'm willing to look around 😅

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vier31 profile image
Jan Schröder

This is my weapon of choice atm. It's a blend of Central and South American beans from various places.

I generally prefer arabica coffee that is longer, but not dark roasted.

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Kinyanjui Wangonya Author

Thanks! I'll see what I can find

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Kinyanjui Wangonya Author

Having a time limit is an excellent idea!

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James Nutter

sips coffee I will consider this.

I've drastically reduced my caffeine intake this year by just going to bed earlier. Getting a legit night's sleep is probably the best favor you can do for yourself! Good tips my friend.

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Kinyanjui Wangonya Author

I agree. Sleep is underrated. I've noticed that on days that I'm under pressure to deliver something before a deadline, the work I do very late at night is so full of silly mistakes that I don't even realize while I do the work. I end up wishing later that I had slept and woken up early to do the work when fresh. A good rest really does refresh the mind 👍🏾

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vier31 profile image
Jan Schröder

+1 I had to get past mid-30 to learn the lesson. If given the choice to work late or go to bed and get up early, the latter always yields better results. For me at least.

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James Hickey

Thanks for this article! Something I def. struggle with (drinking massive amounts of coffee to keep me going).

I find talking a nice walk out into the woods (in my back yard) is the best thing.

@helenanders26 - you need to read this one 😋

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Kinyanjui Wangonya Author

Wow, I wish I had your kind of back yard. I'd probably have my desk out there 😅

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Trevor Nemanic

Here's what works for when I need a caffine-free pick-me-up:

  1. Stretch large muscle groups / go for a 2 minute walk.
  2. Do strenuous exercise. At least 1 hour every 2-3 days. Somehow, exercising leads to more mental energy.
  3. Practice mindfulness/meditation. 2 minutes of mindfullness works wonders for the rest of the day
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desi profile image
Desi

Water! Water is amazing, and not to be That Person, but eating a keto diet has improved my energy levels SO much.

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Jaaki

haha, yes, I know some people who really don't drink water.

I mean, if we are 80% water, then I'm gonna try my best to be 100% human :D

Have you tried some intermittent fasting?

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Desi

yeah! my eating window is basically noon-7... except days like today where I wake up hungry and no amount of water helps, haha.

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Jaaki

Everyday? or how often do you fast?

I fast only once a week, so I guess the novelty factor keeps me going as I usually eat quite a bit due to sport.

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desi profile image
Desi

I fast every week day, and try to fast on weekends, but usually don't make it until noon. I basically eat one large-ish meal a day, around 5pm, and that keeps me going. I'm starting to train for a half-marathon and I'm curious what the effect on my appetite and energy will be from there.

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Jaaki

Yes, that would be interesting to know.
Good luck with that marathon, "one step at a time" :D

Maybe I should try fast more often to feel the difference, although I'm into cross country mountain biking, which basically means one and a half hour of flat out racing. So, I'm not really that dependant on fat burn for energy.

If that's your first marathon, then I guess we'll see a post about "Coder does Marathon!" soon.

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vier31 profile image
Jan Schröder

Yes, absolutely. After being caffeine free for some months now, I notice

  • better sleep,
  • no headaches in the morning,
  • faster awake in the morning,
  • less tired in the afternoon

I can only recommend it.

Like you said, coffee doesn't really wake you up, it just keeps you from falling asleep.

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Jaaki

This is an interesting topic and something I've been experimenting with for a while.

Ultimately I think a holistic approach is best, but here are some of my realisations.

A good night's sleep is magic, when you wake up, get up, don't sleep in.

Good breakfast, good lunch, good dinner, remember that it's a marathon and you're eating for tomorrow.

Stay away from junk food. Cutting back on sugar was a big thing for me. I use to put a lot more sugar in my coffee, now it's about a quarter of a teaspoon and I'm drinking less coffee.
Two days ago I didn't have coffee at all and my energy levels stayed constant. Now I'm considering going without coffee. Both my espresso machines have been going for more than 12 years and it's about time they retire :D

Cutting back on sugar caused my energy levels to stay stable throughout the day. I didn't have that energy dip at lunch time due to sugar depletion, so the idea of a power nap has actually become a disadvantage.
If get sleep inertia, it takes me a long time to feel awake.

Better option for most days is to get some exercise.
This could be in the form of some simple stretching or a walk, short jog, whatever. The idea here is to get the blood flowing because sitting at a desk is really no good for circulation.

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Daragh Byrne

I’m a huge fan of the strategic 20 minute nap. I also meditate and do mindfulness practices. Yoga and exercise really help too.

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mlaj

I take amphetamines instead of coffee in the morning. Works great!