Coffee makes us feel more awake in part because of the way that it interacts with adenosine—a molecule that inhibits alertness and causes us to feel sleepy. As the day goes on, adenosine begins to build up in the brain, then it clears out once we sleep. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain1, but it doesn’t actually clear the molecule. This is important to remember: It’s why coffee doesn’t really “get rid” of your tiredness if you’re underslept—it just staves it off until later.
Now, for how delaying caffeine comes in: When you wake up in the morning, even though you may feel sleepy, your adenosine levels should actually be at their lowest. For this reason, you’re better off waiting 1.5 to 2 hours to give your body time to wake itself up naturally (you can help it out by hydrating, getting some sun, and moving around to get your morning cortisol flowing) and allowing adenosine to build a bit.
Then, not only will your first cup of coffee actually produce a more noticeable feeling of alertness (due to the adenosine buildup), but it could also help reinforce your natural sleep-wake cycles. If you start drinking caffeine later in the morning, you’ll be less likely to feel an energy dip around lunch. This can help you avoid drinking caffeine too close to bedtime.
“By delaying your caffeine to 90-120 minutes after waking, you set up your system so you get that morning cortisol peak—and then when you ingest your caffeine, not only will you be craving it just a little bit, but you will be drinking that caffeine on an already existing backdrop of increased alertness,” Huberman explains. However, he notes that it’s totally fine to drink coffee before this minute marker—you might just want to factor in an afternoon nap.
Avoiding caffeine later in the day could also improve your sleep quality. By helping you clear out even more adenosine during rest, it’ll lead to a positive feedback loop of awesome energy and stamina.
It all sounds great, right? I sure thought so, and after finishing up the episode, I vowed to try it out the next morning.