For most folks, sleep and coffee don’t exactly go hand in hand. And it makes sense, considering coffee is loaded with caffeine,—about 96 milligrams per eight-ounce cup—a potent stimulant.

If you’re a proud coffee drinker, you’re probably downing a few cups early in the day, and still manage to feel plenty tired come bedtime. Still, caffeine can be impacting your quality of sleep, even if the signs are subtle, says Michael Breus, PhD (aka “The Sleep Doctor”), a leading sleep specialist and clinical psychologist. A couple of tweaks to your daily coffee routine could have you feeling better rested in the mornings.

So, what’s a sleep doctor’s go-to coffee order, you may be wondering? Well, according to Dr. Breus, the most viable way to drink coffee—and minimize its impact on sleep—is by swapping some of it for decaf. “By adding decaf coffee, you are lowering the caffeine content,” Dr. Breus says.

Ahead, Dr. Breus shares his coffee routine and what he recommends for better sleep, while still getting your morning fix.

Benefits of drinking decaf coffee for better sleep

Caffeine impacts the body in many ways. One of the most significant interactions occurs between caffeine and adenosine, a key neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. Essentially, caffeine blocks adenosine, which gives the body a stimulating effect and wakefulness feeling, which can disrupt sleep cycles in the long run. More on this below.

For optimal sleep, Dr. Breus says “caffeine fading” is the goal; this is the process of reducing caffeine intake gradually over time until no caffeine (or very limited amounts) are consumed by the end to help benefit sleep or reduce caffeine dependence. But why cut out caffeine in the first place? Research shows that caffeine abstinence can help increase sleep duration and sleep quality. The same study also indicates that folks who consume decaf coffee may also have less difficulty falling asleep.

Giving up caffeine cold turkey isn’t yhr easiest things to do. In fact, caffeine withdrawal can cause headache, fatigue, or even flu-like symptoms. This is why Dr. Breus recommends adding decaf coffee in small increments to your regular order to help promote better sleep in the long run. “Decaffeinated coffee helps begin the process of caffeine fading, to hopefully get you completely off caffeine,” Dr. Breus says. (Keep in mind that even decaf coffee contains trace amounts of caffeine; about 2.37 milligrams per eight-ounce cup.)

Fortunately for coffee lovers, this means they can have their cake (coffee) and eat it too—just decaf. From a sleep expert’s perspective, as little caffeine intake as possible is ultimately the best way to ensure the substance won’t interfere with your sleep, which is where decaf coffee comes into play. Plus, decaf coffee has anti-inflammatory benefits and may help temper those urgent coffee poops.

How much decaf coffee should you drink for better sleep?

Although no caffeine is ultimately best for sleep, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good ol’ cup of joe ever again. In fact, regular coffee has a few benefits of its own, including tons of antioxidants, soluble fiber for gut health, and may even help lower the risk of heart disease.

But when it comes to sleep, a blend of decaf and regular caffeinated coffee is more than enough to help kickstart the caffeine fading process. “Substitute half a cup [of caffeinated coffee with decaf coffee] for your last cup of the day. Do this for three to five days, and then substitute the entire cup. Do this until you’re drinking decaf only,” Dr. Breus says. To emphasize, the tapering process should be over the course of three to five days, depending on how much caffeine you’re regularly drinking; the more caffeine you drink, the longer the tapering process should be to avoid experiencing caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Below we’re sharing a caffeine fading schedule example for someone who drinks a baseline of one cup of regular coffee a day. However, a caffeine fading schedule should be modified to reflect the amount of coffee (or caffeine) that reflects your baseline. For example, if you currently drink two cups of coffee a day, your “Day 1” might be 1 cup (of regular coffee) + 1 cup (1/2 caffeinated + 1/2 decaf), and so forth.

Caffeine fading schedule example:

  • Days 1-2: 1 cup (1/2 caffeinated + 1/2 decaf)
  • Days 3-4: 1 cup (1/4 caffeinated + 3/4 decaf)
  • Day 5 or 6: 1 cup (fully decaf)

So, can you still drink regular coffee?

Dr. Breus says he will frequently sneak in a bit of regular coffee in his routine depending on the occasion. “Most days, I’ll have about a half cup before I work out, about 90 minutes after I wake up,” he says. In fact, studies show that caffeine can potentially help improve athletic performance, particularly for men.

How does caffeine impact sleep?

To reiterate, caffeine impacts the neurotransmitter adenosine that can disrupt sleep. “Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in promoting sleep and suppressing arousal. Caffeine acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist,” Sarah Robbins, MD, FRCPC, a gastroenterologist, gut health expert, and the founder of Well Sunday, previously shared with Well+Good.

In layperson’s terms, this means that caffeine binds to adenosine receptors without activating them, effectively blocking adenosine from attaching to these receptors. This results in “increased neuronal activity and reduced feelings of tiredness,” Dr. Robbins previously shared.

In a recent article, Dr. Breus and sleep health writer Rebecca Levi explored the link between caffeine and insomnia. In the piece, the sleep health experts explain that “adenosine accumulates in the bloodstream when you’re awake, and then your body clears it away when you sleep. A buildup of adenosine can cause sleepiness, which is why you tend to get progressively more tired the longer you’ve been awake.”

A buildup of adenosine is a healthy—and welcome—occurrence of sleep-wake cycles. However, caffeine can impact this normal function by blocking adenosine receptors in the nervous system. “This can keep the brain and body from recognizing the need for sleep,” Dr. Breus and Levi explain in the post. This, in turn, can impact the quality of sleep and potentially lead to insomnia even hours after consuming coffee.

For context, research shows that the half-life—the amount of time it takes for a substance to reduce by half in the body—of caffeine can range between 1.5 to 9.5 hours.

Other sleep-friendly caffeinated drinks

Although decaf coffee is one of the best ways to embark on your caffeine fading journey, there are other sleep-friendly drinks that can help along the way. For example, Dr. Breus says matcha is a great alternative to regular coffee. “It has less caffeine and L-theanine,” he explains. In fact, Dr. Breus previously deemed green tea—especially matcha—the number one drink to sip during the day for a better night’s rest. “L-theanine elevates levels of GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are known as neurotransmitters. Increasing levels of these calming brain chemicals boosts relaxation and can help with sleep,” he says.

An herbalist shares a few herbal remedies for better sleep:


Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.


    1. Evatt, Daniel P et al. “A brief manualized treatment for problematic caffeine use: A randomized control trial.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology vol. 84,2 (2016): 113-21. doi:10.1037/ccp0000064

 


    1. Sin, Celia W M et al. “Systematic review on the effectiveness of caffeine abstinence on the quality of sleep.” Journal of clinical nursing vol. 18,1 (2009): 13-21. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2702.2008.02375.x

 


    1. Mielgo-Ayuso, Juan et al. “Effect of Caffeine Supplementation on Sports Performance Based on Differences Between Sexes: A Systematic Review.” Nutrients vol. 11,10 2313. 30 Sep. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11102313

 


    1. Antonio, Jose et al. “Common questions and misconceptions about caffeine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show?.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition vol. 21,1 (2024): 2323919. doi:10.1080/15502783.2024.2323919

 


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