It’s 4:00 p.m. You’re staring blankly at your computer screen trying to focus on work, but your eyelids feel heavy, and your mind is elsewhere. The only thing you can think about is the cup of coffee you’d like to use to pull yourself out of your afternoon slump.
The problem with relying on caffeine is it doesn't actually make you less tired. It just temporarily masks low-level sleepiness and keeps you awake by blocking your adenosine receptors. (Adenosine is an organic compound in your brain that causes feelings of sleepiness — more on this later.) And according to a recent study, while caffeine may have temporary effects that feel like energy, it won't improve performance that's been impaired by sleep loss.
Plus, caffeine doesn't come without its down sides. For some, just low doses cause jitteriness. But even if you think caffeine doesn't affect you negatively, since the "energy" from caffeine is only temporary and minimally helpful, you often have to keep drinking more and more — which will potentially lead to worse and worse side effects.
These are all reasons why you might want to boost your energy without caffeine. But most importantly, if you continue to rely on caffeine to keep you going, you'll be stuck in a vicious cycle of caffeine consumption and sleep loss.
We’ll explain how the two laws of sleep hold the key to having more energy — without using caffeine. By putting your focus on reducing your sleep debt and learning to follow your body’s circadian rhythm, you’ll be on the right path to more natural energy. And when you fall short or feel fatigued, there are simple things you can do to get more energy in a pinch. (Don’t worry, we’re not going to tell you to give up your morning cup of coffee.)
(Want to master the art of consuming caffeine? We’ve answered every question you could have about caffeine, sleep, and energy here.)
We understand most people don’t want to sleep more — they want more energy. But the two things are, for many, inextricably linked. And it all boils down to what we at Rise Science call the two laws of sleep, a two-process model of sleep regulation based on the interaction between sleep homeostasis (the fancy scientific term for getting the sleep your body needs) and circadian rhythm.
The two laws of sleep set the stage for the two foundational ways for you to have more energy: bringing down your sleep debt and managing your energy, not your time (working with your circadian rhythm, not against it).
When you’re hungry, is your first thought to trick your body into thinking you’ve eaten? No. We naturally seek out food, because we know that’s what fuels our bodies. So why do so many of us turn to caffeine when we want more energy — when we know the way our bodies replenish energy is through sleep?
If you feel like you don’t have enough hours in the day, cutting back on sleep may seem like the logical solution. But it’s important to remember that you don’t sleep for sleep’s sake. You sleep for energy. To feel your best and function well, you need to be in a state of sleep homeostasis.
Sleep homeostasis means you’re getting the sleep you need. Think of your body like a seesaw. It wants to be level. Your sleep need is on one side, and the amount of sleep you actually get is on the other side. If these two sides aren’t equal or level, you won’t have sleep homeostasis.
So, how do you get there? By lowering your sleep debt. Sleep debt is the running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed as compared to the number of hours of sleep your body needed over the past 14 days. It’s one of the most reliable predictors of daytime energy levels. Carrying a high sleep debt can have adverse effects on your emotions, cognition, and physiology (which is to say, everything that matters to you). Keeping sleep debt low (ideally below five hours) can help you feel and perform at your best.
We hear a lot about time management when it comes to finding a way to fulfill all of our obligations in life and work. But we’re here to tell you that the key to feeling and functioning your best is to really be managing your energy throughout the day.
It’s actually natural to experience peaks and dips of energy throughout your day — thanks to your circadian rhythm. As we’ll explain, aligning your activities with those biological ebbs and flows is the other way to make the most of your natural energy throughout the day.
Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that tells your body when to be active and inactive during a roughly 24-hour period. In the RISE app, we call it your energy schedule because it predicts the natural peaks and dips in energy you experience each day.
Here’s the basic pattern: After you get through a natural period of grogginess upon waking, you’ll feel more energetic during your morning peak, which is followed by a mid-day dip in energy. You’ll get a second wind during your evening peak before increasing sleep pressure (which builds up during the day to make you tired at bedtime) ushers in a wind-down period. This is followed by your Melatonin Window, which is the time your brain produces the highest levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin — making it the ideal time for you to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.
It’s possible you’ve been interpreting these natural energy dips as something wrong with you or a lack of energy you shouldn’t be experiencing, when really it’s just biology. So if you wake up in the morning and don’t immediately feel great, you lack energy in the afternoon, or you feel your body winding down in the evening, there’s nothing wrong with you, and you aren’t lazy. Rather than trying to fight these dips in energy, learn how to ride them out or, even better, make the most of them by working with your circadian rhythm and structuring your day around them.
Just knowing that your afternoon dip is completely normal — and temporary! — can feel liberating. Even better news? Since it’s a predictable part of your circadian rhythm, you can plan around it.
Take a look at the items on your to-do list. Which tasks require more energy, and which ones are less demanding? By stacking your morning peak with tasks that require A-game focus and energy and scheduling less strenuous or demanding activities during your afternoon dip, you might find yourself reaching for that caffeinated pick-me-up less often.
The RISE app’s energy screen shows you the timing of your energy peaks and dips, which can make it easier to plan your day according to your energy levels. For example, if the app says your morning peak will start around 10:30, you can use that time to do your most challenging work/tackle your most important activities, like writing a detailed report or proposal, or holding an important meeting. And then, you can use your mid-day dip to get some exercise, take a nap, or complete mundane tasks that don’t require you to function at 100% capacity. And following your personalized energy schedule for sleep — sticking to the ideal windows of time the RISE app gives you for waking, winding down, and going to bed — will yield the best sleep and next-day energy outcomes.
Plus, because of the interplay between the two laws of sleep, lowering your sleep debt and maintaining sleep homeostasis — or something close to it — will make your afternoon dip feel more like a manageable lull and less like a complete bottoming out. And you might just be able to get through it without an extra shot of espresso.
If you really want to increase energy, lowering your sleep debt and managing your energy according to your circadian rhythm are your best bets. But let’s run through a quick list of other non-caffeinated ideas that can give you a temporary, less powerful boost:
We all depend on food for energy, and nutritional content counts. A whole foods diet — whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein, fruits, and veggies, like leafy greens — is a good place to start. But it’s especially important to pay attention to how the foods we eat affect blood sugar levels. Elevated glucose levels and glucose swings (big spikes and dips) can cause fatigue and decreased energy, and carbohydrates are usually to blame.
Limiting your carb intake can be helpful in maintaining steady glucose and insulin levels, as can changing up the kinds of carbohydrates you’re eating. Think about choosing slow-digesting carbs (non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, etc.) over fast digesting carbs (high-sugar foods, refined grains like white bread, and many processed foods containing wheat or corn).
Making healthy food choices can be more difficult when you’re not getting sufficient sleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation causes a disruption in the normal levels of the hunger-related hormones leptin and ghrelin, which can lead to weight gain. Insufficient sleep can also have a negative impact on the way your body metabolizes food.
Even though we don’t recommend relying on caffeine as an energy source, we’re not here to take away your cup of joe. In fact, many studies show that coffee has health benefits — including decreased risk for stroke, diabetes, heart failure, and some cancers. But it’s the timing of caffeine consumption that determines whether it’s doing more harm or good for your energy levels.
A morning cup of coffee can give you a boost of energy to help kickstart your day, but that same cup of coffee consumed in the late afternoon or evening can make it harder to fall or stay asleep. That means more sleep debt and less daytime energy. So, yes, timing is everything.
To understand how caffeine works, let’s take a look inside the brain of a person who’s having a hard time waking up in the morning. The desire to stay in bed is called sleep inertia, and it's a completely normal part of the body’s transition out of sleep. To get technical about it, sleep inertia is caused by adenosine — to recap, this is the organic compound that causes feelings of sleepiness.
Adenosine builds up in your brain during the day and gets flushed out during sleep. However, the chemical residue doesn’t just magically disappear as soon as you wake up — which is what makes the 60 to 90 minutes it takes for the adenosine to dissipate an ideal time to have a cup of coffee. Why? Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in your brain, so drinking a cup of espresso or green tea in the morning can help you perk up and feel more awake.
Blocking adenosine receptors at night, on the other hand, is the last thing you want. Those feelings of sleepiness are part of your body’s circadian signaling. And consuming caffeine too late in the day can interrupt those signals, causing you to miss the window of time at night where you're most likely to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night.
Because caffeine stays in your system for more than 12 hours, it’s important to time your coffee break so that it doesn’t disrupt your sleep. The RISE app can tell you the best time to cut off your caffeine intake based on your unique biology. From the app’s energy screen, click the “Habits” tab to add a “Limit Caffeine” reminder to your energy schedule.
Getting enough sleep is the best way to ensure you’ll have the energy you need for your day. And when you work with (instead of fight against) the daily energy peaks and dips of your circadian rhythm, having an extra cup of coffee won’t seem so tempting or necessary. Keeping your sleep debt low and healthy eating high on your list of priorities can help you make the most of your daily energy.
Now, instead of relying on over-caffeinated energy drinks or staying up into the wee hours scouring the dark corners of the internet to buy sketchy energy pills, you can simply climb into bed, turn out the lights, and sleep your way to more energy. And you can use the RISE app to plan your sleep schedule and your daily activities so that they line up with your body’s circadian rhythm.
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