When I was in college, in each September’s first meeting of my social organization, a few people would get up and make an earnest speech entitled, “Caffeine Is an Addictive, Psychoactive Drug” in which they tried to convince the new students to respect the power of caffeine by saving it for times when they really needed it. They were right: If you get too accustomed to caffeine, it quits working, and if you routinely consume too much caffeine you’ll get irritable when you’re on it (but won’t realize that you’re irritable, thus increasing the irritation to everyone around you) as well as experiencing withdrawal symptoms whenever you miss a dose.
Mindful of their admonitions, I got through a very demanding educational experience on one cup of coffee most days! If I felt drowsy on my way to an afternoon lecture, I’d get a caffeinated soda from the famous 35c pop machine. If I had to pull an all-nighter, I’d drink a cup of black tea after dinner. (Sodas and tea have less than half as much caffeine per serving as normal coffee. Note that Starbucks is not normal coffee, and beware!)
I kept up similarly moderate habits throughout my twenties. Then I became a mother. Nicholas was the kind of baby who wakes frequently in the night and sometimes stays awake screaming for an extended period. I went back to work only part-time, but I did have to get to work at a predictable time, and my work is the kind that requires intense focus on tiny details. Some breastfed babies react badly if their mothers drink coffee, but Nicholas didn’t. For a long time I stuck to tea at work (because I can drink it without milk in it, and also it has less caffeine), but I kept having days when I would decide to go out to lunch at a place with good coffee and free refills . . . and then my office moved to a building across the street from a mini-mart with affordable coffee, just before I was assigned a big proofreading task . . . and then Nicholas weaned and I started having migraines again, and with the freedom of being alone in my body with no worries of harming my baby, I started just drinking coffee whenever I felt like it. (Is caffeine a headache treatment or a headache trigger? It can be either. The National Headache Foundation summarizes the science. It was reassuring to find that on days when I stayed home sick and didn’t have any caffeine at all so that I could nap, I didn’t get a headache unless my illness was one that causes head pain–so my headaches weren’t caused by caffeine withdrawal. Here’s some information on caffeine and health in general.)
After Lydia was born, I had to come back to work full-time. She’s a somewhat better sleeper than Nicholas at the same age, but she did wake for nursing several times a night, and fitting in baby care around a full-time work schedule is stressful, so I was tired and tempted to slug down coffee constantly. However, I’ve discovered a simple system that limits me to 3 cups a day by spacing them 6 hours apart.
I drink one cup (10-ounce mug) of coffee at 7:00 a.m., one after lunch at about 1:00 p.m., and one after dinner at about 7:00 p.m. This system keeps me consistently alert enough but rarely jittery. If I need to be awake until 1:00 a.m. to finish all the stuff I’m doing at home, I can manage it, but I can get to sleep as early as 11:00 p.m. What I really like about the after-dinner coffee is that I stay awake while reading Lydia’s bedtime stories and then nursing her to sleep, so I’m able to get up afterward and finish the laundry or whatever. It’s a big improvement over the frantic “Please go to sleep before I do so I don’t run out of time!!!” feeling that I used to have while lying next to Nicholas struggling to keep my eyes open!
The other crucial component of my system is a hot drink without caffeine. I drink a cup of peppermint tea when I get to work every day, around 9:15 a.m. Usually I feel like I “need more coffee” at that point, but if I have some water I’ll feel more alert. Peppermint may serve a perking-up function, too. I’ve started buying peppermint tea by the case to save money and time.
The exact spacing, times of day, and amounts of coffee that work best for your body might be different. If you feel like you’re drinking too much coffee for your health, or you want to drink less so you can afford to drink only fair-trade organic coffee, try my plan and make adjustments until it suits you.
Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop for other life-improving tips!