Let’s face it — we’re all tired. Between the pandemic that never ends and the struggle of severe work-life imbalance, getting up in the morning can be a huge challenge. But you’ve got to keep swimming, so you do the only thing you’ve always done: You reach for that sweet, sweet nectar called caffeine. After all, if you snooze you lose, right?
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Wrong. While one cup (or three) of black coffee a day can be good for brain and liver health, relying on caffeine all day, every day — especially carbonated beverages like soda — can actually be getting in the way of much healthier solutions.
“When people are reaching for caffeine as a pick-me-up to get through the day, the underlying cause of that fatigue needs to be addressed,” says osteopathic physician Sandra Darling, DO.
It’s normal to struggle a little the day after a rough night’s sleep. But if you’re experiencing chronic fatigue every day, reaching for caffeine without making any other lifestyle changes is like slapping a bandage on a bullet wound.
“When you’re skimping on sleep and burning the candle at both ends, it can feel like you’re running yourself into the ground,” says Dr. Darling. “You compensate with caffeine, sugar and processed snacks to get a burst of energy. You’re probably feeling wired but tired. Essentially, you’re getting a false sense of energy from the caffeine.”
How to stay awake without coffee or caffeine
Quitting caffeine is hard, especially if you’ve been relying on it for months (or even years). But there are a number of things you can do to actually address the fatigue you’re trying to fight off without relying on caffeine to get you by. Here’s how you can stay awake without it.
1. Grab a glass of water
Fulfill that thirst before you do anything else. You should be drinking water all day, but your body is typically dehydrated when you wake up, so this is something you should do first thing in the morning.
“You probably haven’t had any fluids for the last eight hours, so the best thing you can do is drink a glass of water first thing in the morning,” advises Dr. Darling. “That can actually help you feel more awake.”
2. You should exercise
You’re probably thinking, How can I think about working out if I can barely get out of bed? But you don’t need to go hard on the treadmill to benefit from a little exercise in the morning. Do five jumping jacks, go for a walk around the block, jump on the elliptical for 15 minutes or do a couple of squats. When you get your body moving, you get that blood flowing, and waking up your muscles with even a small stretch will help you feel more awake.
“I’m a big advocate of doing something, even if it’s just for five minutes,” says Dr. Darling. “Most people can’t fit in a 30- to 60-minute workout in the morning, especially if they’re tired and want to get as much sleep as possible. But doing even the smallest amount of activity in the morning is energizing and can help you to wake up.”
This goes for midday workouts, too. Go for a short walk, outdoors if possible, to fight off afternoon fatigue.
If you’re looking to improve your energy for the long haul, Dr. Darling suggests doing at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Regular exercise can lead to big improvements in your overall health, too.
3. Pile on the nutrients
“Instead of consuming caffeine and refined sugar, which give you a brief moment of energy followed by a crash later, a healthier approach is to eat some natural sources of sugar like fresh fruit,” says Dr. Darling. This means you can skip those vanilla lattes and snag an apple, some blueberries or maybe even a banana for a quick pick-me-up.
And don’t forget about the most important meal of the day: When you have breakfast, include some protein and fiber-rich foods for an added boost of energy.
4. Improve your sleeping habits
You might think this is a bit too on the nose, but if you’re feeling tired, chances are there’s something off about the way you’re sleeping.
You might have insomnia if it typically takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, or if you’re awake in the middle of the night for more than 30 minutes at a time a couple of nights a week (especially if it’s been happening for more than three months). In this case, you should be evaluated by a healthcare provider, but there are other things you can do, too, to improve your sleeping behavior:
- Avoid alcohol and food two hours before bed.
- Sleep in a cool, dark room.
- Avoid electronic screens one hour before bed.
- Create a routine.
This last one is important: On average, you should get seven to nine hours of sleep each night, so fine-tuning a sleep-wake schedule can help you create a space so you can pull that off. If you go to bed each night and wake up around the same time each day, your body will start depending on that schedule, which can improve insomnia.
“If you’re constantly feeling tired, sleep has to be a priority,” Dr. Darling stresses.
5. Power nap when necessary
This may feel like cheating the system, but it works. If you can power nap for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, you can jumpstart your body’s battery to get you through the rest of the day. Make sure you avoid naps that are longer than 30 minutes and avoid sleeping after 3 p.m., which will throw off that sleep-wake schedule you’re working on.
6. Revisit your alarm settings
Waking up to the sound of a nuclear alarm might feel like a quick solution to jumping out of bed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but no one likes feeling jarred awake. Some alarm clocks and smartphone settings wake you up gradually, and you can even look into getting LED lights that mimic a sunrise for a more peaceful approach to getting out of bed.
“It’s a really gentle way to wake up and a much better way to start your day than a blaring alarm at 6 a.m.,” says Dr. Darling.
7. Manage your stress
Even low-grade stress for days on end can leave you feeling exhausted. Try managing your stress levels by turning to yoga, regular exercise, massages or other self-care routines to break up the slog that’s holding you back. Activities that boost your mood are important, especially because depression can sometimes be mistaken for fatigue. Plus, the more you do the things you love, the more driven you’ll feel.
“Self-care practices make a big difference in our energy and vitality,” notes Dr. Darling. “When we don’t practice self-care, fatigue and chronic stress will slowly catch up with us.”
8. Meditation can improve mindfulness
Speaking of managing your stress, meditation is one specific way to clear your brain so you’re more aware and can think more clearly.
“The goal of meditation is to be in a state of wakefulness,” says Dr. Darling. “Your brain is very alert but also relaxed, allowing you to feel more present in the moment.”
9. Get some sun
Your body has a 24-hour internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. This controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle, including when your brain releases certain hormones and how organs operate at different times. By getting some fresh air and walking in the sun, or even sitting outside for a few minutes each day, you can improve your circadian rhythm, which also helps you get better sleep.
What if you experience caffeine withdrawal?
You definitely don’t have to cut caffeine out cold turkey. You could start by weaning yourself off slowly or cutting your caffeine intake in half. But, if you do decide to go all-in on cutting caffeine, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal like headaches, irritability or jitteriness.
“Those symptoms will usually resolve within a few days after stopping caffeine,” says Dr. Darling.
Make sure you stay hydrated and take ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) for headaches. As you pick up healthier behaviors and those symptoms stop, you’ll start getting a real sense of how your body operates without caffeine — and you may be surprised by how well you feel without it.
“We do the same things every day. We get into our routines and habits and we often don’t realize how these behaviors are affecting us,” says Dr. Darling. “It’s worthwhile to take a look at what your life could be like without relying on caffeine. The key to success is creating healthy routines that naturally give us energy.”