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Staying Alert Without Caffeine

2019-03-03 productivity

After my first post on "Caring for your Health as a Developer", I decided to do a bit of research on caffeine, specifically in coffee. I did learn quite a bit but what I found most interesting was that after oil, coffee is the 2nd most traded commodity in the world 🤯. People are really drinking a lot of coffee (2.25 billion cups of coffee on a daily basis). But while many may love and enjoy the momentary energy boost provided by caffeinated drinks, is it really the best way to go in the long term?

How caffeine keeps us awake

In our bodies, we have a chemical known as Adenosine. After a good night sleep, levels of this chemical are low in the body, and that's why many feel more productive in the morning than later in the day. While awake, levels of adenosine rise each hour, making us feel more and more tired as the day goes by. Our brains have adenosine receptors, and the more adenosine molecules attach to the receptors, the more tired we feel. Now caffeine has a very similar structure to adenosine and is, therefore, able to attach to these receptors, therefore tricking the brain into thinking that it is not tired. This leads to it making more adenosine receptors, which means that you might need more coffee with time to feel as alert.

I don't know much about biology but this sure looks like it can cause problems in the long term. It's really just a hack. Definitely not how things should work.

Healthier ways to stay alert

1. Have a good night sleep.

Here are some great reads on the topic:

Sleep More, Code More

Less Blue Light, Better Sleep

Let's talk about sleep.

I also made a note on it in my previous post 🙂

Caring for your Health as a Developer

2. Take a power nap

I know I've already talked about sleep, but this is a bit different. I remember back when I was at high school, I had a system when doing taking my exam papers: Skip the hard questions and answer what you can, take a nap, wake up and try the hard questions. I found this to be surprisingly effective. Sometimes I could wake up and the answers would just flow from my mind. I didn't know it, but I was taking advantage of what is known as a "power nap". How to do it? Just find a quiet place and take a few minutes nap during the day (6-15 minutes should do it).

According to this Harvard study:

In 2008, British researchers reported results of a study that compared getting more nighttime sleep, taking a nap, and using caffeine as ways to cope with the afternoon hump. The nap was the most effective.

If you've never, I'd recommend you try it. Just make sure to keep it short. Sleep too much and you'll wake up with "sleep inertia", leaving you feeling even less ready to work.

3. Take a good break

This just means that you should take your mind off things for a while and relax. I found this post interesting:


One of the reasons I liked that post is because it lists "power nap" and "taking a walk" as "How NOT to take a break". This doesn't mean that these are not ways you can use to take a break. It's just a challenge to get more creative with your breaks and find what works for you - not just what is commonly done.

I'll also quote from my previous post:

Sometimes our minds work best when we step away from it all and take a break. Again, taking walks work great! I took a course on Coursera some time back called "Learning How to Learn" that explains the science behind how this works. You can check it out.

4. Try out a healthier diet

Sometimes a clogged system resulting from unhealthy diet choices does more than anything else to make us feel groggy and tired. Always favor unprocessed foods high in fiber to keep you energized throughout the day. This study found that high-fiber, carbohydrate-rich breakfasts were "associated with the highest post-breakfast alertness ratings and with the greatest cumulative amount of alertness during the period between breakfast and lunch." This alertness is best and lasts longer as opposed to the momentary high given by sugary foods and caffeine.

5. Find out what works for you

At the end of the day, we are all different and what works for me might not work for you. There is no silver bullet for this and although it might take a while, finding out what works for you is always the best way to go.