By: Megan Lautz, MS, RD, CSCS, TSAC-F
Balancing work, overtime, and busy schedules can leave you feeling drained. Throw in four calls after midnight; the extra coffee or energy drinks may feel essential. But what is caffeine, and how much is okay?
Caffeine is a natural plant substance that stimulates the central nervous system. Caffeine reduces fatigue by acting as an antagonist to adenosine. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that causes drowsiness. Caffeine binds to receptors in place of adenosine, improving alertness and energy. Firefighters often use caffeine to increase alertness, reduce fatigue, and improve concentration.
The FDA recommends no more than 400 mg of caffeine daily for healthy people. 400 mg is the equivalent of 30-40 oz (900-1200 mL) of coffee total or roughly three to four firehouse mugs. Caffeine starts to add up much faster when energy drinks and pre-workout drinks are involved. But how do you know if you need to cut back?
You are experiencing side effects of caffeine
Side effects of caffeine often occur in people sensitive to caffeine or who consume large doses. Caffeine sensitivity is genetic, which means some people process caffeine slower than others. This can lead to headaches, anxiety, irritability, and heart palpitations. To reduce side effects, consume no more than 200 mg (ideally less) in one sitting and avoid products that combine multiple sources of caffeine (coffee bean extract, guarana, yerba matte, etc.
Your sleep sucks
Caffeine too close to bedtime may not prevent you from falling asleep, but it will negatively impact sleep quality. Which, of course, often leads to more caffeine the next day. Leave a five-hour buffer between your last caffeinated beverage and bedtime to prevent sleep disturbances.
You are way over 400 mg of caffeine per day
You should cut back if you are clocking in over 600 mg of caffeine daily. This much caffeine usually means you are consuming closer to bedtime, impacting sleep quality. Reducing overall caffeine may improve sleep and improve energy levels. If your energy levels are this bad, consider reevaluating your diet, workout plan, and stress levels.
You have a medical condition that worsens with caffeine
High blood pressure, GERD/acid reflux, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and pregnancy may require reducing caffeine to improve symptoms. The FDA recommends no more than 200 mg of caffeine daily or cutting out caffeine entirely with these conditions.
How do you cut back?
If you think you need to cut back, do so gradually. Cold turkey can cause caffeine withdrawal. Symptoms include mood disturbances, headaches, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms for two to nine days. To cut back, consider half-caf or decaf coffee. Switch to an energy drink or pre-workout with less than 150 mg of caffeine per can. Play around with reducing caffeine on shift vs. off to see what works best for you.
Consider working with a mental health provider while cutting back on caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant that can boost mood, and cutting back may lead to low mood and some uncomfortable emotions. A therapist can help you work through emotions.
Optimizing your energy levels
If you are tired all the time, evaluate your sleep habits first. Firefighters need seven to nine hours of sleep per night and should fall asleep in 20 minutes or less. This can be hard to reach on shiftwork, but naps count! Ideally, nap lengths are 20 minutes or 90 minutes. If you are struggling with sleep, consider filling out the PSQI. This screening tool might help you determine if you need to see a sleep specialist to improve your sleep.
Plan coffee or tea in the morning, afternoon, or 20 minutes before your workout when spacing out your caffeine intake. Most people feel an energy dip between 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm. If a nap or exercise is not possible during this time, having a cup of coffee may help. A bit of caffeine (equivalent to one cup of coffee) may also help with exercise performance. If you are a late exerciser, avoid caffeine after 4:00 pm to ensure it does not impact your sleep.
The bottom line about caffeine
For most healthy firefighters, some caffeine is okay! Limit caffeine to 400 milligrams or 30-40 oz of coffee (total). Plan caffeine where natural energy dips occur: in the morning or the early afternoon. If you need to cut back, consider working with a therapist to troubleshoot your mood.
Campbell, B., Wilborn, C., La Bounty, P. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Energy Drinks From the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Accessed August 29, 2020 from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-1
Goldstein, ER, Ziegenfuss, T, Kalman, D et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Caffeine and Performance. From the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Accessed August 29, 2020 from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-7-5
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Rodda, Simone & Booth, Natalia & McKean, Jessica & Chung, Anita & Park, Jennifer & Ware, Paul. (2020). Mechanisms for the reduction of caffeine consumption: What, how and why. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 212. 108024. 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.108024.
Sajadi-Ernazarova KR, Anderson J, Dhakal A, et al. Caffeine Withdrawal. [Updated 2022 Sep 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430790/
Spilling the beans: How much coffee is too much. Food and Drug Administration. 2018. Retrieved June 2020 from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/spilling-beans-how-much-caffeine-too-
Megan is a Registered Dietitian and strength coach who specializes in firefighter nutrition. Megan shows firefighters how to eat healthier when they don’t have time, money, or energy. Megan is the owner of RescueRD LLC, which provides nutrition seminars and coaching for tactical athletes across the country. Check out @Rescue.RD on Facebook and Instagram.
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