How Does Caffeine Impact Cortisol?

Cortisol, known as "the stress hormone," plays a vital role in regulating various functions in our body, including metabolism, sleep cycles, and the stress response. That fight or flight feeling you get when it’s time to give a big pitch or you’ve got five separate life responsibilities colliding at the same time? That’s your old pal cortisol, kicking in and hopefully kicking you into gear.

But what happens when cortisol gets disrupted? Something like your daily coffee can have a big impact not only on your energy, but on your body’s chemistry. 

A little cortisol goes a long way. A lot of cortisol goes the wrong way. 

It’s important to understand the relationship between caffeine and cortisol, unraveling the effects they have on our energy, stress response, and overall well-being.

Cortisol: The Stress General

Think of cortisol as your body's stress general, ready to mobilize energy stores, enhance metabolism, and aid in the stress response at a moment’s notice. It’s always on patrol, most active when you wake up and least active when you’re ready to wind down at the end of the night. But cortisol is not the lazy bakery down the block - the “out for lunch” sign doesn’t pop up for a couple hours in the afternoon. It can be triggered any time.

When cortisol is released, you might experience heightened alertness, increased heart rate and blood pressure, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, and even jittery sensations caused by elevated blood sugar levels.

The Cortisol Awakening Response

For most people with a typical circadian rhythm, cortisol levels peak in the morning shortly after waking up. This surge is known as the cortisol awakening response (CAR), and comes 30 to 45 minutes after waking up in the morning. 

Throughout the day, cortisol levels gradually decline, reaching their lowest point in the evening and during nighttime sleep.

But your caffeine consumption can impact that cycle.

Consuming caffeine can temporarily increase cortisol levels. Caffeine stimulates the release of stress hormones, including cortisol, as part of the body's stress response. Depending on how much caffeine you’re downing daily and your own body’s tolerance to it, your response can vary dramatically from someone else’s.

But it’s safe to say that even for the daily four cups of coffee drinkers, too much caffeine can result in sustained elevation of cortisol levels. Chronic elevation of cortisol due to excessive caffeine intake may negatively impact the body's stress response system and overall well-being. Struggling to sleep at night after sipping cappuccino all day? There’s no great mystery as to what your issue is. 

Your cortisol levels are out of whack and your body’s not sure if it’s 10 AM or 10 PM.

L-Theanine: A Caffeine Counterbalance

There are certainly some ways to continue to consume caffeine while mitigating its effects on cortisol. 

Combining L-theanine with caffeine may help mitigate the potential cortisol-elevating effects of caffeine. L-theanine, found in tea leaves, promotes relaxation and mental clarity without causing drowsiness. 

Studies suggest that L-theanine can counteract the cortisol response to caffeine, leading to a blunted cortisol release.

Effects of Caffeine Timing and Meal Choices on Cortisol

The timing of caffeine consumption and the composition of meals can also impact cortisol levels.

Consuming carbohydrates stimulates insulin release, which can decrease cortisol levels. Carbohydrate-rich meals with a moderate glycemic index have been associated with lower cortisol levels compared to high-protein or high-fat meals. 

Additionally, skipping breakfast and relying on caffeine alone can disrupt cortisol levels, leading to higher cortisol throughout the day. In one study of non-obese women 18-45, compared to the breakfast eaters, breakfast skippers had higher circulating cortisol from early morning to midafternoon. Cortisol levels varied significantly less in the “skippers” group as well - meaning it did not drop as low from the morning to the afternoon. 

So, for the sake of regulating your body a bit, it may be worthwhile to finish off a bowl of oatmeal with a side of fruit before you look for a daily energy source.

Understanding the impact of caffeine on cortisol is crucial for managing our energy levels, stress response, and overall well-being. 

While caffeine can provide a temporary boost, excessive or prolonged consumption may disrupt cortisol regulation and have negative effects on our health.

By being mindful of our caffeine intake, considering alternatives like L-theanine, and adopting healthy eating patterns, we can strive for a balanced approach to energy management and stress response throughout the day.