The first official day of fall is a reminder that mornings will just keep getting darker, making it harder to get out of bed.
It also signals the approach of winter, when many Americans may start to return to their offices after months of working from home during the pandemic.
If it feels like massive quantities of caffeine will be required to get through it all, nutritionists say that’s not the case: It’s possible to wake up and stay alert without cup after cup of coffee.
First, there are important reasons why people may want to cut down on caffeine. It can impact the nervous system, heart rate and blood pressure. Drinking too much coffee can cause insomnia, jitters, anxiousness, headaches and other unpleasant effects. It has also been linked with higher risk of dementia and brain shrinkage. (Though moderate coffee intake has its share of health benefits.)
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises limiting caffeine intake to 400 milligrams a day for healthy adults, which works out to about four 8-ounce cups of coffee. Keep in mind one venti cup at Starbucks contains two-and-a-half times that amount of coffee — 20 ounces. Colas and energy drinks add up to even more caffeine.
How do you wake up and stay alert without coffee? TODAY asked NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom; and Kristin Kirkpatrick, the lead dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.
Drink a glass of cold water
Both experts listed this as their top tip. It can be especially helpful to do as soon as you get out of bed because dehydration is common upon waking.
Most people don’t drink enough fluids in general and are often mildly dehydrated, causing fatigue, so rehydrating with cold water is a great pick-me-up, Fernstrom said. If you’re not a water drinker, a cold glass of any low-calorie beverage is a plus — the cold is a refreshing boost to energize — but skip the sugary drinks, which will sap your energy after a quick boost, she added.
“Fighting fatigue in the morning without coffee or caffeine might seem like an unbearable task,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, caffeine is only one delivery system for energy. A healthy diet and good hydration can be just as effective.”
Use an aromatherapy diffuser in the morning
Kirkpatrick pointed to a 2018 study that found aromatherapy can decrease fatigue. She recommended using lavender-scented oils in the morning before work, when you are getting ready or eating breakfast to prepare you for the day ahead.
Other aromas can also have a powerful effect. The scent of rosemary has been found to make people more alert, Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, noted in her book “This Is Your Brain on Food.”
“I feel sharper and calmer all at once,” Naidoo wrote, describing how she feels after running her fingers down a sprig of fresh rosemary to release the aroma.
Sage, whether fresh, dried or in the form of essential oils for aromatherapy, can also make people feel more alert, she wrote.
Take a brisk walk outside
Mental fatigue is often confused with physical fatigue, so if you feel tired, get up and get moving — outside, if you can, to take in some greenery and sunlight, Fernstrom advised.
Even a few minutes of brisk walking or stair climbing is a great energy boost after sitting in front of a screen for hours, she noted.
Choose low-glycemic foods
Foods high on the glycemic index, such as white grains and sugary drinks, cause a steep spike and fall of blood sugar, which impacts energy levels on the back end, Kirkpatrick said.
Instead, choose low-glycemic foods, such as healthy fats, lean sources of protein and lower carbohydrate options like a chia pudding breakfast, a low-carb waffle with peanut butter or a small bowl of mixed berries with plain yogurt.
Have a combo protein/carb snack
Skip the sugary snacks, and nosh on something that combines a carb, which will provide immediate energy, with a protein, which is ideal for longer-lasting fueling. Fernstrom suggested peanut butter on a cracker or celery, hummus and pita bread, or a Greek yogurt.
Herbal blends have no caffeine, while traditional teas have less than half of what typically is found in coffee.
Kirkpatrick is a fan of green tea, since it has both caffeine and tremendous health benefits, and matcha tea.
Black tea is a good option if you want a small amount of caffeine with a more robust taste, Fernstrom said. Depending on how strong you brew it, you’ll cut your caffeine by 50-65% compared to a cup of coffee.
Mint tea is caffeine-free, but some people perk up just with the minty taste alone, she added.
Cut back coffee to one large cup a day
The less coffee you drink, the more effective it is in boosting alertness, Fernstrom said.
“The brain responds very well to a small amount of caffeine, and becomes ‘immune’ to a lot of caffeine,” she noted.
Keep that in mind if you absolutely cannot give up coffee — it can be a great tool, when used sparingly.
Do some stretching or call a friend
To stretch at your desk, try lifting your arms to the ceiling, shrugging your shoulders as high as you can, and sitting up and down in your chair using only your legs.
Then, reach out to a friend.
“Sometimes, a mid-day chat with a good pal is the best way to get an energy boost,” Fernstrom said.
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