Sleep Desire, Caffeine, and Inflammation

February 18, 2009 | Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist

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 Sleep Desire, Caffeine, and Inflammation
New research1 has proven conclusively that the molecule known as adenosine is in charge of your feeling of sleepiness and is required in adequate amounts in order for you to fall asleep in a natural way. Somewhat paradoxically, adenosine is also an important molecule in energy production. Understanding this information, and integrating it with other information you already know about sleep will take a few minutes, but is well worth understanding.

In the new study researchers proved that adenosine was being secreted by the glial cells (astrocytes) of your brain. These types of brain cells do not send electrical messages like the neurons that produce neurotransmitters, rather, they are regulators of numerous processes within your brain. The longer you go without sleep the more adenosine you build up in your brain in an effort to get you to sleep. The researchers found that by blocking adenosine animals didn't get tired and did not need to get as much sleep to recover from longer periods of being awake.

At first glance adenosine sounds like the perfect fix for the majority of us who wish we didn't have to sleep so much because we have too much to do. A deeper understanding is needed if you wish to use this information to be healthy.

The Nature of Adenosine

Adenosine is used by your body for the production of energy. As your cells burn calories for fuel you produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is like money in your purse or wallet, representing potential spending power that you can use as needed to energize your body and get through your day. In addition to the energy function of ATP, the glial cells in your brain actually use ATP as a communication molecule. It is now known that adequate ATP is needed for the glial cells to actually tell the neurotransmitters in your brain to flow – meaning that ATP (energy) is the most fundamental natural anti-depressant.

Adenosine is also a signaling molecule, telling cells how to behave. It helps a variety of hormones carry their signals into cells so that their instructions can be followed. Additionally, there is a basic amount of free adenosine in your brain and as the levels rise it has a sedative effect. In this capacity adenosine is working in harmony with glycine and GABA nerves that are also relaxing or sedating in nature.

There are different kinds of receptors for adenosine in your brain, meaning that depending on where it goes and where it “lands,” a different metabolic response will follow.

During the day, a great deal of adenosine is channeled in the direction of making ATP and making your brain stay awake and function. The longer you stay up the greater the amount of inflammation that starts to ramp up in your nerves, and the greater the urge to go to sleep. It appears to be this natural inflammatory process that shifts the activation of adenosine receptors so that they activate sleep instead of going into energy production. The specific adenosine receptor that promotes sleep desire is called A1 – there are three main types of other adenosine receptors.

This explains why so many people who are inflamed from stress, poor quality diet, or other factors feel sleepy during the day. Too much ongoing inflammation is making their brain and body think that it is bed time even though it isn't. This means that reducing inflammation is vital to normal energy production and metabolism. And too much inflammation will provoke abnormal fatigue, poor metabolism, and likely weight gain.

Caffeine, Chocolate, and Purines

Caffeine, chocolate, and various proteins high in purines can bind on to the adenosine A1 receptor and prevent the sedating effects of adenosine. The entire population on Earth is aware of this function of caffeine, even if they do not understand how it works.

Caffeine contains methylxanthines and chocolate contains theobromine, which have a purine-like structure that can get in the way of adenosine acting as a sleep inducer. This is why too much coffee, or too much chocolate, especially later in the day, gets in the way of sleep. It is also why purine-rich foods, especially when eaten at dinner, may do the same thing (though to a lesser extent).

Foods high in purines are animal organs, seafood, pork, and red meat. If you have trouble sleeping you may need to watch the amount of these foods you eat at dinner or they may help keep you awake.

If you have gout (elevated uric acid), you will have a base-line problem with adenosine working properly in your nerves and need to improve the health of your liver to process proteins so that your uric acid levels come down.


You need to be awake and you need to sleep. You can imbalance your system with too much wear and tear (inflammation), which is the source of many sleep problems. By lowering inflammation during the day you will sleep better at night.

You can offset problems to a degree with caffeine and chocolate, but these only buy you time to fix the underlying problem of excess inflammation. If you rely on ever higher amounts of adenosine receptor A1 blocking stimulants to get through your day, your underlying metabolic and health problems could simply be getting worse. For example, you could be living on caffeine while still gaining weight or unable to lose weight despite excessive nerve stimulation.

The moral of the story is to manage inflammation as a priority. Make time for adequate sleep, show up for sleep time in a condition you can actually sleep, eat a better quality anti-inflammatory diet, eat in harmony with leptin, and use anti-inflammatory nutrients to bolster your nervous system's health.

Referenced Studies

  1. ^ Your Need for Sleep  Neuron  Michael M. Halassa, Cedrick Florian, Tommaso Fellin, James R. Munoz, So-Young Lee, Ted Abel, Philip G. Haydon, Marcos G. Frank.

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