March 7, 2012 at 2:05 PM ET
By Andrew Winner
Wondering if it’s time for another cup of coffee? Just take a look at your iPhone. A new software application from The Pennsylvania State University shows users the optimal time to consume caffeine and when to reach for the decaf.
Dr. Frank Ritter, who created the app along with Dr. Martin Yeh, isn’t trying beat the drum against the country’s coffee habit. Rather, he believes the application’s graphical output presents a novel way for individuals to conceptualize their caffeine consumption.
While it may not kill anyone, caffeine can be a nasty mistress if usage isn’t monitored correctly.
Nervousness and disrupted sleep patterns are just two of the negative consequences of caffeine, with users sometimes becoming so inured to the negative effects of caffeine they aren’t consciously aware of the worsening effects. Additionally, caffeine can have a cumulative effect—too much on Monday could lead to disrupted sleep and grogginess on Tuesday. People attempt to self-correct by increasing their intake on Tuesday, creating a cycle that dramatically affects sleep habits and quality of life.
Caffeine Zone helps individuals understand how long caffeine stays in the system, helping them to avoid such Catch-22s and achieve better sleep.
“Increased levels of caffeine can inhibit normal sleep—at least it does for me,” Ritter said in an e-mail. “A colleague of mine used to talk about using caffeine to fight sleep deprivation, and I think that many of us do that.”
“I have also used the app to avoid caffeine way before a talk so I could have a coffee to hand while giving a talk, and then be able to sleep normally,” Ritter added. “If I had not, I would have had a lot of coffee in anticipation of giving a talk in the afternoon, and would not have gotten rid of the caffeine before bedtime.”
The mobile application prompts users to input their caffeine consumption. Then, using preexisting models of caffeine half-lives, the estimated amount of caffeine in the body is shown on a graph. This allows users to review their caffeine level at a glance – information that could be very useful for those dealing with shift changes at work, for example, or our friends in the Armed Services.
Ritter, of Penn State’s Applied Cognitive Science Lab, was encouraged to study the effects of caffeine by Dr. Susan Chipman with the Office of Navy Research. As one might imagine, the working environment on a submarine lends itself to massive amounts of caffeine intake. Understanding one’s level of caffeine could increase mental acuity and improve quality of life of submariners at sea.
Additionally, the basic platform Ritter created can be extended to monitor different substances. Ritter is also hoping to make caffeine half-life a changeable parameter in the app to account for those who “caffeine” differently.
“This started as an experiment in understanding caffeine and how to deliver and work with mobile apps, but it has grown more than we thought it would,” Ritter said. “We have gotten numerous suggestions from this process and a lot of encouragement.”
With an estimated 80-90 percent of the North American population consuming some amount of caffeine daily and a per-capita usage rate of 280 milligrams for adults, it’s important for the general population to understand the effects of caffeine.
Ritter hopes the app will help educate the public on when a hit of caffeine can improve mental function—and when it can do more harm than good.