One Month Without Caffeine

Caffeine MoleculeI eliminated all caffeine from my diet last month. The month or so before, I drank it regularly in the morning — usually via a caffeinated smoothie and an energy drink — and throughout the day. I’d have the occasional caffeinated soft drink and the occasional caffeinated whatnot. Caffeinated caffeinated caffeinated. My world depended on it, subtly but surely. Now I preach the evangel of quitting caffeine to you.

After giving up caffeine, I no longer have to worry so much about wiping out grogginess or appeasing headaches. No more rushing to the refrigerator or Starbucks or a gas station. I have much more energy. I get by fairly well on 6-7 hours of sleep a night instead of slogging through the day on 8-9. My mood stays more consistent, too.

Since caffeine is addictive, quitting it sucks. Temporary symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can include the infamous headache, irritability, nausea, sleeping a lot (your body finally catching up), and becoming just plain stupid (impairment in various cognitive skills, such as fuzzified concentration). I experienced all of these except nausea and stupidity — I am never stupid, because like Wile E. Coyote, I am a Super Genius.

I found caffeine withdrawal slightly difficult, but manageable. John Hopkins University maintains a fact-filled page on caffeine dependence. They say withdrawal takes 12-24 hours to set in — and it can set in even if you drink only a cup of coffee a day. Happened to me after about 16 hours. According to the page, symptoms peak 20-48 hours after abstinence. My symptoms peaked around day two and three. Caffeine withdrawal lasts a total of two days to one week or more, the page reports; for me, withdrawal lasted nine days. Your mileage may vary.

In the interest of complete transparency, I must admit that one day I forgot — really! — that chocolate contains caffeine, and ate a tiny bit; the effect was negligible, so I discount the incident entirely. (I guess for a split second I wasn’t a Super Genius.) You really have to pay attention to everything you consume (a good idea anyway), because just about everything has caffeine in it, including mate, guarana, and decaf coffee. If you drink a pot of decaf, there’s enough caffeine in there for you to notice.

Diet Coke Can
Why should you quit caffeine? After all, some studies link caffeine to certain health benefits. For me, it’s about the energy boost: imagine spending more time enjoying what you want to do instead of feeling miserable and dependent on lugging around your latte or Diet Coke or whatever particular poison. What are you going to do if you go on a camping trip? Pop NoDoz?

Poison, ayup, and not that fun of one. Caffeine interferes with sleep by reducing total sleep time, making it harder to fall asleep, and decreasing sleep quality. To be fair, a sleep researcher named Dr. Dement — the coolest name for a scientist — argues in The Promise of Sleep a bit of coffee before noon won’t affect a night bedtime. Still, Mark Adams at New York Magazine writes (early 2008):

The United States Centers for Disease Control reports that sleep disorders are more pervasive than ever. Americans, on average, are getting 6.7 hours of sleep per night, the lowest amount since records have been kept, and are racking up an hour or more of sleep deficit per day. Sales of Ambien, Lunesta, and other prescription sleep aids have more than doubled in the past few years. “You have people drinking caffeine all day and taking sleeping pills at night,” [Laura] Juliano says[, American University psych professor and coffee researcher].

Sleep loss causes its own problems, Adams continues:

Sleep loss is increasingly seen as a major factor in the obesity epidemic. The sleep-deprived are more susceptible to depression and tend to have less control over their emotions. Sleep loss also weakens problem-solving and decision-making skills and, naturally, leaves a sufferer exhausted—all of which are conditions that caffeine is called upon to solve. “If we drink coffee all day long, it’s harder to sleep at night, and we need more coffee to get up and go to work the next morning,” says Lane. “The cycle repeats itself.”

 
Juliano and Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, argue caffeine’s alleged benefits might be illusory. Quoting Adams again:

The escape from the clutches of withdrawal is a big part of what makes the day’s first cup of coffee so wonderful. “Feeding that dependence feels really good,” Juliano says. The implication: The positive feelings we associate with drinking coffee don’t represent a net gain in energy or alertness; they’re really the result of withdrawal maintenance.

When Griffiths and Juliano teamed up to review 170 years of caffeine research, much of which confirmed the drug’s reputation as a brain booster, they noticed a pattern: Most studies had been done on caffeine users who, in the interest of scientific rigor, were deprived of the stimulant overnight. Because caffeine withdrawal can commence in just twelve hours, by the time each study’s jonesing test subjects were given either caffeine or a placebo, they had begun to suffer headaches and fatigue. For the half that received the stimulant—poof!—their withdrawal symptoms vanished. The other half remained uncaffeinated, crabby, and logy, and guess which group scored higher on cognitive tests time after time? The boost the test subjects who got the caffeine felt may have simply been a function of having been deprived of the drug.

 
And a neat formulation from Adams’s article by James Lane at Duke: while caffeine can keep us awake, “it doesn’t make the brain any less tired.”

Shower Shock Caffeinated SoapClearly many of us are hooked on caffeine, so it makes sense for companies to add it to products to addict us. If you want to increase your dependence on caffeine, you can always absorb it through your skin first thing out of bed with Shower Shock: The Original Caffeinated Soap or Spazzstick: The World’s First Caffeinated Lip Balm. If that’s still not enough, wear caffeine-laced panty hose (link is to a .pdf with a description; no pic, unfortunately). I’m not making these up.

I still plan on increasing my energy level in other ways. For this month’s science experiment, I’ll drink only water: no alcohol, no Gatorade, and sadly, no orange juice. I don’t really expect much of a benefit in terms of increased energy — just in terms of fat loss — although some, such as Rob of formerfatguy.com, sings water’s praises for doing everything from increasing energy to aiding digestion. Others say toting around water bottles isn’t necessary. We’ll see.

If you want to quit caffeine, wean yourself off, or be bold and quit cold turkey. Improve your discipline! Establish a healthy habit! Check out Steve Pavlina’s how to quit caffeine for advice.

If you don’t want to quit, at least be festive about your coffee, like these folks on YouTube, who sing and dance JS Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” (BMV 211), a comic cantata composed in 1734. (Incidentally, JS Bach is one of my favorite composers.) One line from the piece: “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat.” Be braver than that person! ;-)

17 comments ↓

#1 Anonymous on 12.12.08 at 12:20 am

ahem that would be THE sleep researcher

#2 Pamela on 12.14.08 at 10:27 pm

When we were at CW I was going to try to find you some super caffeine gum. Never got my act together on that.

#3 maggie on 12.15.08 at 10:33 am

Kicking any habit/substance is hard. I’m so proud of you! And I’m so excited you’re working on rocking the writing world!

#4 Eden on 12.15.08 at 11:18 am

You know, everyone keeps telling me that quitting caffeine gives you more energy and better brain power and better moods and blah blah blah… but let me tell you: I quit caffeine last year for a month and a half. The first few days were murder but then it all evened out and you know what? I didn’t feel any more energetic or smarter or happier than I did when I drank coffee everyday. So after the 6 weeks, I decided that drinking my beloved coffee was worth it after all.

Nevertheless, I commend you, my friend, on your new lease on life. ;)

#5 Anonymous on 09.11.11 at 11:32 am

Eden, that just means you’re addiction is more serious.

#6 Señor Bello on 07.01.12 at 10:32 pm

Caffeine was the cause of Happy Feet’s behaviour.

#7 Judy Griffin on 11.14.12 at 1:54 pm

Sometimes it can take 90 days or more to where you feel your best after giving up coffee. I quit 2 weeks ago and it feels like I am going through detox after cosuming water with lemon and vinegar, which is good. It is cleansing all the toxins out of my system. Nobody can talk me into going back to the coffee addiction which enslaved me for so long. God knows that if we don’t give up, there is great reward in our health and happiness.

#8 Ron on 03.10.13 at 6:23 pm

Thanks for the article. I am contemplating quitting coffee–which I thoroughly enjoy. I notice that sometimes I feel energized, such as after a nap, but then after a cup of coffee I would feel tired. I have heard a couple of testimonials from folks quitting coffee and after detox, so to say, actually having more energy and sleeping better. Thanks for the info and encouragement.

#9 Susie on 03.29.13 at 11:22 am

Thank you for this article! I have read so many related articles on the internet but this one has the humor I needed at this point. I quit cold turkey and am on Day 10. Although the worst is over, I wouldn’t say that the withdrawal symptoms are gone. I have been very surprised at how badly I have felt in the past 10 days. I am eating very healthy — no processed foods, very low salt and sugar, lots of organic veggies, salads, fruits, Greek yogurt, nuts, eggs, fish and some soy. I am drinking only water. I am a runner. I thought it would be a little difficult, not so bad. I had headaches for the first 2 days. Then for 6 nights, I woke at around 4:30am with deep muscle pain? in my lower body. I couldn’t fall back to sleep without Motrin. I don’t take Motrin after a half-marathon! I was pretty sure no one would believe I was having these symptoms. Now, the aching is gone. But I have not felt the energy boost yet. I long for coffee but am determined to keep going without it. :-)

#10 Romy on 01.05.14 at 1:08 pm

are you still off the coffee? I’ve just given up, again. I’ve had several attempts over the years , once lasting for 2 months and I can’t remember how I fell back in to it that time – I do remember that I lost weight though. This time I’m determined to stick it out- Studying part-time along with working , my ” latte” and tea addiction just seemed to get out of control and eventually I seemed to have a permanent headache, feel truly exhuasted wnd look like shit. I gave up this when I had a really bad cold/ sinusitis and a headache for days, i finally thought I just done want to live like this anymore. I know i have along way to go but am determined to keep on the wagon this time!

#11 Douglas Lucas on 01.05.14 at 1:36 pm

No, no longer off caffeine. I am usually careful to have it only before noon or so, however.

#12 Max on 02.08.14 at 9:27 am

So you finally succumbed ;)
Tell us a bit more about the experience. How long did you stay decaffed and how would you describe the caffeine-free life, including the downsides.
What I’m also interested in: what triggered you to take up the black stuff again?

#13 Douglas Lucas on 02.08.14 at 8:22 pm

Hi Max. To be honest, I haven’t really thought about this topic since late 2008/early 2009. I don’t remember what triggered me to take it up again. What keeps me from giving it up again is mostly habit, the comfort factor of having it in the morning routinely, Also, it seems inconvenient to give up, especially in the context of social situations. On the other hand, it truly is inconvenient to be nonfunctional in the morning until I have it, particularly when I’m travelling, staying with people who aren’t caffeine addicts. I’m careful not to have caffeine before about noon or 1, to help sleep, so probably it wouldn’t be much harder to just knock it off for a few more hours. I even order 7-and-7s at nightclubs to avoid caffeine. Hopefully you find a solution that works for you!

#14 Harold on 03.02.14 at 7:14 am

I used to drink 2L+ of pepsi/coke in high school, used to guzzle it as a kid. By university, it escalated to coffee and espressos, red bull and energy drinks, caffeine pills, even bodybuilding pre-workouts which have a ton of caffeine in them. I’d say I was easily averaging over 1000 mg+ a day, for almost 5 years. It got the point where I needed more than ever just to feel the effect. I was fat, suffered from insomnia for 10+ years, even at the gym, I started to yawn and have headaches, even with 3 scoops of potent pre-workouts. I decided enough was enough. Quit cold turkey. By the 2nd day, it felt like torture. I still remember how I feel thinking about it now and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I had a runny nose, MASSIVE throbbing headache, aches all over my body, so irritable. I literally felt like a junkie on heroin withdrawal. I almost felt like puking once. Most of this lasted 7 days with SEVERE withdrawal symptoms, and upto 2 weeks later, I was still experiencing headaches at set times like right when I went to the gym. I was groggy, my mind was cloudy, felt so tired, lethargic. Had trouble concentrating. Within 3 months though, I started to feel good again. I was able to sleep much better, wake up easier. I could feel more energy than I ever had on caffeine, of course I didn’t have that buzz, but it felt “natural”. I went to the gym, since I cut out soda, I started drinking massive amounts of water. Within the year, I was down 26 pounds. It’s been 3 years now, and while I have had the odd glass of coke at a party or in a restaurant, I’ve been entirely caffeine free. I’m down an overall 46 pounds, my bone density increased, my teeth look whiter, I sleep regularly and wake up refreshed on just 7 hours of sleep. It’s crazy how we don’t even think about the fact we are consuming an addictive drug since childhood. Anything that’s addictive leads to dependence that increases as well. I bet you or many of your readers here who still consume caffeine or remember, know that they probably consumed more than they ever used to in the past. Sometimes I have a cup of decaf, which has a negligible amount of caffeine if I am someplace. Just the massive change in sugar and caffeine, has left me so much healthier. I would never get my kids hooked on caffeine at an early age.

#15 Serdar Özdemir on 09.30.14 at 1:14 pm

This is the worst that happened.
I switched to decaffeinated coffee to reset my tolerance level and I can’t progress on my lifts and running is so sluggish.
Not only that, I sleep more than ten hours a day.
I guess this is the price for flushing out the addiction until I can start small again.

#16 Douglas on 08.03.15 at 11:07 am

There is a ton of misinformation about caffeine withdrawal.
Sure, the very severe stages last only a few days.
But the lack of energy, lethargy, sleepiness, depression, anxiety, and several other symptoms can hang on for months. Typically each month away from caffeine sees some slow improvement over the previous month, but it can easily take 6 months to a year for all the caffeine addiction symptoms to clear out.

Think about it – your brain has adjusted to very substantial differences in essential brain chemicals. Do you really think it can adjust back to normal in just a few days? Of course not, it takes months.

This is the biggest reason most people who quit caffeine do not stay off. They have maybe been off caffeine for a month and still have all sorts of symptoms so just figure “I might as well drink coffee”.

Withdrawal is a slow process, not a quick one. Don’t fool yourself that in 6 weeks you are anywhere near where you would be with a year or more away from caffeine.

#17 30 Something White American Male on 02.22.16 at 5:53 pm

I recently stopped taking sleep aids, you know, the stuff with diphenhydramine hcl in it (25mg gel caps). I stopped about a week ago, and the last few days I’ve been extremely depressed and the last couple days all I’ve done is sleep, at night, and a couple naps during the day.

I’m doing everything I can, praying, eating healthy (except some candy at night), exercising (but today I don’t feel like doing that). I’m really worried a bit you guys. I’ve never had depression like this before. I haven’t drank or smoked in 4 1/2 years, and I haven’t smoked pot or anything in over a decade. Also I stopped masturbating a few days ago too, I was previously masturbating every few days but recently decided I didn’t want to risk going to hell. Also I was suffering from entrepreneurial depression up until I stopped all my entrepreneurial pursuits this Sunday because it’s not worth the depression. And I guess now I’m just exhausted. What can I do guys? Please help me.

Should I try going back to drinking coffee or should I give it some more time? How long does it take?

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