Have you ever tried to give up coffee? I did. It was arguably the most difficult habit I’ve ever had to deal with. Along the way, I learned a few things about what happen when you cut back, how caffeine works, and what it does to a body. Thought you might like to know what you are in for if you are cutting down, or trying to go cold turkey.
It all started when I was drinking 8 cups a day and looking for a ninth–that’s when I knew I needed to quit. Sleeping less and moving my coffee maker into my bedroom were early signs. Are there 12-step groups for coffee addicts I wondered? Could I just cut the consumption in half? What about switching to tea?
Bingo. I’d heard that tea has only half the amount of caffeine in it than coffee. My plan was to go on the tea-maintenance program and shake this monkey. I’ll get right on that. First, let me get a little cup-o-joe so I can pry these rusted garage doors I have for eyelids open. One cup–and I’ll get up and put my brilliant plan into action.
That strategy, the one cup and I’m launched fiasco, kept me hooked for another few months. One cup kept leading to another. Then my friends began a modern day version of a Greek chorus. They took turns looking into my eyes–then speaking. You look terrible. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you okay? Long day? Are you sick? Then the one that got me: You look ten years older–what’s wrong?
Addicted (or at least terribly dependent) but not wanting to admit it, I rationalized. Caffeine is the world’s most popular drug. Eighty percent of the world’s population uses caffeine in one form or another. Coffee is the world’s most abundant commodity. Financial markets are tied to the price of coffee. More people are dependent on caffeine than any other drug. Although my rationalization was working beautifully, I still wanted to cut down. While I wasn’t stealing pocketbooks just yet to get my boost, I just couldn’t give it up and this troubled me. I reckoned I wasn’t the first one to deal with this habit, and, since I am a writer, I decided to do a little research. Some things I knew about caffeine and coffee–some things blew my mind.
What I knew: I function better (read: human) when I have caffeine. It makes you more alert, have better endurance–and much more productive. However, it can also make you jittery and give you problems falling or staying asleep. Your heart rate can go up and it can make you dizzy, dehydrated, and dependent. Drinking it can give you a headache–but you can also get one from giving it up. In addition, from previous attempts at cutting back, I knew to expect a serious brain fog without my morning java fix.
What I didn’t know: Caffeine can make you irritable and give you muscle tremors. (This explains my reaction to my friends who said I look older.) Some antibiotics can make caffeine last longer in your body and even the herbal supplement, Echinacea can increase the concentration of caffeine in your blood and intensify its effects.
Some other interesting facts came my way. A regularly brewed 8 ounce cup of coffee can have between 100 and 200 mg of caffeine, and black tea can have as little as 14 mg up to 70. (Just so, you know–Starbucks lists its “short” 8-ounce coffee at a whooping 180mg, while Duncan Donuts has a comparatively modest 132mg in a 10-ounce serving.)
However, two things really blew my mind. The effect of caffeine happens largely because it blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine acts like our chemical parents– they tell us it is time to go to slow down and go to sleep. However, caffeine does one other thing–it increases dopamine levels in the brain–the neurotransmitter that generates positive mood. These two chemical effects make us want it on a regular basis. (It also explains why I sing so loud in my morning shower.)
So, what is a safe amount of caffeine? Medical sources say four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks, about 400-500 mgs a day, is safe for most people. But there is wide variability. Men feel the effects more than women, and body size and metabolism alter its influence.
Switching to black tea seemed just fine at first. However, there was one drawback. I needed a LOT more cups of tea than coffee. One article I read said to keep count–so I did. I downed an even dozen cups my first day. My caffeine habit was looking to get its fix and the first few days a cup of tea was a permanent fixture in my hand.
This sent me on a search to understand why I craved caffeine so much. What I learned was the biggest surprise of all. Remember that chemical parent, adenosine? When we flood our brain with caffeine, our brain chemistry creates more adenosine receptors to compensate for the ones the onslaught of caffeine shut down. That is why we build a tolerance to the level of caffeine. In an addictive cycle, we take in more to get the desired effect. That’s why when it comes to caffeine the saying “too much aint enough” says it all.
When you cut back on caffeine the extra adenosine receptors vanish–creating the difficult side effects. Remember that headache thing I mentioned? Oy. Imagine someone putting a 6-pound baseball cap on your head in the morning that ends up weighing 10 pounds by the end of the day. My reasonably sharp and alert brain turned into overcooked oatmeal. On day three I had to give a lecture. Not pretty. My brain fog had rolled in and the class had some idea it would be a difficult day when I walked in and put 6 cups of tea on the podium.
If you stop caffeine altogether you will get through the symptoms in about 7-12 days. But for me it was a gradual reduction. The tea worked to launch the cutback, and then I switched to half-caff and decaffeinated, and sprinkled in a few latte’s, which cuts the caffeine in about half from a regular cup of coffee. The positive effects included sleeping much better and being much less jittery.
I’ve done pretty well for the last 6 months. I keep under 400mg and most days closer to 200. I sleep great–and this helps in a million different ways during the day.
The only time I go over my limit is when there is a writing deadline–like tonight. This article is due–so I do what needs to be done. Tonight I’m headed out to a place where I can get 180mg in one shot. I can already feel a few adenosine receptors starting to grow.