I will be the first to admit that my caffeine addiction is one of the most unhealthy aspects of my life. A normal day for me can sometimes consist of five to six cups of coffee, just to get me from one task to the other. Although I fully understand how damaging so much caffeine can be for my body, let’s face it, when the going gets tough, the tough drink coffee.
Part of my inclination to keep guzzling down the cups of java has been based on inconsistent evidence. It seems that every other study involving caffeine is either praising its health benefits or condemning it for leading to various health concerns such as cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. After years of pushing the limits of my caffeine intake, I felt it was time to see what toll it was having on my body. Here’s what happened after I gave up coffee for a week:
First thing's first, caffeine withdrawal is very real. That first day without coffee, I was plagued by a persistent headache, but let’s start at the beginning. Getting out of bed in the morning for me is usually driven by the promise of coffee waiting in the kitchen, so needless to say, the snooze button on my alarm got pressed a couple of times.
A long shower before work helped alleviate some of my grogginess, but something was still off. In hopes of avoiding a lack of productivity throughout the work day, I heeded a coworker’s advice to try an apple in replacement of coffee. Now, I’m not sure if it was the natural sugar, fructose, found in the apple or a placebo effect, but I did experience a sudden burst of energy that I was lacking that morning. However, just after noon (around 24 hours since my last cup of coffee) the dreaded caffeine withdrawal headache started to set in.
Before you question the legitimacy of caffeine withdrawal, you should know it was recently deemed a mental disorder in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The latter half of my day I was fighting off a headache, lack of concentration, lethargic tendencies, an upset stomach, and irritability that I desperately tried to keep at bay. The withdrawal symptoms I was experiencing stemmed from caffeine’s effect on adenosine, a molecule in the brain responsible for rest and tiredness.
After caffeine is absorbed by the small intestine, similar to alcohol, it makes its way to the brain where, due to its similarity to the adenosine molecule, it can fit into its receptors. By blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine triggers the release of more dopamine and adrenaline, leading to that feeling of alertness experienced by the 80 percent of Americans who drink coffee regularly. The flood of adenosine and dopamine when caffeine is removed from the equation causes our brain chemistry to go haywire.
If there was anything advantageous about that first day without caffeine, it was that when I was ready for bed I drifted off to sleep pretty quickly. Unfortunately, my withdrawal nightmare was not limited to that first day. The throbbing inside of my head finally started to subside but a lack of energy and lethargy persisted into that second day without coffee.
I decided to substitute my usual overload of caffeine with small meals every three to four hours to help keep my body running on healthy sources of fiber, carbohydrates, protein, and I also drank a lot of water to keep hydrated. I admittedly missed out on my usual trip to the gym on the first day of my caffeine cleanse, so I made it a point to resume my workout schedule after work on the second day.
Easier said than done, seeing as I typically begin my workouts with a cup of coffee, energy drink, or caffeine-laden pre-workout supplement. Be that as it may, I ate a big pre-workout meal of oatmeal and protein powder which provided a boost to start my workout. While it may have not been my best gym session, I did break a sweat to help my body detox.
Finally on day three, the proverbial clouds started to part and my energy was back up. Albeit not running circles around my office, I did have enough momentum to power through the work day and get to the gym. I still thought about coffee and knew small bouts of fatigue could have been eased with a little caffeine. Similar to day one and two, by bedtime I was ready for a good night of sleep.
The Days Beyond
On days three and four, my production output at work made a complete turnaround compared to the first two days of my caffeine hiatus. Both days came and went without the mental fixation of drinking coffee, and I was also able to dedicate my full attention to a productive workout session at the gym. By the last two days without coffee, which turned out to be the weekend, I allowed myself to sleep in compared to work days. I was able to run errands throughout the day, make it to the gym, and even had enough energy for a late night with friends.
My week without caffeine was only the first part of my little experiment. Now it was time to find out how I would acclimate getting into a work week with my coffee as my aid. Would I get the jitters from my first cup? Would I still need five to six cups to get me through the day when I started?
After my first cup, I did experience a heightened sense of alertness, but by the time of the day I would usually go running for my second cup, I found that I could go on without it. In fact, that first day back I only downed two cups: one in the morning and a second before the gym. My lower than usual coffee intake shows that like all drugs, caffeine causes a tolerance buildup.
I look forward to keeping my tolerance in check by monitoring the amount of coffee I drink, cutting back when I feel it is getting too high, and switching cups of coffee for cups of less caffeinated beverages like green tea. For any other coffee drinkers looking to kick their habit, I recommend weaning yourself off of caffeine day by day to help your body adjust to the sudden change.
The Mayo Clinic recommends no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine (around 1 and three quarter cups) a day for healthy adults, something to keep in mind next time you’re at your local coffee shop and deciding between a small or a large.