This article was originally published on my blog.
Four months ago, on an ordinary Sunday: I have my coffee at around 9 am. Starting to feel a jolt of energy and enthusiasm. Two hours pass and I can feel that horrible pain behind my eye sockets. It is like a razor shaving layers, deeper and deeper. The final effect of caffeine comes in about three or four hours: I have to lie down for at least an hour.
I managed to keep it together on weekdays as I plunged deep into work. On weekends, instead of enjoying time with my family, sleep debt caught up to me. Oh, how I tried to change my habits: different brands of coffee, drink coffee only in the morning, have espresso, no, scratch that, have an americano. What about a cold brew? No matter what I tried, I paid the debt over and over again – my sleep was fractured, time was stolen from my family, headaches were horrible.
That Sunday I decided: I will quit, cold turkey. No more caffeine (coffee, chocolate, cola, cocoa, green or black tea), nothing. I plunged straight into the abyss, not even doing proper research. How hard could it be? I gave up smoking nine years ago, alcohol (that I rarely drank anyway), ten months ago, started eating low-ish carb tending on keto about six months ago. Could it actually be that hard to just remove caffeine from my life? Yes.
The first day went fine, I was high on motivation. Then, the dreaded second day hit me. I had to sleep for five hours straight, from 9 am to 2 pm and another eight or nine hours at night. I finally started reading about caffeine withdrawal.
For about two months and a half, I just allowed myself to gradually recover. I was fortunate as I was working on our business, so I could have a much slower rhythm. Looking back, I don’t know what I did in August or September. I had no motivation to workout, to study, or to do anything productive. It seemed as if all my ambition was drained from my body. They were mostly blender days, where hours were whirled around in a vortex. I spent my days reading almost every post on r/decaf or just plain reading.
After two months, I started to rewatch Learning how to learn and reread Barbara Oakley’s books, Cal Newport’s books, and other books on productivity.
At around the magical third month, I started to get a glimpse of light. Maybe it was a combination of time, much-improved sleep (I finally started dreaming in vivid colours) and ketosis (that I measure with a cheap breathalyzer from Amazon and using this conversion). And what effects did I notice? Note: I know I can’t relate every change in energy/mood/body to caffeine or better sleep.
Sleep – this was the most important issue for me to fix as I was a long time sufferer of Middle-of-the-night-insomnia. I applied Matthew Walker’s protocol from his book, Why we sleep, rigorously for years, and I could see improvements. And yet, I would still lie wide awake from 1 am to 3 am.
All these years where I couldn’t properly sleep and had to be awake and productive in a high-performance setting (by using caffeine, of course) got me to a professional burn-out. After four months of living this caffeine-free life, it seems like maybe caffeine was creating a vicious cycle. One of the side effects of no longer abusing caffeine was that toilet visits were much reduced in frequency, which definitely helped with keeping me asleep through the night.
After taking magnesium (bis/glycinate, malate or citrate, never oxide) for years, I added to the routine some amino acids, specifically glycine and GABA, after asking my doctor about these supplements.
Now, most nights I am sound asleep, with some random nights that I would still be awake for hours. For me, this progress is absolutely incredible as I credit the much-improved sleep as a catalyst for other personal changes.
Physically – there is a difference in the skin, especially below the eyes. Those hollowed out, panda eyes, imploring for concealer, disappeared slowly. My teeth are slightly whiter and I don’t have that dreaded bad taste in my mouth.
Even though I had to drink more water than usual (around three litres), visits to the toilet were reduced. I was practising intermittent fasting for years by skipping breakfast. Now, I start to feel hungry at around 9 am or 10 am. If I am not fasting, I eat mostly keto in the morning and low carb after.
The high of clicking buy – my ex-colleagues would know me for my manic spending, always be buying. I don’t have too much of a buyer’s remorse as I bought mostly books. However, that adrenaline rush to buy is nowhere near as strong as it used to be. I can safely keep products in my online basket for weeks and clicking buy is an afterthought. This Black Friday was the cheapest event in years (world’s current grey circumstances don’t make for a happy medium to buy, buy, buy either).
Emotions – If I can use an image to describe my actual state of emotions, “flatten the curve” comes to mind. I definitely have more patience handling our daughter’s tantrums or interruptions and our connection improved even more as a result. “Mummy, remember, coffee makes you yell.” No, my dear, I made myself yell, coffee just worsened those fight/flight/freeze primal instincts.
Now, I can catch myself sometimes right before a fight instinct and ask myself: Is it really an emergency? If I manage to ask myself this with a smile and a non-judgemental attitude towards myself, the fight instinct is almost gone.
Stackable habits – Somehow, giving up coffee and sleeping better helped me in building a stack of good habits. Every week I would try to add a new habit and see how it works. Some were dropped, and some were kept.
Examples: setting intentions, visualizations, meditations (Insight Timer app), journaling, reading at least one hour a day, daily and weekly planning. I can no longer mask the sudden dip in energy at around 12 pm with decaf, so I time block 12 pm - 1 pm to do some exercise and journaling.
As I said before, I know these are all speculative facts, and most of my newly gained good habits might be a correlation, not a causation, of giving up coffee. These facts I described are based on my own observations and on rereading my journal pages.
What pushed me through, even though I could see changes straight away (sleeping gloriously), was something I read on the decaf subreddit: give up caffeine for at least a month and see the effects. If I am not convinced by then, I could always just go back to drinking coffee.
And I am here to say that claims of caffeine withdrawals can last just between two and ten days are pure nonsense. Those articles have some good information, but don't judge yourself too hard if you still experience caffeine withdrawal weeks or months after.
For the scientific part, as I understood it. Why did I get hit by that wall of sleep bricks while recovering? It didn’t happen when quitting other addictions, so what is about coffee? Adenosine. A chemical in our body that tells the brain when it is tired, the “sleepiness chemical”.
Adenosine is created in the brain and it binds to adenosine receptors. This binding and building cause drowsiness until it hits something called sleep pressure – I am ready to fall asleep. During sleep, the brain cleans up adenosine so I can start fresh.
It is morning, I just woke up and my brain has cleaned up the adenosine molecules. And what do I do in the morning? I would have my coffee. As caffeine is absorbed through the body and enters the blood, it is absorbed by the brain too. Then, caffeine sneaks in and latches onto the receptors of adenosine. The brain cells no longer get adenosine as all receptors are taken by caffeine (https://go.drugbank.com/drugs/DB00201#pharmacologyhttps://go.drugbank.com/drugs/DB00201#pharmacology, Central nervous system). Instead of feeling tired, I feel alert.
After some time, caffeine molecules will unbind from the adenosine receptors because of the half-life (“the time required for a quantity to reduce to half of its initial value”) of caffeine that is about three – seven hours. That tells me that after my 9 am coffee, around 12 pm – 2 pm, half of my morning coffee has been metabolized.
Adenosine finally has a chance to bind to its receptors. I start to feel sleepy. That explains the caffeine crash: once adenosine gets its chance to be metabolized, the sleepiness hits me strong. So I either choose to have another coffee, late afternoon, that will definitely disrupt my sleep, or I try to power through.
Of course, there will always be people that say they don’t have a problem in ingesting coffee late in the day. In his interview with NPR, Matthew Walker talks about these rare individuals - his laboratory gives a standard cup of coffee to people that want to get their sleep measured.
Then, subjects are put to bed to sleep and Dr. Walker tracks in his laboratory the subjects’ sleep quality. What they found out is that even if these people fall asleep and stay asleep, the amount of deep sleep is reduced by about twenty per cent. My note – night after night after night.
In the same interview, he recommends stopping drinking caffeine about fourteen hours before you expect to go to bed.
Caffeine tolerance is a phenomenon where the body gets used to the amount of ingested of caffeine and to reach that comparable caffeine high, I might need to start drinking one or two more coffees daily. This happens as the brain starts producing more adenosine receptors to compensate for the adenosine receptors blocked by caffeine. That means more caffeine is needed to block these extra new receptors.
Ok, this explains the caffeine crash and caffeine tolerance. What about my narcolepsy-like state in my first weeks after quitting caffeine?
Simple: I had so many extra adenosine receptors created during all those years of abusing coffee. All of a sudden, these all extra adenosine receptors started to be occupied at once by adenosine, as there was no more caffeine blocking adenosine. It is telling that my first big sleep started in the morning, around the time I would have my caffeine that would block the adenosine receptors.
Isn’t our body a marvel?
With all these facts, what I would tell myself before quitting caffeine?
- Research, research, research about caffeine withdrawals. Make peace that this is a months-long process, possibly years. Definitely not weeks or days.
- Do not underestimate the crippling fatigue that will hit you. If you can’t take a few weeks off, it is much better to wean off. Go back to the previous point about research.
- Do not underestimate the headaches – Caffeine lowers cerebral blood flow by an average of 27%. That means, when giving up caffeine, cerebral blood flow will start to increase. Drink more water than usual. I found about three litres of water to be ok for me.
- Try to sleep as long as possible in the first six-eight weeks. Trust me, sleep patterns will change after some time. As time goes by, try to adapt to taking naps, twenty-thirty minutes naps, no longer. Otherwise, remember your old friend, insomnia?
- Build stackable habits. All of the good habits that you will develop seem like common sense, but as we know, common sense is not common action.
- Exercise is a must. Better do it around lunchtime, where there is an inevitable dip in energy.
- For recovery after exercising, journal or make your own version of Midday Pages.
- Being low carb and in ketosis will unmistakably help regarding mental acuity. You might feel like you are producing your own energy, instead of borrowing it from a beverage.
- Meditation – after years of trying it, meditation will become easier. Go back to Insight Timer, you will be actually using it every day.
- Plan the next day the night before – this is a must, as Barbara Oakley showed in her course, planning the night before makes it easier to build mental associations to fight procrastination. (As she says: “Write your plan tasks out the night before so your brain has time to dwell on your goals and help ensure success.”) These neural links are reinforced by next day’s morning intention meditation.
- Use time blocking as Cal Newport suggests. I cannot stress the importance of planning and schedule time blocks, these are a game-changer for me.
- Model behaviour – there are truly sad stories on the decaf subreddit with adults being hooked up on caffeine from childhood (innocent chocolate or cocoa milk). As I know right now, in 2020, I would much rather buy white chocolate with sugar for my daughter than 70% dark chocolate that she used to like (oh, and how proud I was of her that she liked dark chocolate). She rarely has it anyway, sometimes not even once a month.
- Find something that is practical, exciting and relevant to you. In my case, blogging.
To conclude: Will I ever drink coffee again? Or have a brownie?
I do not know.
What I do know is that when I think about caffeine, I think about poor sleep, headaches, improper focus, yelling, impatience.
What I do know is that by taking out of my life, I’m adding in in my life.
What I do know is that sooner or later, this deceptive Lady Caffeine of House Lannister will collect her debts.