Life lessons from giving up caffeine

Spilt coffee beans
Source: Unsplash

I entered the first lockdown of March 2020 stressed out from my job, generally unbalanced in life, and unsure of professional direction. The mandate to work from home was a godsend, an amazing opportunity to find more balance, to work less intensely, to have more time for myself.

One of the things that helped me get back on my feet was an experiment of stopping caffeine consumption for a couple of months. Even though since then I’ve become a daily user again, I gained a new appreciation of what this drug does to our bodies and minds, and how to use it more effectively.

Notice how I said drug? Caffeine is a psychoactive drug, one of the most-consumed legal drugs in the world (alongside alcohol and nicotine). It’s pretty crazy that a lot of the adult population relies on it to get through the day. That by itself is an excellent reason to improve understanding of what caffeine does to us.

Why I quit

I quit on a whim. One day in April I decided to do a quick caffeine detox to reset my tolerance. Easter was around the corner, so the approaching 4-day weekend was a perfect time. Simply enjoy my time off without drinking coffee, how hard could it be?

On the second day, I started to feel sick. Heavy and sluggish, it was a struggle to get out of bed. Terrible, splitting headaches. And a total lack of motivation to do anything. Never mind work, even having fun was just not enjoyable anymore. It was like a nasty case of the flu that I brought onto myself and could cure with a single shot of espresso. But I stuck to my resolve. 🤕

Feeling this way for the second day in a row (on Sunday), I thought that this is not right. If not drinking coffee makes me feel this awful, maybe drinking coffee is not a good thing? I simply wanted to never feel this way again. So I decided to keep the detox going indefinitely. I committed to making the change and asked my girlfriend to hide away everything in our apartment with any caffeine content.

After the initial weekend, things started to look up again. My physical strength, energy, and motivation gradually improved. Full recovery took around 2 weeks and that’s when I started seeing the benefits.

The benefits

  1. Sleep quality improved markedly. I fell asleep faster, woke up during the night less, dreamt more, and felt more rested in the morning. In fact, I realized that for years I’d been getting shitty sleep. Simply remembering the meaning of a good night’s sleep was invaluable.
  2. Stable energy levels. With coffee, on most days I would have a frantic morning, an afternoon crash (which I treated with more coffee 🤫), and I’d be completely exhausted in the evening. Now, it was more even. There were no great highs and terrible lows. Even though the peak performance was lower than with caffeine, I could be productive at any time of the day.
  3. Peace of mind. Anxiety and racing thoughts decreased significantly. As a result, I felt a greater connection to myself, could take greater care of my needs and felt happier.
  4. Time slowed down. An unexpected effect was that my perception of time changed. I started to feel as if time goes more slowly, having regular observations of the form it’s only been five minutes? I attribute it to the lack of frenzy and tunnel vision caused by caffeine. It made me feel like I’d been speeding through life and letting it slip through my fingers, instead of slowing down and enjoying it while I can.

But there were drawbacks too. I found myself less motivated to do anything (both my job and personal obligations), and generally less able to concentrate. Still committed to sobriety, I began searching for new activities to provide that dopamine hit and doubled down on running. 🏃‍♂️ That worked, but just wasn’t enough.

The slippery slope

After a couple of months, my resolve began to crack. While I felt relaxed, I simply wasn’t satisfied with my performance at work. So I started what I called caffeine microdosing: taking tiny doses of caffeine when I needed to focus on something. Coffee and tea would have been too strong, so I turned to dark chocolate and cocoa. 🍫

The observations were interesting. After over a month of total abstinence, eating a tiny piece of dark chocolate would give me a subtle caffeine high. I estimate these doses at around 1 g of chocolate (1/100th of a standard bar), which should not contain more than 1 mg of caffeine. It’s crazy that such a tiny dose had a noticeable effect. But then, it could have been placebo. 🤷‍♂️

A few times I drank cocoa that I estimated to contain around 20 mg of caffeine. I observed the classic undesirable effects:

  • jitters, bouncing my legs up and down
  • frantic thinking, quickly jumping from thought to thought
  • anxiety
  • going down Wikipedia rabbit holes
  • frequent urination

These effects subside with regular usage, but it’s still weird how powerful a small dose can be if you don’t have a tolerance.

I gradually increased both doses and frequency, and now I’m pretty much a regular user again.

The new routine

These days I favor tea over coffee. I tend to have a strong one in the morning and sometimes use the leftover bag or leaves for a top-up after lunch.

Why did I go back to using caffeine regularly? I simply missed the motivation. Without caffeine, I felt happy and relaxed, but I wasn’t getting much done. And at this stage in my life, I want to get things done. I like the focus, the boost in motivation, and the single-mindedness that caffeine provides, as long as I channel them into work I care about. Besides, I enjoy the euphoria, perhaps more than I should. 😉

Tea has several benefits over coffee:

  1. It naturally contains l-theanine, which tapers the jittery effects of caffeine. Sometimes I still take an extra pill of theanine (this is the one I use) if I’m having a very strong tea. And I recommend taking it with coffee always.
  2. Tea is easier to make at home than coffee.
  3. It’s more varied — there’s plenty of types with different flavors, and you can mix it with herbal or fruit infusions.

I regularly have days without caffeine (mini-detoxes) to slow down habituation. I’ll probably have another long detox when I take a proper holiday.

Closing thoughts

The main benefits of quitting caffeine temporarily have been:

  • I realized how much it affects my life. Being constantly high had become the new normal for me (and a lot of other people) and I don’t like it.
  • I can manage my consumption better to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks.
  • I reset my tolerance, such that lower doses achieve the desired effect.

High caffeine consumption can be a way to distract yourself from problems. People can use it to become artificially motivated to do stuff they don’t want to and should not be doing. Quitting can bring you in touch with yourself and remind you of what’s important to you.

Quitting cold turkey was difficult, and I’m proud that I succeeded in breaking the physical dependence on a substance. Even if I decided to go back to it, it was still an achievement.

More importantly, I managed to redefine my relationship with caffeine. I am no longer a junkie that needs to have coffee in the morning just to function. I use caffeine when it suits me and don’t use it when I don’t need it. I have more control, rather than being controlled by my body’s need for this substance.

A word of advice: if you’re going to quit cold turkey, watch out for all the sources of caffeine, including:

  • cola & certain other sodas
  • chocolate
  • cocoa powder

If you’re not careful, the drug will easily sneak up on you.

Caffeine is neither good or bad. It’s a psychoactive drug (admittedly, mild in comparison to some others), that’s socially acceptable, widespread, and has a culture built around it. A large part of humanity is physically dependent or addicted to it. All I’m saying is: use it as a tool, but be aware of the benefits and costs.

1130cookie-checkLife lessons from giving up caffeine

2 thoughts on “Life lessons from giving up caffeine

  • Interesting. I find having a large French style bowl of coffee and breakfast and then no more is good as it gives the body a push to get going in the mornings without having much impact on my sleep or the rest of the day. A 10k jog at midday helps sleep but can lead to extreme drowsiness after the initial high in the afternoon. I think like with other ‘ weaknesses’ such as alcohol, it’s good to have a two or three day break, until the time you feel you no longer need it. I think the same goes for meat. In fact most things we enjoy. I’m not advocating an aesthetic lifestyle, just working on basis that we need variety and often food which we feel is good for us, is only good if taken in moderation. Giving it up for a few days is the alternative. It will help your digestion and thus help your sleep and facilitate the restoration of the body.

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