Everything You Need to Know About Quitting Caffeine
There are plenty of reasons to love coffee—the smell of a warm roast in the morning, or the chill of an iced coffee on a hot summer day. But if it hurts your stomach or makes you jittery, you may be in the market to quit caffeine. And while it can seem like an innocuous vice, it's hard to kick the habit.
“People don’t think of caffeine as a drug, but it is, in fact, a psychoactive substance,” said Dr. Sal Raichbach PsyD, LCSW, of Ambrosia Treatment Center.
Dr. Raichbach added that caffeine addiction is perhaps one of the most widespread addictions in the country. “The reason why caffeine addiction is so common is that it’s not only a socially accepted substance, it’s encouraged,” he said. “Americans and other western nations are also culturally predisposed to caffeine addiction. We live in fast-paced, get-it-done environment where productivity is essential, so it's no surprise that a mild stimulant that increases attention is extremely popular.”
There’s also the nature of coffee itself that makes it hard to notice when you’re drinking too much. It’s not something that will get you drunk, for example, so you may not even realize how much of the stuff you're drinking. Mercy Medical Center's Carol S. Thelen, MSN, told Extra Crispy that "people don't pay attention to their intake—for example, some people will make an entire pot of coffee, walk around all day with a habit of having a cup in hand."
While having a cup of coffee every now and then is perfectly fine, unknowingly chugging an entire pot is a problem. We all know caffeine is a stimulant, but Dr. Barry Sears, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation, pointed out that it’s more complex than you’d think. “Caffeine is a stimulant in two ways,” he explained.
First, he said, it “increases cortisol levels to give a temporary burst of energy.” But it also tricks the brain to continue working even when levels of critical energy nutrients are decreased, he said. Doesn’t sound great, does it? “Chronic elevation of cortisol by coffee induces insulin resistance that makes you fat, sick, and depresses the immune system,” he said.
Dr. Raichbach added that the benefits of decreasing your caffeine intake, or quitting entirely, also include “decreased anxiety and nervousness, healthier teeth, better digestion, and no caffeine withdrawal.”
So, yes, there are plenty of reasons to quit, but they seem to fade into the ether when you’re craving your morning cup at the crack of dawn. But quitting is perfectly doable as long as you have a game plan.
Dr. Raichbach suggests considering the two ways of quitting: going cold turkey, or slowly decreasing your intake. “Either method works, but many daily coffee drinkers will experience headaches, nausea, and digestive problems when they stop,” he warned.
He added that stopping caffeine “can alter blood flow to the brain, which is a common cause” of withdrawal symptoms.
Thelen says that cold turkey isn’t the way to go if you want to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Wean slowly, she says, rather than cold turkey—and make sure to eliminate "energy drinks" first. Additionally, stop any caffeine after noon. "Using this weaning plan, I doubt the reader will [be] irritable or shaky," she said.
If you’re particularly having trouble with forgoing your morning cup, Dr. Sears suggests something you may have heard you should never do: eat at night. “[Eat] a small balanced snack of about 100 calories before you go to bed to help maintain blood sugar levels while you sleep,” he explained. “The more you stabilize blood sugar levels during the night, the more effective your natural cortisol increases—starting at around 3 a.m. in the morning—become.”
You can also try swap your daily coffee for a less-caffeinated beverage, like tea. “Another measure to take when quitting caffeine is to make sure you are getting plenty of sleep,” Dr. Raichbach said. “Your body is naturally going to feel tired as it readjusts to keeping itself awake without the extra stimulation. A little extra sleep can minimize these negative effects.”