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Caffeine overload? How to reset your system


caffeine tolerance
Photo: Cynthia Magana/Unsplash

As you sip the morning elixir that fuels you and so many Americans—the all-important, much praised coffee (which is good for you)—you may have noticed that over time, your daily intake has increased. Or perhaps you don’t feel its effects as much as you used to. That’s because your body builds up a very strong tolerance to caffeine—fueling your endless pursuit of that beloved buzz.

Whether it’s taking a toll on your wallet, getting in the way of your hydration game, or inhibiting your productivity at work (it’s a diuretic, after all), you probably yearn for the early days of your coffee drinking, when you first felt its awesome effects with only one cup.

Murray Carpenter, author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, says in a recent interview with Science of Us that over time, your body finds its coffee “sweet spot.”

“Researchers call it a partial tolerance. You’re not just going up and up and up [with how much you consume],” says Carpenter. In an experiment conducted at Johns Hopkins, subjects who were given access to unlimited coffee of varying strengths drank more of the weaker option and less of the stronger brew. “It really seems to be people figuring out how much caffeine their body wanted and then dosing themselves with it.”

To get your tolerance down to a level you’re comfortable with (are you sick of depending on that third cup?), it’s not going to be easy, but there’s a way to do it. The founder of Coffee Chemistry tells Science of Us that you’ll need to cut down on your caffeine intake for a while (like, several weeks) or—if you’re truly a warrior—you can go a bit faster. He recommends drinking half of your normal amount of caffeine for a few days, then cutting that in half for a few more days, and so on.

“After about a week you should be pretty much back to how you were without drinking caffeine,” he says.

If you successfully went through that (probably rough) process and want to slowly introduce it back into your system (it’s been your friend for so long!), Carpenter advises starting with small amounts each day “to figure out what your daily dose is,” Carpenter says.

The good news is it won’t take much—Carpenter says just 35 milligrams (or what’s in a can of cola) “can feel pretty good”—to get back to enjoying that buzz without getting a raised eyebrow from your local barista for coming back for one too many refills.

Just beware where you’re getting your coffee—food fraud is everywhere. To sweeten your favorite bitter beverage, here’s your guide to natural sweeteners.