Healthy Drinks

Here’s What Happens To Your Mood When You Give Up Caffeine

Photo: Getty Images/ Kilito Chan
There are times when caffeine is life's MVP, such as finals week in college or the first, like, five years of being a new parent. (Or, hey, 18 years...) Caffeine is known for providing a jolt of energy and focused attention. There are also other benefits, depending on the source. For example, coffee and caffeinated tea are both high in antioxidants, which benefit the brain and heart.

But if you are relying on caffeine to get through the day or it's negatively impacting your sleep, it's worth considering cutting ties—at least to break the habit of relying on it. After all, you may not always have ready access to your go-to source of energy and then what will you do?

Another benefit to tapering down your caffeine intake—even for just a short time—is learning exactly how different amounts and sources impact your mood and energy. For example, you might just realize that you feel less jittery and anxious when you have green tea in the morning instead of coffee.

Not having to rely on caffeine to get through the day is definitely a beneficial change, but there are ways cutting ties with it can impact mood, both in the short and long term—for better and for worse. Here, neuroscientist, Cleaning Up The Mental Mess author, and NeuroCycle app founder Caroline Leaf, PhD explains the connection between caffeine and mood, detailing exactly what you can expect when you give it up, both right away and long term.

How cutting caffeine can affect mood in the short-term

If you're used to starting your day with a cup of coffee (or three) and give it up cold turkey, Dr. Leaf says it's natural to feel both cranky and tired. "Caffeine is a stimulant, so giving it up will involve some level of withdrawal, which will look different for different people," she says. "Generally, in the short term you may experience more mood swings and tiredness as your brain adjusts to the lack of caffeine in your system."

Can you relate? Instead of giving caffeine up completely, consider tapering off (aka decreasing the amount of caffeine you're drinking slowly) or changing the caffeine source. "Different sources of caffeine can potentially have different effects on the brain and body, including our mood, especially if combined with other ingredients," Dr. Leaf says. For example, coffee can lead to a stronger crash than black tea or green tea, so gradually trading coffee for caffeinated tea and eventually non-caffeinated tea could affect mood less than nixing all caffeine completely at once. Going this route has the added benefit of learning how different caffeine amounts and sources affect you.

For many, caffeine intake is tied to a ritualistic habit; a lot of people look forward to their morning cup of coffee or an afternoon trip to Starbucks. Because of this, it totally makes sense that missing out on what used to be a highlight of your day can put a damper on your mood. The key here is finding a new, non-caffeinated way to bring this same spark of joy. Maybe it's sipping a piping-hot cup of anti-inflammatory golden milk or simply switching from caffeinated coffee to decaf. Or maybe it's going for a short walk instead, which can also be energizing.

While giving up caffeine can initially be a little rough on the mood front, Dr. Leaf does say how you feel now won't last forever. Keep reading to find out what happens if you stick with it.

How cutting caffeine affects mood long-term

Dr. Leaf says that caffeine withdrawal affects everyone differently, but in general, you can expect it to last between two to nine days. Then what? Well, that too depends on the person. "In the long term, you may find that you function better mentally and physically without [caffeine] in your diet, or you may want to go back to drinking [caffeine] to improve your mood," Dr. Leaf says.

If you're sensitive to caffeine and a cup of coffee makes you jittery, life without it could lead to feeling less anxious. That's definitely a welcome shift in mood long-term. Scientific research has shown that caffeine can activate the body's fight-or-flight response, which can make anxiety worse. "Caffeine in coffee can impact some people in a negative way, potentially disrupting the neurotransmitters and contribute to increased levels of anxiety and distress, particularly in young people," Dr. Leaf says. Again, it bears repeating that this is not the case for everyone; it truly depends on the person and how sensitive they are to caffeine.

Dr. Leaf also points out that if your caffeine habit was getting in the way of good sleep and you are sleeping better now that it's not part of your life, that will surely have a positive impact on your mood and energy levels.

Deciding whether or not to give up caffeine is a completely personal decision and Dr. Leaf underscores the fact that coffee and caffeinated tea both have myriad health benefits, including being linked to longevity. Living life without it for at least a short time will help you gain insight into how much caffeine (if any) is best for you personally. Just be sure to stick with the experiment longer than a couple of weeks; try it for at least a month. That way, you can be sure how you're feeling isn't just a symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Then, moving forward you'll know that your mood is truly, well, you and not just your coffee (or lack thereof).

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