But as a daily coffee drinker for well over half of my life, it’s not surprising that my morning cup, albeit large, no longer sustains me with the same energy it once did. On most days, I’ll reach for a second cup by noon… and sometimes a third thereafter if I’m feeling extra sluggish and need a boost.
- Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, Brooklyn–based registered dietitian
While I tend to keep pro-coffee research at top of mind—especially one study that found that coffee drinkers had a 30 percent lower risk of mortality compared to non-drinkers—I’m also well aware that there can be too much of a good thing. According to the FDA, 400 milligrams is the daily upper limit of caffeine intake for most adults. This equates to around four 8-ounce cups of standard brewed coffee, or two 16-ounce cups of cold brew. My caffeine consumption nears this amount on most days (and admittedly, sometimes exceeds it), but I’d like to reap the many benefits that coffee offers without going overboard.
That said, it might be time to do a caffeine tolerance reset. If you’re curious about trying it for yourself, keep reading for must-know tips, tricks, and FYIs from Brooklyn–based dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN.
What causes us to become more tolerant of caffeine?
“Consuming caffeine daily, at consistent levels and over a prolonged period of time, is enough to create tolerance,” Pasquariello says. This can be as little as a cup or two a day with a routine consumption over a few successive days or longer. She also notes that there may be a genetic component to caffeine tolerance, and reminds us that each of us tolerates caffeine differently.
“The primary mechanism thought to be behind caffeine tolerance involves the increased number of adenosine binding sites created with continuous intake of caffeine,” she continues. “Over time, more binding sites for adenosine—a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep-wake cycles—means that more caffeine would be needed in order to blunt feelings of drowsiness, headaches, and [the like].” All of this is to say that the more habituated you become to caffeine, the less effective the same amount will be to yield the same stimulating effects. This may lead you to up your intake in pursuit of more energy and greater focus, which is when a caffeine tolerance reset can help.
How to reset your caffeine tolerance, according to an RD
Decide if you want to go cold turkey
You basically have two options here: going cold turkey or slowly tapering off intake. Opting for the former will likely allow you to reset your caffeine tolerance more quickly. However, Pasquariello says it’s likely to come with some undesirable side effects, “including headache, other aches and pains, fatigue or drowsiness, trouble focusing, irritability, and even symptoms of flu or depression.” But it's not necessarily all doom and gloom, as she notes that the effects of caffeine withdrawal will typically last for a day or two. They may even be less severe in people who don’t consume much caffeine to begin with.
If you prefer this method—which Pasquariello says isn’t typically advised—she suggests consulting a health professional first, as well as checking in with them if caffeine withdrawal symptoms are still present after two days.
Slowly taper off caffeine intake
Pasquariello prefers a caffeine tolerance reset in which you reduce intake over the course of several weeks. “For instance, if you consume a few cups of coffee a day, tapering to two cups over the course of a few weeks, and then tapering again to one cup over the course of the next few weeks would be better advised,” she shares.
This slow and steady approach will be less jarring to your system and can also help you avoid the pangs of caffeine withdrawal. “If you aren't experiencing any significant side effects, simply continue on,” she continues. “This isn't a sign to speed up your tapering process, but a sign that you're doing it right.”
“Trick” yourself into staying the course
If your coffee habits are anything like mine, you may feel resistant to committing to the process. Fortunately, Pasquariello shares a few hacks to basically trick yourself into thinking your caffeine routine hasn’t changed much. “You can dilute your coffee with water (so that the volume stays the same and you can sip it as you normally would, but the total amount of caffeine lowers), or use different brew methods that yield lower caffeine concentrations, or simply brew for less time,” she shares. Moreover, you can always throw lower-caffeine options—such as decaf and green tea—into the mix.
Track and share your progress
Pasquariello recommends logging changes in your caffeine intake, any progress you’ve made, as well as any symptoms that crop up along the way—especially those related to your mood. She also suggests enlisting support from your friends and family, some of whom might be interested in doing a caffeine tolerance reset with you.
Create a solid game plan for caffeinating going forward
As always, it’s best to share any major dietary changes with your healthcare team to make tweaks as needed to set you up for success. They can also help you figure out complementary ways to achieve what you hope to get from caffeine, perhaps even offsetting your reliance on it. For instance, Pasquariello says you may come up with a new routine around sleep or stress management.
If and when you decide it’s time to reintegrate caffeine after tapering down to zero (or close to it), it’s ideal to stick with the same slow and steady approach—this time in reverse. “You did all the work to reduce your tolerance levels, so you'll want to start at zero and work your way up to a cup or two a day,” Pasquariello concludes. By following the steps above, there’s a good chance you’ll require less caffeine than you did a few weeks back to achieve the same effects, all the while keeping your intake within safe and healthy ranges.
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