While there are a bevy of health benefits associated with coffee (it is, after all, a rich source of antioxidants, and has been linked to reduced risk of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's), there are also some health concerns associated with consuming too much coffee. And given the addictive nature of caffeine and slightly startling quantity that many Americans consume it—62 percent of Americans drink coffee every day, and the average coffee drinker has over three cups daily, says the National Coffee Association—we could likely collectively stand for a little less jitter-inducing java in our lives. Or at the very least, I could.
- Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, registered dietitian and nationally-recognized food, nutrition, and wellness expert with a private nutrition counseling practice
To understand exactly how pronounced an effect going cold turkey on coffee might have—and to save you the trouble of doing so yourself—I did the unthinkable: I stopped all coffee consumption for two weeks, and lived to tell the tale. Here's what I learned when I tried giving up coffee.
My giving up coffee trial: the good, the bad, and the key takeaways
1. The initial energy slump was a struggle, but it didn't last long.
As expected, the most noticeable difference in my first day without coffee came in the form of a pronounced energy lag. While I don’t typically start my day with immediate coffee, it is always in the rotation within the first few hours after waking up.
Without the caffeine, I felt more lethargic and mentally foggier for a little less than a week. I generally depend on coffee to give me a boost of mid-morning energy, so going without made for a laggier, lazier first few days as my body adjusted. This, explains registered dietitian Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, is one of the most typical withdrawal symptoms that folks experience when easing off caffeine.
“Caffeine is a stimulant. When you're used to having some caffeine in your system, the effects aren't as noticeable because you develop a tolerance to it,” Cassetty explains. “However, when you don't consume caffeine, your body needs to adjust to not having it—this is what invites the withdrawal symptoms.” Other common symptoms aside from low energy and fatigue include irritability, poor concentration, and even feeling slightly depressed.
Luckily, I was spared one of the more uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal: the headache. This, according to Cassetty, is likely because I consume coffee regularly, but not in enormous daily quantities. “Headaches are the most prominent symptom of caffeine withdrawal,” she says. “In this case, regular caffeine consumption causes constriction of your blood vessels. When you stop drinking caffeine, your blood vessels dilate, and there's a significant increase in blood flow to your brain, which is associated with a headache.”
Generally speaking, Cassetty says that a headache will peak in the first 12 to 24 hours of caffeine stoppage, and symptoms are worse in the first couple days before abating.
2. It was easier to fall asleep earlier at night, but I didn't feel more rested until I got over the caffeine withdrawal.
As a result of my general lethargy, I certainly noticed that my bedtimes in the first couple days without coffee were considerably earlier. Without the familiar kick from caffeine to keep me moving through the rest of the day, I found that I was able to quickly shut myself down as the day drew to a close.
That being said, despite my earlier bedtime, I did not wake up feeling more rested in the first few days of my experiment. This is likely due to my sustained symptoms of withdrawal mentioned above.
3. As I got over the hump, I started to drink a lot more water.
While the struggle was real for the first couple days without coffee, by day four, I found something of a newfound freedom without my daily caffeine fix. I used to anticipate a mid-morning lull that needed to be addressed with coffee consumption, but I no longer had this pronounced energy slump—and as such, I found myself craving coffee less.
Moreover, I discovered that as a natural replacement, I began to drink more water. Sure, my initial hydration attempts were likely me subconsciously grasping for a substitute for my coffee habit...but I quickly found that drinking a few cups of water left me feeling refreshed in a way that coffee generally did not. It's also likely that in my former caffeine-reliant life, I was "using" coffee as a water replacement; without the compulsory mid-morning latte, I reached for still or sparkling water, and my body was grateful.
4. Finally, I found deeper sleep and woke up feeling well-rested.
After my first few days of my longer-yet-not-more-restful-sleep stage, my next week of caffeine-free slumber was surprisingly pleasant. Not only did I have an easier time shutting off my brain—and therefore, shutting down my devices—without coffee, but I also woke up feeling markedly better rested. I used to frequently wake up feeling more tired than I was when I went to bed; after giving up coffee, I didn't experience this miserable situation at all. I also woke up fewer times throughout the night.
5. I found solace in coffee alternatives.
During my coffee-free challenge, I discovered quite a few coffee alternatives (beyond water) that offered the semblance of a fix without some of the more negative side effects. One of my favorites is Solvasa's Golden Moment Turmeric Elixir, a turmeric-based beverage blend that dissolves into a delicious golden latte-like spiced tea drink. Like your favorite cup of joe, turmeric also offers anti-inflammatory benefits and is a strong antioxidant, which makes it an easy replacement for at least one of your cups of coffee a day. MUD/WTR is another delicious cacao and chai tea drink that contains adaptogens like reishi, cordyceps, lion's mane, and chaga. And before I tried to turned to soda as a coffee alternative, I opted to instead invest in my first sparkling water maker, the SodaStream Terra, which was easily the best $100 I ever spent. It gives me a deliciously fizzy alternative to tap water that doesn't use single-use plastics, sugar, or artificial sweeteners.
6. When I went back to caffeine, I needed a lot less to feel its effects.
Ultimately, given my penchant for the taste of coffee, my little experiment is not one that I had ever planned on maintaining into infinity. When I took my first sip of my soy latte after the month ended, life was good. But midway through my mug, I could tell I was feeling the buzz more intensely than ever before.
According to Cassetty, this reaction tracks, affirming that many coffee drinkers find that their own reactions to caffeine are muted as your body gets used to having it—and vice versa. “Caffeine resembles the molecule adenosine, so it fits into the receptors meant for adenosine,” explains Cassetty. “Think of it as a lock and key; if you already have a key in a lock, you can't fit another key in there. In this case, blocking the 'lock' means that you're blocking the neural activity of adenosine.” As time wears on, Cassetty continued, folks adapt by developing more adenosine receptors, which is why caffeine produces less of an effect over time.
So I guess I'm kind of like a newborn baby in the caffeine department, huh? Needing to drink less coffee to feel its effects sounds pretty ideal to me, at least while it lasts. The biggest takeaway, however, is that I proved to myself that I can not only survive, but indeed thrive, without coffee. And for that, I can certainly say that this was a worthwhile experiment.
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