Vegan Life | Health
July 10, 2020
“It's just one cup of coffee a day, I know people who drink 3, or 4, or 5... I'm definitely not addicted.”
“Most days, coffee is the only thing I have to look forward to—it's my self-care ritual.”
“I can't focus without my coffee.”
These were all things I told myself to justify my caffeine habit. I'm not the type of person who likes to be dependent on anyone or anything, but I felt sure I wasn't addicted. Until one day, I was really short on money and I couldn't get groceries until payday. That was 5 days away. And I was out of coffee.
“It'll be fine,” I thought. “A few days without coffee won't kill me.”
Little did I realize, those few days would change my life.
Day one without coffee, I was tired. I was really feeling like I could use some coffee to wake me up, but I expected to be tired and I fought through it.
On day two, the headaches began. I was completely and totally exhausted. I felt like I'd been hit by a bus. This was the day I realized I had an actual caffeine addiction. That was not expected.
Throughout most of my twenties, I was just drinking coffee occasionally. Then as I had started working from home, and my mornings were less rushed, coffee became part of my routine. Even as I later returned to working outside the house, I maintained my morning coffee ritual. But it was just one cup a day.
To be clear, I wasn't drinking one cup of American coffee a day. I was drinking a small moka pot of coffee, which is the equivalent of about 3 shots of espresso. So, it was a stronger cup than most Americans drink, and I had a pretty high caffeine intake. But I never thought it was enough to cause an actual addiction.
When I realized I was addicted, I committed to stopping entirely for at least thirty days. I was already going through the worst of the withdrawal. So I figured that I may as well keep going and completely detox from caffeine. I really wanted to see what my life would look and feel like without needing to drink coffee.
Fortunately, the withdrawal didn't last long and by the third day, I was already feeling much better. And I was beginning to feel the benefits of quitting caffeine.
If you want to quit caffeine and avoid withdrawal symptoms, the best way is to gradually cut back on your caffeine consumption. Start by making your coffee half decaf and half caffeinated. Or if you're drinking multiple coffees a day, cut back by one coffee for a week at a time, until you're completely off coffee.
The downside to this approach is that it may take quite a while to quit completely. If you want to quit cold turkey as I did, you'll have some rough days, but you'll also start to see the benefits sooner. For me, it was just 3 days, but the exact timing can vary from person to person.
If you do quit all at once, I recommend doing it when you have a few days off to rest. That way, you can listen to your body and sleep if you need to. Be sure to drink plenty of water. You may also want to keep an over-the-counter pain reliever on hand, in case the headaches get really bad.
Although things were bad for the first few days, by the third day, I started feeling the benefits of quitting coffee. I was sleeping better and it was easier to wake up in the morning. I had more energy throughout the day, and I could think more clearly. Perhaps most surprisingly, I was experiencing less anxiety.
For many people, quitting coffee can also have several health benefits. For one, coffee is quite acidic and can degrade your tooth enamel, which can lead to further problems such as tooth decay. Caffeine consumption may also cause or contribute to heart palpitations in some people. Many people also experience high blood pressure for a few hours after drinking caffeinated beverages. Caffeine consumption has even been linked to changes in estrogen levels for women, although the exact effects vary for women of different ethnicities.
On the third day, I noticed it was easier to wake up in the morning. I have never been a morning person, and I'm still not. But when I was drinking coffee, it was almost like there was this additional weight holding me down in the "sleep realm." The “weight” I have to overcome in the morning to take that first step out of bed is so much lighter now.
I had been drinking coffee thinking it was helping me be less tired. After a few days without it, I realized that in reality, it was making me even more tired. Yes, it was giving me a little boost that lasted maybe three hours. But for those three hours, I would have that “wired” feeling, not the natural alertness that I feel now. Along with higher energy levels, I also notice that I can think more clearly, and I'm more productive overall.
I also started noticing that I wasn't so “on edge.” I've had anxiety for quite some time, mostly triggered by financial stress. When it's at its worst, I can't think clearly, and the voice that tells me about all the things that could go wrong is so loud that it overwhelms the other more reasonable thoughts in my brain. But after a week without coffee, I started noticing a marked reduction in my anxiety.
I thought it was just a coincidence. Maybe I was less stressed that week. But I had just quit coffee because I literally ran out of money to buy coffee, so I probably wasn't less stressed. I also realized that my anxiety had gotten worse since I started drinking coffee daily (although that could also be attributed to increased financial stress during the same time period). I started wondering if anyone else had seen their anxiety reduced by quitting coffee. I searched Google, and sure enough, lots of other people had a similar experience.
It turns out that caffeine triggers your adrenal glands to produce cortisol, the stress hormone, and epinephrine (aka adrenaline). When combined with stress, caffeine increases cortisol production even more. These hormones are normally produced in stressful situations, and increase your alertness to help you respond better to that stress. If you're being chased by a lion, for example, having high levels of these hormones will give you a better chance of escaping. But these hormones are only meant to be produced in large quantities during stressful circumstances. Caffeine keeps you alert by producing these hormones and tricking your body into thinking it's facing a stressful situation all the time, even when it's not.
Obviously, added stress hormones are not helpful for overcoming anxiety.
After I experienced the change in my energy and anxiety levels, I realized I didn't want to drink coffee ever again. My life was changed so much that I couldn't see myself ever going back.
Quitting coffee didn't cure my anxiety entirely. But it did eliminate its dominance over my life. I still have anxiety when I am in a stressful situation; I still have thoughts that tell me that whatever is happening is going to end in disaster. But the volume's turned down a little. Just enough that I can hear the other thoughts in my head that are coming up with another way to handle the situation to avoid said disaster. And suddenly, this situation turns from certain disaster to “this could turn out okay or even better.”
One of the hardest things for me about quitting coffee was losing the comfort and routine of a warm, delicious drink in the morning. So instead, I started drinking hot cacao with maca root. At first, it was difficult to get used to drinking. It's thicker than coffee and sometimes feels like more of a wintery drink. But now I look forward to it. The maca root also has its own benefits that further reduce my anxiety and help give me balanced energy without feeling jittery. Still, I go through periods where I leave the maca root out of the hot cacao. Although it's helpful, I'm wary of becoming overly dependent on anything else. I also drink herbal tea or decaffeinated green tea when I want something a little lighter than the hot cacao.
I want to point out that cacao does contain caffeine. But it doesn't have as much caffeine as the coffee I was previously drinking. Two tablespoons of cacao powder contain around 20-40 mg of caffeine, while a small moka pot of espresso has over 300 mg of caffeine. (I was never really into energy drinks like Red Bull, but they typically contain around 70-110 mg of caffeine per can; yerba mate tea has about 80-90 mg per cup, and a cup of green tea has around 30-50 mg). The small amount of caffeine in cacao is not enough to affect me the way coffee did, but everyone is different, so listen to your body.
I thought the most difficult part of quitting would be passing by the fresh coffee beans in the grocery store without buying a bag. I was really picky about my coffee and I had gone through so many varieties to find the most delicious bean (Allegro's Espresso Bel Canto at Whole Foods Market, by the way... it is available in decaf). But honestly, now I just enjoy the smell and keep moving. The shift in my life and my emotions has been so dramatic that I have no desire to ever go back to where I was.
It's been over a year since I quit coffee, and I have only had a decaf coffee maybe once or twice when I was out at coffee shops with friends. Other than that, I'm just not interested. I remember the thoughts I used to have and I'm in shock (for example, “It's the only thing I have to look forward to in my day”). Those thoughts are similar to an abusive boyfriend who tells his girlfriend he's the only one who will ever care about her. I can't imagine believing that about a man. So the idea that I actually thought that... about coffee... it's crazy!
For most people, drinking coffee once a week or a few times a week is probably totally fine. Quitting coffee entirely may not be right for everyone. But for me, I took the extreme route because coffee was having extreme effects on my life. Quitting coffee changed my life, and I can't see myself ever going back.
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