Skip the caffeine to see what it really does to your system

Since my mid-teens I’ve always had a steady diet of sodas, mostly diet from the college on, all of which had healthy doses of caffeine in them.  I’ve never been much of a coffee drinker, but just by the shear volume of soda, and periodically unsweetened tea, I managed to consume a good deal of caffeine each day for a period of years.  Because I like to continuously wet my whistle I may have my last sip of caffeinated soda literally minutes before bed time.  I swore it did nothing to me, while simultaneously reaching for it for my morning jolt of course.  Once you do without it for awhile however boy can I say that it was obviously doing something to my system.

The first time I came to this realization was back in 2008 when I made a New Year’s resolution to get off caffeinated sodas.  It was going to be my first step towards not drinking any artificially sweetened sodas as a goal for 2009 (notice I didn’t actually achieve any success with that until August of this year, 2013).  At that point Coke Zero was my big drink, so it was just a question of swapping that out for Sprite Zero every time I went to the fridge for a soda (which added up to 3-4 liters a day)  The first day of just drinking Sprite Zero everything was fine, no headaches, no fatigue, no nothing.  By day two the effects really kicked in.  I had a full blown, eye aching migraine headache all day.  The next day I had that plus a feeling like I would with a head cold.  Fatigue kept me in bed and my brain was in a fog.  I actually ended up taking off work that day and slept for the better part of 14 hours.  By the forth day the headaches had actually gotten worse but the fatigue started to subside.  I was able to put in a half day of work but was so drained from that experience that I ended up having a three hour nap followed by ten hours of sleep right after dinner.

After that I had the weekend of doing nothing to fully recuperate and by Monday the chronic symptoms were gone but for the rest of the month of January the slightest thing would invoke an incredible migraine headache.  It wasn’t until many months later that I tried even a sip of a soda with caffeine (much less coffee).   I remember the incredible buzz-like feeling I got from it like I had been wired up to a car battery.  It was all a cautionary tale that I thought had led me to never want to regularly drink such beverages again, but I crept back into my old rut and by the end of that year I was back to “normal” procedures.

This year during my diet experiments I swore off all artificially sweetened beverages and chose not to pick up a coffee habit, so I was concerned about going through the withdraw that I had back in 2008.  The first day of the Paleo Experiment Week I actually did start having the same symptoms on the second morning.  Since I didn’t care directly about going cold turkey off the caffeine that morning I made a huge cup of caffeinated tea.  The symptoms subsided on that day so I kept that process up.  By the time the Vegan Experiment Week came along I knew the routine but this time I wanted to kick off the caffeine too, so rather than intentionally have a caffeinated tea in the morning I would only have it if I felt a bit of withdraw. By the end of the week it wasn’t really necessary, which has meant that since about 8/18/2013 I haven’t regularly been drinking caffeine or artificially sweetened beverages.

That made what I did yesterday all the more poignant.  I did have one week in November where I would nurse an English Breakfast tea (or two) throughout the day while going through some long hours for a week straight at work.  It helped perk me up and keep me topped off throughout the day.  One of the big benefits of not being adapted to caffeine means the wake up feature is much more effective.  Yesterday I was at a conference after several days of long work hours.  The conference was on a technical topic which I have a keen interest in but I could not keep myself alert.  My friend was attending with me and she was having the same problem so went out and got us each a regular sized coffee.  I took a few sips and that nice car battery effect kicked in.  I was now wide awake and alert.  By the end of the coffee I was positively wired.

After lunch I started having some of the typical post-meal nap effect and decided to go for a second cup of coffee.  I had done it with tea so figured it was no big deal.  This time I drank the coffee back much faster, but by about three quarters of the way through I was having a bit of a rough time.  I was now beyond wired, which was actually just a nuisance.  The bigger problem was that I was starting to get a bit of a migraine, one of those back of the eyeballs hurt headaches.  It was ironically the same sort of headache I got from withdraw of caffeine.  I didn’t have any more of the drink but it was incredible to me how just one or two cups of stuff I could have had right before bed actually affected me.

Physical addiction to caffeine in a real effect but you have to have over a certain threshold for a period of time for it to actually become a problem. It varies from person to person but researchers at Johns Hopkins pins the level of consumption that begin the effect at 100 mg per day. People who drink 300 mg or more per day will actually be in another category of physical addiction because their systems are not only used to getting the caffeine but they can be in chronic over-stimulation. How much caffeine does it take to get to the threshold level? is a great compendium of the caffeine content of foods and drinks with a handy search feature.   I used something like it back in the day when I was trying to stay below the threshold once I had given up on my Coke Zero ban.

I could basically have three cans a day and stay just at or below the 100 mg limit (compared to the 300 mg or more I was getting a day from my usual habit).  Those teas I was drinking all week earlier this month never added up to more than 80 mg a day, so the effect of keeping me wired enough during the work day is pretty impressive considering I used to have that just as a wake-up jolt and need more not more than a couple hours later.  That cup of coffee yesterday, was probable on the order of 130-140 mg.  Having two meant that I was probably around 250 mg of caffeine.  No wonder I started getting a migraine!

If you are chronically consuming caffeine and want to get it out of your diet, I recommend not going cold turkey.  This is especially true if you were in the 250 mg or more camp like I was.  It is excruciating.  I would instead suggest cutting back to the minimum amount you need to keep symptoms at bay and then slowly bring that down to zero. That may look like having a tea instead of your coffee in the morning, making sure that your total consumption preferably doesn’t exceed 100 mg.  Over a period of weeks and months (yes, months if you are at extremely high consumption levels) your body will gradually get used to not having the caffeine and you can go on to having a caffeine free eating style.