Although the debate over whether coffee is healthy or not has been going on for decades, most recent studies suggest that regular coffee consumption is not harmful, and may even offer some protection against diseases like Type II diabetes and liver cancer.
While coffee isn't harmful, some people find it beneficial to reduce or even eliminate caffeine for a variety of reasons. Doctors sometimes recommend cutting down on caffeine to patients with health conditions including insomnia, acid reflux, pregnancy, anxiety disorders, hypertension or heart problems, while other people may simply dislike the idea of “relying” on a stimulant to get through their day.
To someone who’s been drinking coffee every morning for the last five, ten or twenty years, the idea of adjusting to a caffeine-free life may be daunting. In fact, the effects of caffeine withdrawal can be serious enough that the American Psychiatric Association decided it warranted inclusion in the fifth edition of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But understanding what caffeine withdrawal is, and how to avoid it, will make the idea of going caffeine-free less intimidating.
What Are the Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal?
One symptom that will be familiar to many people who have skipped their regular coffee for a day or two is a persistent, unpleasant headache. A study found that about 50% of people who ceased caffeine consumption experienced one, and the intensity can range from mild to severe.
Other common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include sleepiness, fatigue, and an inability to concentrate. Emotional effects such as irritability, mood swings or depression occur in many people.
In some cases, even physical side effects like nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, digestive distress, and constipation can accompany caffeine withdrawal.
The Causes of Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
How can simply quitting caffeine wreak such havoc on your body? One reason is because caffeine molecules fit neatly into the adenosine receptors in our brain, which prevents natural feelings of sleepiness and also boosts the effects of dopamine (a “feel-good” neurotransmitter). Caffeine also causes our adrenal glands to release adrenaline, which gives us a feeling of alertness. When the caffeine is taken away, our dopamine levels plummet, and we start to feel tired and moody.
Researchers believe that withdrawal headaches happen because once the adenosine receptors are no longer blocked by caffeine, blood vessels in the brain dilate, causing a temporary feeling of pressure or pain.
Because coffee stimulates gastrointestinal function, some people who suddenly reduce their caffeine intake experience problems with their stomach or digestion, but these side effects are less common.
How to Avoid Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
It’s impossible to predict how your body will react to a caffeine-free lifestyle, but there are a number of strategies to blunt the discomfort of withdrawal:
1) Instead of cutting your caffeine intake drastically, plan to gradually taper down by reducing your caffeinated coffee consumption by moderate increments over a period of days or weeks. If you drink three cups a day, try limiting yourself to two, and then eventually to one, or half a cup. This will hopefully reduce the intensity of any withdrawal symptoms you experience.
2) You can also try switching to decaffeinated coffee and teas. One cup of decaffeinated coffee contains about four milligrams of caffeine, much less than the 100 milligrams found in a typical cup of regular coffee. Some people like to mix caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee together to adjust their intake. Watch out for other possible sources of caffeine in your diet, including sodas, energy drinks, and chocolate.
3) Keep hydrated and get some exercise. Drinking water will help your body flush toxins, and exercise triggers the release of mood-boosting dopamine in your brain, which will be diminished with the lack of caffeine.
4) Allowing yourself to rest is also important. Without caffeine artificially stimulating your adrenal system, it’s natural to feel much more tired than usual. Sleeping for eight hours a night will give your body time to repair itself. If a withdrawal headache is keeping you awake, you might want to take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
5) Although the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can be unpleasant and even awful, most people report feeling better in a week or two. Planning ahead by gradually decreasing your caffeine intake, staying hydrated, and allowing time for plenty of sleep and moderate exercise will help make the discomfort of withdrawal pass even more quickly.