Growing up, my family drank sweet tea like it was nectar of the gods. A nice, cold soda was never far out of reach, and hot coffee was always in the pot. As a child, I didn’t have an appreciation for the one thing that linked these beverages together: caffeine. However, age brought on a true appreciation of this amazing substance. Every morning was a struggle until a cup of coffee was in my hand, and come lunchtime, I needed a soda (or two) to take the edge off.
Saying I had an addiction to caffeine wouldn’t be far from the truth. I was constantly upping my intake to get that extra pep in my step. However, as I increased my caffeine consumption, I noticed some unwelcome side effects: My hands became jittery, I felt distracted, I was irritable and my stomach would hurt after drinking coffee or soda.
I went to the doctor to see what was wrong, but deep down I knew what the problem was. After I explained the situation -- downplaying the amount of coffee, tea and soda I drank -- he said I had to cut caffeine out of my life. (Apparently I hadn’t downplayed my caffeine consumption enough.) On my way out, he added, "I’m glad I don’t have to give it up. I don’t think I could make it through the day!" Talk about support!
On the way home, I stopped at the store to get one last soda, but as I waited to check out, I realized what I was doing. It would only be the first of many "one last time" caffeine fixes. I knew I had to go cold turkey or I couldn’t (and wouldn't) quit caffiene at all.
Cold turkey meant I would feel the withdrawal effects immediately. And sure enough, once the caffeine reserves left my system, I felt like a zombie. Jim Lane, a professor of behavioral medicine at Duke University, says a person can feel withdrawal symptoms within 12 hours of the last consumption of caffeine, and that they peak at 24 hours. Usually, most people recover from these symptoms in about a week. My symptoms persisted for an agonizing 14 days.
The first day after quitting was the worst. When I woke up, I felt like I hadn’t slept at all. And with no cup of coffee in my future, the morning seemed impossible to get through. Minutes felt like hours, and hours felt like days to my under-stimulated mind. By afternoon, I was irritable and had a terrible headache. I was a mess. The next day was the same, as was the day after that. But I had to push through. Every time I almost reached for a soda or stopped to grab a coffee, I reminded myself I’d have to go through this again if I fell off the wagon. That thought alone helped me push through every moment I second-guessed my decision. Caffeine-withdrawal symptoms like mine have now been widely accepted; in fact, the American Psychiatric Association now recognizes caffeine withdrawal as an actual mental health diagnosis.
Exercise became my go-to weapon in the war against withdrawal symptoms. A little cardio got my blood pumping in the morning and helped chase away any lingering effects of sleepiness. Walking my dogs during lunch break also helped me get centered and reduce my stress. Getting lost in one of my hobbies distracted me from obsessing over my next caffeine fix. Whatever I could do to keep my mind busy and active helped.
Despite the negative side effects of going cold turkey, the benefits of giving up caffeine were, eventually, far better than those first couple hellish weeks. At work, I was able to completely focus on tasks, which made the day go by faster. By contrast, the squirrel-like alertness created by caffeine had kept me jumping from one thing to another without finishing anything.
My sleep also improved. The lack of highly caffeinated drinks before bed helped me pass out faster and stay asleep. I woke up much more refreshed, and no longer had to reach for coffee before feeling like I was ready to take on the day.
At the end of my journey to remove caffeine from my life, I realized the biggest gain wasn't actually related to any of the positive changes in my daily life after withdrawal (although they didn’t hurt). It was the giant confidence boost I received from setting a goal and sticking to it. In a world full of distractions, it’s nice to know I can reach a difficult goal I set for myself and not compromise along the way. The whole experience reminded me I’m in control of my life, body and health. Remember, caffeine isn't inherently bad, but it can be when it becomes a controlling factor in your life. As with most things, moderation is key.