By Melissa Urban, who doesn’t do “moderation” very well at all
Just over four months ago, I gave up caffeine for good. It wasn’t the first time I’d done without – periodically through the last two years, usually when our coffee habits had quietly and sneakily grown past the point of healthy, we’d do a week or two of no caffeine, and then reset our consumption to a more reasonable level. I’d get to the 14 day mark, figure I was as good as cleansed and then happily make my first cup of coffee, promising myself that I’d go back to consuming “in moderation”. In under a month, however, my consumption was usually right back to where I left off. I’d make every excuse in the book for my 3-4 cups a day – I needed a boost while traveling, a small coffee mid-workshop made the day a little easier, coffee pre-workout was an ergogenic aid. I knew I was kidding myself – and my adrenals knew it too. (News flash: the folks who counsel you on nutrition and health are human, too.)
The last time we gave up coffee for a few weeks was in August 2010, as we were moving from New England to Salt Lake City. I went my usual two weeks without, but when I went back to my beloved Misha’s Route 66, something was different.
Sometimes, awareness sucks
As many of you have experienced with our Whole30 program, the more “cycles” you complete of (a) going without a particular food, and (b) reintroducing it, the more acutely aware you are of the effect that food is having on you. It was the same with my periodic coffee cleanses. Each time I went back to drinking coffee, I noticed just a little bit more how it was negatively affecting my mood, my sleep, my energy levels – even on just one or two cups a day. In August, however, the caffeine straight-up kicked me in the crotch with its nasty effects. These are the things I noticed after only two weeks away, and returning back to just two small cups of coffee a day:
- Caffeine gives me crazypants. Literally. I get anxious. It makes me irritable. I pick fights, I snap at people, my fuse is abnormally short. In general, I’m an unpleasant person to be around sometime around cup one-and-a-half. Sorry, Dallas.
- I become maniacal about my work. I would mindlessly, slowly sip my two cups while typing up blog posts or responding to emails and find myself in this unhealthy place where I’d refuse to break for the gym, to answer a personal phone call or even to pee (for real) because I was firmly entrenched in “work mode”.
- I didn’t eat a full meal until noon. Ever. Caffeine is a powerful appetite suppressant, and despite our rule to eat before our first cup of coffee, I just wasn’t hungry. Though I’d force myself to eat something, two hard-boiled eggs was hardly enough to see me through until lunch.
Stating the obvious
Dallas was the first to say the idea out loud – carefully, mind you. “Maybe you should, um, I don’t know, it’s just an idea, but maybe you should just… give up coffee?” I’d been thinking the very same thing for quite some time, to be honest – at that point, it was easy to see the caffeine wasn’t doing me any favors. I just wasn’t sure I was ready to pull the trigger. It’s a daunting proposition, to give up coffee forever. But on October 24th, surrounded by witnesses, I swore off caffeine… again.
This time, however, was different. While I still went through the same withdrawal symptoms –headaches, lethargy, crankiness – the mental cravings disappeared virtually immediately. The difference this time was that I was giving it up for good. There was no 30 day period, no end point in sight, no “I’ll give myself a longer break and see how it goes.” I decided right then and there that, given the way caffeine affected me, there was no reason for me to keep it in my life. And the finality of that made everything so much easier. (I’ve never been good at moderation, anyway.)
Emerging from my caffeine coma
It took a full month before things (sleep, energy, my over-worked adrenals) started to come back around – that quick fix I was hoping for was nowhere to be found, in fact. Things actually got worse before they got better, which I wasn’t expecting. And even four months later, I’m still noticing slow and gradual improvements in areas I never expected. Sure, I was aware of the mood swings, the irritability, the lack of appetite. What I hadn’t noticed was how caffeine was affecting other areas of my life – until, of course, I gave it up. (And Whole30 principles come around again, right?) These are the things I’ve noticed in the last four months of “caffeine-free”:
- After a full month, I was sleeping so much better. This was a tough battle – the first month, my system was all kinds of confused, and my sleep patterns were all over the charts. I had trouble falling asleep at first, and then I’d fall asleep okay but wake up at 1 AM, 2 AM, 3 AM as my hormonal balance continued to shift. After a solid month without caffeine, I started to fall asleep easy, sleep straight through the night and wake up refreshed without an alarm. (I thought I was doing this already. Comparatively, my sleep quality sucked compared to where it is now.)
- After two months, I started to wake up hungry. Not ravenous, but genuinely, normally, happily hungry. Good lord, I haven’t woken up hungry since 1994. This is an amazing phenomenon in which my body is actually sending me valid signals (hunger) when it’s actually supposed to (after fasting overnight). Amazing… but only after only eight full weeks of being caffeine-free. (Interestingly, feeding yourself a healthy meal within an hour of waking is very helpful in recovering from adrenal fatigue – certainly, waking up hungry makes that a whole lot easier.)
- After three months, my emotional volatility in a certain one week period each month has greatly dissipated. This is the most surprising change – I had no idea my caffeine consumption was connected to such a serious case of “hormone poisoning” during that week. Makes sense in hindsight, but I’m grateful that I no longer ride the hormonal roller coaster every 28 days. (I’m not the only one happy about that.)
- After four months, I noticed my general awareness of stress – and its negative effects – has dramatically improved. For those who know me well, I’ve always thrived on being in a constant state of stress. Work, training, day-to-day activities were all conducted at a maniacal pace, not because they had to be. I just thought I liked it that way. Now, after several months of sleeping well, eating more, and generally allowing my adrenals to recover, I can feel that stress-state creeping on… and I no longer like it. Now, it just feels, well… stressed. (Because in most day-to-day life situations – say it with me – “Stress is bad, m’kay?”) While I’m not great at nipping it the bud every time it pops up, and it’s usually work stuff that sets me off the fastest, I’m much better at recognizing it early and taking measures to ensure my periods of stress are less frequent, and shorter in duration. Progress. And you’re welcome, adrenals.
The road to recovery
I’m hopeful that things will continue to progress and improvements will continue to appear over the next few months – I fully expect it will take at least a year to reap the full physical and mental benefits of a caffeine-free lifestyle. I’ve decided not to mess around with a good thing, and will avoid all caffeinated products for the time being. Turns out I don’t miss black coffee enough to justify a decaf, and I’ve been told by a few smart people that even decaffeinated beverages are too much for the extra-sensitive.
Now, if you think this entire post is just propaganda on the evils of coffee, think again (and re-read our Coffee Manifesto). We’re not trying to tell you what to do – coffee isn’t all good, nor is it all evil. But if you’ve noticed, as I did, that your caffeine consumption takes more than it gives, maybe it’s time to take a good, hard look at your habit, too. The rewards may surprise you.
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