Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tips for Resolving Caffeine Addiction

It's only taken 20 years-ish, but I'm finally in a happy place with caffeine.

Long-term readers will know that over the nine years that I've been blogging, I have endured cold-turkey caffeine withdrawal four times, and managed various caffeine-free periods. The longest of these was nearly a year.

During this long experimental phase, I've determined three things:

1) I, personally, have a really hard time with cold-turkey caffeine withdrawal. I suffer weeks of lethargy, at least five days of sciatica, headaches and don't feel like myself for about a month. The first week requires time off work.

2) Once I'm off caffeine I feel.. better than I did when fully addicted. Not 'amazing all the time' like some would have you believe, but pretty good. I no longer have a severe afternoon slump (I still have a slump, but not the level that requires a snooze), I sleep better, I don't get 'tired eyes' at random times of the day and my mood is generally more friendly and positive. The difference is not huge, but it's an improvement.

3) To be perfectly honest, 'moderate consumption without addiction' gives me all the benefits of complete abstinence, and it's easier to deal with. I have a fantastic coffee machine and putting teechino through it just resulted in a $300 malfunction. I'd rather use it properly.

It took me ages to admit the last point to myself because I imagined that if I just abstained for long enough, I'd hit some pure nirvana of endless energy and motivation. It never happened. In addition, there is no science showing that abstinence has any real health benefits. Coffee just isn't that bad for you, and may even be good for you in relatively small doses. In my mind, the difference is: do you need it for energy, or are you just enjoying your coffee? If you are using it to try and resolve a situation of fatigue, then you either have an underlying health issue, or you are caffeine-dependent. That's not fine. If you feel generally great and just want to enjoy the aroma and taste of a natural brew, then that's more than OK. Nobody ever lived to 100 by being a puritan.

Last year I did 12 weeks completely caffeine free and was feeling pretty good. Then in October, I attended a conference and succumbed to the espresso machine. In true 'all or nothing' fashion, I punished myself with another espresso and went from  0 to 3 overnight. Then I continued the trend and was quickly up to my usual five a day and suffering the subtle, but annoying, effects of caffeine addiction.

A few months ago I decided that zombie afternoons and restless nights were not working for me  and had a think about 'what to do'.

I decided to cut back slowly to a level where I could a) feel fine without caffeine for a few days and b) wasn't affected negatively by my level of consumption.  I thought about going cold-turkey again but could not get motivated. For a start, I'm super busy right now and just can't have sub-par days, and secondly, it's just not worth it. The benefit of abstinence is not enough to make me care.

So, over a short period, I cut myself back to four coffees a week. I have three caffeine-free days a week and once a month I do a full five days decaf (Thurs to Monday) just to be sure I'm not addicted.

It was easy. I suffered very few withdrawals and on my first decaf day, didn't feel any different. I'm sleeping very well, my energy is pretty good, and I don't feel any pressure to be identify as a decaffeinated.

Here are my tips for taking control of your caffeine intake:

* Pick a starting point. Usually you'll be able to cut back your consumption quite  bit before hitting withdrawal. I was drinking the equivalent of five espressos a day (~500mg caffeine), but could comfortably handle two espressos (~200mg), so made that my starting point. If you're chugging the energy drinks you might need to start a bit higher. Pick a point where you can function.

* Decide on your goal. Mine was 4-6 espresso a week (or equivalent, say, in green tea), 3 caffeine free days (Sunday, Monday and Thursday), and I wanted to be able to go five days without caffeine once a month.

* Set a weaning schedule that is about 10-14 days. You don't want to make it too long because you lose motivation. The goal needs to be in sight.

* Cut your caffeine by 50-100mg every 2-4 days.

If you're a nerd like me, you might like to make a sophisticated app for this:

The reason I work in 'half a coffee' increments is because my espresso machine (see pic above) does double shots. It's easy enough to put the demitasse cup under just one stream, and thus get a one shot espresso (0.5).

As you can see, on day 8, I had an extra one, but then got right back on track. With any health habit, messing up does not put you back to square one.

* If you find it hard to cut back, do your reductions on a Friday. The second day on a new level is usually the hardest. You could cut back 50mg on Tuesday and 100mg on Friday, for example.

* Keep your painkillers close. I am NOT a fan of self-medicating with panadol. However, when cutting back I was not in a space to tolerate any downtime. At the first sign of a headache or body ache, I downed a couple of panadol, on day four and five I needed to do this twice, but otherwise I took one dose on a couple of days. Nothing major.

* Exercise. This helps so much with those subtle withdrawal symptoms. A yoga session late afternoon and I was good to go.

* Plan to be a little less productive than usual. You won't be as brain-dead as when going cold-turkey, but you might not be sharp in the afternoons. Just go easy on yourself, if possible. The worst is over quickly.

* Find a substitute beverage. My favourite is peppermint tea. It just feels refreshing. I've given up on the fake coffees. For a start, I'd rather have the real thing, less often. Secondly, as mentioned above, the main attraction was that I could still use my machine, however, the residue blocked the steam filters and damaged the coffee burr (steam+coffee makes a lovely thick sludge that gums up the grinders). Expensive lesson there.

* Believe in yourself. If I can do this, with my apparent proliferation of caffeine receptors, anyone can.

I found that by weaning off like this, I was in a better state at day 12 than when I'd gone cold turkey in the past. I think it was easier on my body and brain and my system ultimately adjusted more easily and more quickly to the new normal of caffeine-independence once I got there.

Ok, let's hear your caffeine stories (again, haha). How is it going for you. Are you a willing caffeind, or a reluctant bean-slave. Or, like me, have you finally got it together? ;)  What do you think? cold-turkey or caffeine wean?

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