Caffeine can be a very effective pick-me-up, but what it does to your brain is quite scary. Like most things, it's fine in moderation, but when you get to the point of being dysfunctional without that first morning cup, it may be time to admit you have a problem. Here's how to kick your caffeine addiction without feeling like crap in the process.
Stop for a moment and think about how much caffeine you consume. Your morning cup of coffee is obvious, but also consider caffeinated drinks. Then think about how many cups of tea you have, caffeinated snacks you eat, and whether your preferred painkiller has caffeine in it. It can add up pretty quickly, and if you're not careful, caffeine can become a crutch instead of a tool.
A few years ago, I could stop by a convenience store for a giant cup of coffee at 2am, drink it, go to bed at 4am, sleep soundly, and wake up at 7am to go to work with no problems. That's when I realised that if I actually wanted to use caffeine as a tool to stay alert, I wouldn't be able to -- my tolerance was too high.
I decided to do something about it: I wanted my morning cup or afternoon tea to actually help me focus instead of being a lifeline to keeping me awake. I cut my intake back bit by bit, and in the process learned to really love coffee and tea -- blends, brews, types and styles all started to appeal to me, and in turn I'm more mindful when I pour a cup.
We'll share some techniques to tame your caffeine addiction and make it work for you, instead of the other way around.
Tame It Or Quit It?
Whether you choose to give up caffeine entirely or just want to use it intelligently is up to you. Some of us at Lifehacker HQ have given it up, but others love our morning cup and indulge in an afternoon tea. What we all agree on though is that caffeine, like anything else in your diet, should be taken in moderation, understanding exactly what it does to you and why. Photo by Ellie Goodman.
There has been a lot of research into the effects of caffeine on health, and you'll find opinions on all sides as to whether you should drink more, less or none at all. We're not going to tackle that debate here, but we will say this: if you're not using caffeine strategically and consciously, it's time to take back the reins. When consumed intelligently, caffeine can offer health benefits to bear while simultaneously giving you a much needed boost. In short, your caffeine habits should be akin to using a scalpel, not a howitzer.
Stick To What You Love And Cut Back Gradually
- Count your caffeine. The first thing you need to do is keep track of how much caffeine you take in. Alannah suggests, "GO SLOW. Caffeine is mightily addictive, and any sort of drastic change can bring about equally dramatic symptoms. I'd begin by taking accurate note of your intake over the first few days." If you're willing to do the maths, she points out, bringing your caffeine intake to a reasonable level will be much easier. You'll be able to tell where you're struggling and make adjustments, or hold at a given point without giving up. Photo by shira gal.
- Cut back slowly. It may be the most obvious suggestion, but trying to go cold turkey when you're taking in a lot of caffeine over the course of a day is a recipe for disaster. At best, you'll feel miserable and power through it; at worst that miserable feeling will make you just give up. "When you're talking about 10 or 12 cups of coffee a day, you're looking at something that will take a little over a month to scale back on. I would recommend having two fewer cups of coffee each successive week (10 cups a day one week, then eight cups a day the next, six cups the next day and so on). That should help mitigate the typical withdrawal symptoms -- mainly headaches, anxiety and irritability," Andy notes. Start slow and give yourself time to kick the habit (or come down to a manageable level).
- Choose a different coffee drink. If your usual drink at the coffee bar is a standard cup of drip or a multi-shot espresso, consider changing it up to something with the same volume but less caffeine. (But don't substitute more sugar and milk, or you'll end up with a weight problem.)
- Kick other caffeinated beverages. If you love your morning cup of coffee too much to give it up, but you want to cut back the caffeine you consume, look elsewhere in your diet. Do you drink sugary, caffeinated soft drinks in the afternoon or evening? It may be easier to switch to some other tasty, healthy alternatives instead. Picking something else to sip when you need refreshment can benefit your health and help you kick caffeine. If you're a fan of super-caffeinated snacks, cut back on those too.
- Drink water. The benefits of hydration are well documented. We've busted the myth that caffeinated beverages don't hydrate you before, but this is about cutting caffeine. A little water -- even flavored waters with citrus, fruit or other flavourful mixers -- can replace the volume you normally take in with soft drinks. Our own Adam Dachis mentioned that his sister, who sings professionally, has been known to just enjoy a hot cup of water instead of coffee or tea. Hot water is a popular performer's trick to keep your voice in prime condition, and is sometimes taken with a little lemon or honey to add flavour. If a hot cup is all you want, give it a try.
Go For Tea Instead
My two caffeinated beverages of choice are coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. Even some of us at Lifehacker HQ who very closely watch our caffeine intakes are willing to enjoy a cup of tea from time to time, and you can too. The key is to learn a little about tea, which teas have the most caffeine in them and which have the least.
We've laid out coffee and tea side by side before, but one thing is clear: if you're drinking coffee all day or tossing back cans of Coke, any tea will represent a cut in your caffeine intake, and can bring in some of caffeine's alertness and focus benefits without the crash you get from a sugary, caffeinated drinks or a quad-shot espresso. Our coffee lover's guide to tea is well worth a read if you want to get into tea, but here are some critical points:
- Black teas have the highest caffeine content, usually upwards of 60-70mg per cup. Much of this depends on the blend and the steep time though -- shorter steeping can get you a cup of black tea with 20mg per 350mL cup, but deeply roasted, long-steeped black tea can push 100mg per cup. (That's still a bargain compared to a cup of drip coffee, which can come in well over 100mg.
- Green teas fall in the middle, averaging around 30-40mg per cup, again depending on blend and brew. Green teas usually don't push past 50mg, but lightly steeped pots can come in close to 10mg. (Don't fall for the myth that green tea has no caffeine.)
- White teas usually have the least amount of caffeine, partially because the plant is harvested at a young age and the leaves are very lightly roasted. White teas carry between 5-30mg per 350mL cup.
- Herbal teas vary depending on the herbs that go into them. You'll have to do your homework on this one. Rooibos (aka Red Bush) has no caffeine, while Yerba Mate has more caffeine than coffee.
If you're considering tea as a substitute for coffee, you'll be decreasing your caffeine intake with the same volume intake. If you're considering tea as a substitute for soft drinks, you'll still need to cut back. In either case, tea is a tool to help you cut back, not an overall replacement.
Fight Caffeine Withdrawal With Exercise
Andy made one more creative suggestion: exercise. "One of the best ways to conquer caffeine withdrawal symptoms is to get some sort of exercise for 20 to 25 minutes. Exercise unleashes a flood of endorphins, which often helps to curb headaches." While you probably can't just go for a run or hit the treadmill every time you crave a soft drink or a cup of coffee, it's true that exercise -- especially regular exercise -- has mental and emotional benefits as well as immediate benefits. Photo by Mike Baird.
That said, if you're looking to tame instead of eliminate your caffeine intake, a little caffeine can go a long way when it comes to exercise. Cutting back and getting your habit under control can offer you a valuable tool to make your workouts more effective. Just make sure to stay hydrated.
You don't have to give up caffeine entirely to get your intake under control. You may be ingesting way more caffeine on a daily basis than you think you do. Maybe you want to have more control over how caffeinated beverages make you feel. Whatever the reason is, you can get back in the driver's seat and learn to love your coffee and tea instead of feel like you're in an abusive relationship with it, all without feeling like death for weeks or months to get there.
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, is a nutritionist and author of the blog Small Bites. You can follow him on Twitter at @andybellatti. Alannah Dibona, MA, MS, is a nutritionist and wellness counsellor, and the woman behind mindbodysportconsulting.com. Both graciously volunteered their expertise for this story, and we thank them.