My love for coffee started in high school with weak, syrupy-sweet petrol station "cappuccinos." Then in college, I graduated to Donut King, then Starbucks, then fancy hipster roasts. Somewhere along the way, though, this glorious brew became more of a necessity than an enjoyment. Hectic mornings during which I had to choose between brewing coffee and showering often resulted in me heading to work disheveled and makeup-less, but fully caffeinated. And while traveling for work, I'd never hesitate to suck down that free hotel coffee—the one tasted more like chemicals than Colombian roast—just to maintain a basic level of human functioning.
For 10 years I've been a slave to this drink—downing at least two cups a day, and more often three or four—but last month, I decided that I needed to stop relying on it so heavily. It's not that I think coffee is bad for me (in fact, it's been linked to a slew of awesome health perks), but rather, I just needed to see how life felt without it—did I truly need it, or could I actually survive, and maybe even thrive, without?
Here's what happened when I decided to cut out coffee, and all caffeine for that matter, for 10 days—cold turkey.
Ask any expert and they'll probably tell you to taper your caffeine intake—sub out one of your regular roasts for a decaf coffee or herbal tea every day until you eliminate it altogether. That way, you reduce your likelihood of withdrawal headaches that rival your worst college hangover. The problem with cold turkey, as I learned on day two (peak "I hate everyone and everything because of this throbbing headache"), is that your brain doesn't have time to adjust.
Here, a little biology lesson: Caffeine is similar in structure to adenosine, a chemical that normally binds to receptors in the brain to make us sleepy. But when we drink things like coffee and tea, caffeine binds to these receptors instead, blocking adenosine, and keeping us alert (and feeling awesome). The more coffee you drink, the more adenosine receptors your brain creates, and thus, the more caffeine it takes to keep you alert. We feel like hell when we cut out caffeine because way more adenosine floods the brain than normal, given the increased number of receptors that caffeine is no longer blocking. This not only makes us super tired, but also dilates blood vessels, which triggers headaches (really freakin' horrible headaches). The good news: If you keep abstaining from coffee, or stick to a reasonable cup or two a day, the number of receptors will decrease to a normal level, and you'll stop feeling like death.
A bit of advice: If you're going to cut out caffeine, do not do it at the start of a workweek. I did my experiment while I was taking a weeklong staycation—and thank goodness I did, since the number of naps I took would have definitely gotten me fired. When it came to doing chores around the house, grocery shopping, or other errands that kept me moving, I actually did OK; but once I tried to sit down and do something mentally taxing, it felt like someone had slipped me an Ambien. So if you're going to do this, I'd recommend starting on a Friday, so your worst two days (day two and day three) land on the weekend, when you're hopefully not tied to a desk and making important decisions.
One side effect that I didn't expect was increased cravings. The dip in my energy levels left me ravenous for anything that would give me an instant boost—so basically, anything sweet. Luckily, this only lasted for the first three days. But still, it was pretty intense. I'd recommend having ample fruit available to satisfy your sweet tooth the healthy way, and treating yourself to one thing that's truly awesome—in my case, an apple fritter—because you deserve it!
Part of the reason I enjoy my morning coffee so much actually has nothing to do with the caffeine—it's about the ritual of taking time to sip on something warm and comforting while I get myself mentally prepared for the busy day ahead. So downing cup after cup of herbal tea (apple cinnamon, lemon ginger, mint, and more) became a tasty way to lessen the initial pain of my caffeine-free lifestyle. Going forward, I plan to continue drinking it—at least in place of my second cup of coffee.
Now, onto some positive side effects of this experiment! Given my exhausted state, I was forced to go to bed at a reasonable hour—around 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. most nights—which is something I've been trying to do for years. After a few days of this early bedtime, I was shocked that I was able to wake up at 5:30 a.m. feeling refreshed and without hitting snooze. Looking back, I can see how having my last cup of coffee around 2 or 3 p.m. sabotaged my ability to get to bed at a reasonable hour, and thus made me feel like I needed coffee that much more in the morning.
On days four and five I started to feel OK, but on days seven to 10 I truly turned a corner. My headaches were completely gone, I felt well rested without coffee for the first time in years, and my energy levels were actually on par with what they were when I was consuming two to three cups a day. This taught me that most people who think they absolutely need coffee to function, don't—if we give our bodies time to recalibrate to functioning on no (or minimal) caffeine, we can experience equal but more sustainable energy than we likely have in years.
Uh, hell yes—partially because I just love the taste of a good cup of coffee. But I'm definitely not going to be drinking as much as I used to. I plan to consume it strategically and in moderation, or on special occasions, so I don't become immune to its energizing effects and so it gives me that boost of motivation when I truly need it—like, say, right now as I'm writing this article. Overall, this was an amazing (and somewhat rude) awakening as to how much coffee truly had a hold on me—but also positive, because I learned about my body's incredible ability to adapt.