I went from 8 cups of coffee every day down to 1 (and some days, none!). Here’s why and how I broke my caffeine addiction.
I grew up Mormon so I never touched coffee until my mid-20s. I also didn’t regularly drink soda growing up since I didn’t like it, so, therefore, I didn’t drink caffeine – or at least not very often. So while 66% of American adults drink coffee daily (source) and 90% drink it regularly (source), I wasn’t one of them. Initially.
But eventually, I became completely addicted.
Coffee is one of the most well-known natural stimulants, along with nicotine. But whether or not coffee is listed among addictive substances depends on who you ask. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists caffeine addiction as a clinical disorder. But the American Psychiatric Association (APA) doesn’t identify caffeine addiction as a substance use disorder. The APA does, however, recognize caffeine withdrawal as a clinical condition. (Source)
And yet another classification comes from the Johns Hopkins Psychiatry Guide called “Caffeine Use Disorder”, which refers to a “disruptive, problematic pattern of caffeine use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress. Common features of the disorder include overuse, inability to quit, withdrawal symptoms, craving, tolerance, and continuing to use despite problems.”
That 100% sounds like what I was experiencing over that year with my coffee intake.
So, yes, the scientific community has different definitions and different opinions on the addiction level of caffeine, but if you’re reading this post, you probably do believe that caffeine and coffee is addicting. And while there is research to show that coffee does have some solid health benefits, I’m going to focus on the benefits of reducing coffee intake in this post.
My personal experience, without a formal study needed, is that it’s definitely an addictive substance. Over the last 10 years after I fell in love with coffee, my daily caffeine consumption has steadily increased. I also fell in love with finding really great coffee, and I appreciate the ritual of coffee. I love waking up to the smell of my drip coffee machine starting to brew on a timer. On the weekends, I love grinding fresh beans and making french press coffee. Holding a cup of coffee as I slowly wake up is one of my favorite forms of comfort.
My coffee intake really started to increase when I moved to Charlotte a few years ago, and as part of my new-house purchases, I got a drip coffee machine. Previously I only had a small french press and a small Bialetti so it wasn’t really practical to make more than 1-2 cups without brewing multiple times. But once I got a 12-cup coffee maker, I made half a pot since it was easy enough to make more. I started drinking two cups before work and then emptied the pot to take a large travel mug with me to work. Then, once I was in the office, I typically went to get coffee with a coworker to catch-up, and then again in the afternoon for a little break. So 1-2 cups of coffee escalated to 6 cups.
It was when I was running at 5:30 AM to train for the Boston Marathon and not sleeping nearly enough. I needed to consume caffeine to help get me going in the morning. And, I also needed coffee to help get my digestion going in the morning before I ran, ahem.
It makes sense that my caffeine dependence gradually increased. According to the Addiction Center, “In people who drink caffeine regularly, the brain’s chemistry and physical characteristics actually change over time. The brain cells will begin to grow more adenosine receptors in an attempt to . This is how tolerance to caffeine develops; because the brain has more adenosine receptors, it takes more caffeine to block a significant proportion of them and achieve the same desired effect.”
As my work stress increased (I was working 80+ hours a week), I drank more coffee since it was comforting. And it helped me get all the things done that I needed to get done since initially it gave me energy and helped me focus. And eventually I was up to 8 cups of coffee a day.
So why did I decide to drink less coffee? I started having extreme fatigue and could not focus on work. In addition, I felt like I could take a nap at any point during the day and I’m not a napper. I also couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than 10 minutes. One of my friends said I could be dealing with adrenal fatigue, brought on by a high period of extreme stress (long work hours, marathon training and lots of travel). And caffeine is one of the worst things if you have adrenal fatigue. Granted, adrenal fatigue isn’t yet formally recognized by the medical community, and I don’t even know how I feel about that label, but I was desperate to improve my energy levels.
I also started having panic attacks. Now, I know excessive caffeine is definitely not solely responsible for my panic attacks but it certainly didn’t help. And I was desperate to do anything to improve my anxiety.
Plus, I knew if my husband and I decided to have a baby at some point (we did, btw!), I would have to cut back on caffeine whenever I got pregnant. I’d much rather have time to gradually wean myself than go cold turkey down to just one cup of coffee if I suddenly got pregnant. Oh, and I started having horrible acid reflux in the mornings after drinking coffee, and that was miserable to deal with while running.
I first wrote this post in 2019 and while I’m not caffeine-free by any shot four years late, but I haven’t gone back up to the 8+ habit day, and I’m better able to monitor when my caffeine dependency is becoming a problem.
So, how did I do it? There are five things that helped break my caffeine addiction.
While you could go cold turkey, it’s likely going to suck, especially if you drink a lot of coffee each day. I gradually reduced my intake over a month. I stopped having my afternoon cup of coffee first. Then I stopped going to get coffee after I’d emptied my pot at home. That cut out two cups a day.
Next, I starting making less coffee so there was less for me to drink in the first place. I kept having two cups pre-run but then I only had one cup with with breakfast after I ran, rather than my usual two. Then, I reduced to one cup pre-run and one cup post-run. And finally, I switched to one cup pre-run and then made decaf post-run.
On days that I was really struggling during the gradual phase down, I’d have a cup of black tea or green tea since the amount of caffeine in tea is less than coffee and espresso. Black tea has 25-48 mg of caffeine in an 8oz cup and green tea has 25-30 mg. If you’re new to tea, it may take getting used to since many people find it tastes like dirt. Try a few different varieties and experiment with sugar and milk to decide what you like. You may not want to grab a fully caffeine free tea at first since it won’t help minimize withdrawal symptoms.
I love gunpowder or genmaicha green tea. I like black tea less, but I do like chai tea (which is black tea with spices). And I hate any flavored teas, like peach, strawberry, etc. I prefer my green tea plain, while a little milk and honey makes black tea more palatable.
Remember that herbal tea doesn’t have any caffeine so keep that in mind if you’re trying to minimize withdrawal symptoms. And remember that energy drinks often have MORE caffeine that coffee so you’ll need to be aware of what’s in those if you try to replace your coffee with a different type of beverage.
When I wanted to switch to decaf coffee post run, I knew most days I would be too lazy to brew an entire new pot of coffee or make a decaf french press. I also knew I was too much of a coffee snob to drink Kuerig coffee, and I didn’t want to use plastic cups or use the reusable cup. But I remembered how much I loved the Nespresso in our hotels in Ireland and St. Lucia.
After a little research, I learned Nepresso recycles their aluminum pods (they send a bag for you to mail them back) which made me feel better about the whole thing. So I bought this Nespresso to brew my decaf cup. It gave me the ritual of brewing coffee and I didn’t notice a difference in taste at all with decaf. Yes, it was a splurge but I knew it was going to be brutal to decrease my caffeine intake, and I wanted to treat myself. Having a really good cup of espresso helped ease the pain when I was dealing with withdrawal symptoms.
Once I had the Nespresso, I really enjoyed having that first thing in the morning rather than drip coffee. But what I didn’t think about at first was how that also helped me decrease my caffeine intake. It’s common misunderstanding, thinking that espresso has more caffeine than coffee. While espresso does have more caffeine than coffee, ounce for ounce, most people drink far more coffee than espresso in one cup.
Here’s the math:
So, in short, try ordering an espresso drink rather than a coffee-based drink if you’re looking to cut caffeine.
If you are equally addicted to the ritual of drinking coffee in the morning, brew decaf at home, which is where you’ll probably get the bulk of your coffee intake. Then, buy a caffeinated cup on the way to work. It’s a little reverse of what I did but if you don’t want to buy a separate machine to brew individual types, this is one way to do it. Or, brew a small pot of regular coffee and then buy decaf later if you typically stop on your way into work.
So what’s going to happen as you decrease your caffeine intake? Here’s a list of fun things you’ll likely experience.
The headaches were the worst part for me. They started around 10am and would last until about dinner. I tried not to take ibuprofen everyday but sometimes I broke down and popped a painkiller just so I could focus on work. I definitely felt a little down and my husband will probably tell you I was irritable too. But considering I was exhausted all the time anyway, I didn’t notice a difference in fatigue as I cut back. To cope with all of that, I tried to take extra walks outside to get vitamin D and get my blood flowing. And I drank a LOT of water.
But, all the symptoms were short-lived and after a month or so, I felt like a new woman. My concentration improved dramatically; I was able to focus on tasks for a much longer stretch of time than before. And considering I do a lot of writing for a living, that was a HUGE improvement. I also started sleeping a lot more soundly (not waking up as often in the night) and I got tired at a normal bedtime, so I was able to log more total hours of sleep.
So, if you go through the pain of withdrawal, how is it making you healthier? By decreasing caffeine, you can expect to sleep better, feel less jittery and have less anxiety. If you struggle with heartburn or have to pee often, those symptoms will also improve as you reduce your coffee intake.
Again, it depends who you ask. A 2015 study found that coffee consumption was associated with an 8% to 15% reduction in the risk of death. Many other studies show that drinking coffee decreases the risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and uterine and liver cancer.
Conversely, the World Health Organization reports that coffee has been linked to irregular heartbeat and increased cholesterol levels. The WHO also states that long-term use of high caffeine intake (defined as 4+ cups of coffee a day) may be linked to loss of bone density, which increases the risk of osteoporosis. Considering I have high cholesterol and have a family history of osteoporosis, those are two reasons I’m more conscientious about how much coffee I drink.
So while the data is inconclusive or confusing at best, there are some side effects of caffeine that are everyone agrees on. In short, it wires us, alters digestion, and messes with our sleep and emotions. Too bad it tastes so dang good.
I found that people reacted similarly to my decreased caffeine intake as they did to my not drinking alcohol. That is – not great. It was almost like my decreasing caffeine upset them, made the insecure or they were annoyed by it. We all like our decisions to be validated by others with similar habits. So if helps you cut back, know that I’m in your corner and I’m telling you, it’s WORTH IT.
What about you?
Are you addicted to caffeine? Have you ever tried to decrease your intake? How did it go? Are you working on breaking the habit? What is your caffeinated beverage choice? Leave a comment and share your experience.