8 Steps to Recovery From a Former Addict
A pot of coffee a day and two sodas. That was my daily caffeine fix for most of my early adult life. Sometimes I could even be found with a cup of joe in one hand and a diet coke in the other. That’s 1,040 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day or much more than twice what’s considered to be a safe amount. When I was in my late 30s, I cut back to two cups of coffee in the morning and a soda to get me through the rest of the day. But after more than three decades of drinking more caffeine than should ever be consumed (yes, I started with a regular soda habit when I was very young), the damage had already been done. I was wired!!! I couldn’t function without the stuff, there was no doubt that I was addicted, I was definitely feeling the health effects of it, and it was time to get caffeine out of my life.
I made my decision one day and stopped cold turkey with coffee and soda the next. It was surprisingly much easier than I thought it would be, and while I can’t say I went into it with a plan, the way I did it definitely worked and apparently included several recommendations from medical experts – although I didn’t know it at the time. That’s why I want to share what I’ve learned about caffeine addiction as well as the steps I took to free myself in hopes that it might help make the journey for others as relatively painless as mine was.
What is Caffeine?
If you rely on your cup of coffee to get you going in the morning, you’re definitely not alone. According to the Johns Hopkins Psychiatry Guide, “Caffeinated foods and beverages are regularly consumed by 85 percent of adults and children in the U.S.” While experts disagree on whether or not caffeine should truly be called a drug1, 2,3 , they all agree that it is a central nervous system stimulant and alters the way your brain and body work. In fact, researchers at Princeton say it’s “the most commonly consumed legal, psychoactive substance,” and while it has a range of effects on people, “it is considered safe in limited amounts.”
Health Effects of Caffeine
That of course, begs the question, what is considered to be a safe amount? The Mayo Clinic says that up to 400 mg of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. Others say that more than 200-300 mg per day can lead to sleep issues. To give you an idea, it is generally agreed upon that one cup of brewed coffee contains an average of 95 mg4, 5 of caffeine. A soda has an average of 36-69mg5 per 12 oz. with amounts varying by type.
While the health effects of caffeine vary by person, it definitely raises your heart rate, increases energy levels and improves mood. Those things certainly aren’t bad when caffeine is consumed in moderation and at safe amounts. But when you drink or eat more than 400 mg a day, you could experience some mild to serious negative effects. Mayo Clinic says that some of these include the following:
- Migraine headache
- Frequent urination or inability to control urination
- Stomach upset
- Fast heartbeat
- Muscle tremors
Other than restlessness, I could have checked off this entire list. When I say migraines, I mean debilitating ones that I was told I’d have to take medication with horrible side effects for the rest of my life to control and hand tremors so bad I’d slosh the coffee from my cup when I was holding it. Whether they absolutely had to do with my caffeine consumption, I can’t say, but all I do know is that when I gave up caffeine, what had become daily issues went away, and I very quickly was able to stop taking my headache medication. Since I’m a “call a spade a spade” kind of person, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that all signs point to my crazy excessive lifelong relationship with caffeine.
Caffeine Addiction or Dependence
Is caffeine addictive or capable of producing a dependent response? Yes! All evidence says that it is. Several studies show that it “produces the same behavioral effects as classical psychostimulants, such as cocaine and amphetamine, mainly motor activation, arousal, and reinforcing effects.” Which means, that it’s chemically addictive.
According to the criteria put out by the JourneyPure At The River addiction and mental health treatment facility, determining whether your caffeine consumption is simply a habit or an addiction really comes down to figuring out if it’s having a negative impact on your life and if trying to stop produces withdrawal symptoms. While any regular coffee drinker that’s had to go without for a day or even had it delayed because of a medical procedure or schedule change knows about withdrawal symptoms, you have to ultimately decide how comfortable you are being that dependent on a substance. If it’s causing other negative health effects such as the ones I was experiencing, then it’s probably time to unplug the coffee maker and put down the sodas.
My Steps to Caffeine Recovery
First, let me be perfectly clear. I am not a medical professional and none of this information is intended as medical advice. If you believe you are experiencing negative health effects caused by caffeine consumption, your doctor is the one best suited to give you advice relevant to your specific needs. These are simply the steps I took to unplug the continuous caffeine drip that I had been on for most of my life.
- Figure out why you’re giving up caffeine. If you don’t have a good why, you’re not going to be successful. Your health is a very good reason, but you need to think specifically about how you’re feeling and why you want that to change. It can’t simply be that your doctor told you that you needed to. That probably won’t stick. While my physical health was certainly a factor for me, the thing that truly opened my eyes to my need to get caffeine out of my life was recognizing that my fuse was way too short. With a teenager in the house pushing every button imaginable, it was a recipe for disaster. I also realized that as someone who really internalizes stress anyway, I needed to calm things down as much as possible, not rev them up.
- Drink a cup of green tea in the mornings at the beginning. If you are experiencing negative health effects from caffeine, I strongly believe that you should fairly quickly cut out caffeine entirely and see how you feel. That said, one cup of green tea in the mornings at the beginning will help ease the withdrawal symptoms. On average, an 8 oz. cup of green tea can have about 35 mg of caffeine. While that’s slightly less than a soda, it’s quite a bit less than a cup of coffee. I drank green tea for about six months after I gave up coffee and soda and then realized that I didn’t need it. That’s when I went to caffeine free herbal teas and haven’t looked back. I definitely could have done this after a week of giving up coffee and soda and been perfectly fine.
- Send the kids to grandma’s or a friend’s and quit caffeine over the course of a long weekend or during a week where you don’t have a lot going on. This is where it really is like detoxing from any other drug. You need time and space to let your body go through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms. Having to be on you’re A-game as a parent or at work is not going to cut it. Having time when you don’t have many other obligations also lets you just sleep when you need to. Sleep allows your body to heal, and let’s face it, if you’re in this place because of caffeine, you’ve got a lot of healing to do. It also means that you don’t need to drink that cup of coffee or have that soda in order to keep going. You can just stop, give your body the rest it really needs and then go on naturally.
- Take ibuprofen or another pain reliever at the beginning of the second and third days. Unless you are one of the uncommon lucky few, you will have a withdrawal headache, so prepare yourself with plenty of ibuprofen or another pain reliever. I went ahead and took it as soon as I felt the first twinge by the beginning of the second day and then took it at the beginning of the next two days as well before things got too bad. I don’t know whether my headache tolerance was just so high or that the ibuprofen actually helped that much, but given my level of addiction, I was definitely expecting much worse from the headaches.
- Exercise. Get moving! The minute you change your caffeine routine, make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise in. This will help to keep your mind off any feelings of withdrawal and it will make you feel better physically – which will help to offset the withdrawal.
- Eat lots of delicious healthy food. You don’t want to feel deprived of anything else during this time because you’re sure to associate that with going without caffeine. Go all out and treat yourself to your favorite healthy meals and snacks. You want your body to feel as good as possible so that it can support what you’re doing. Be sure though and avoid foods that have caffeine in them, like chocolate.
- Drink lots of water. You need to stay hydrated no matter what but drinking plenty of water will help to flush out your system and help lessen withdrawal symptoms such as headaches and jitters.
- Figure out what it is you love about the caffeine experience. It’s also important to figure out why you’re so addicted to caffeine in the first place. What feelings or sensations does that cup of coffee give you that makes you crave it? For me, I realized that I like to have something warm and fragrant to drink at least every morning, even during the summer. Decaffeinated herbal tea works just as well for that, so I’m not missing out on part of what I loved most about the coffee drinking experience.
If you do decide to quit caffeine, experts say that the withdrawal symptoms usually “peak at 2 days and will probably go on for as long as a week.” In my case, I can honestly say, I felt fine by the end of the fourth day.
If this is something you decide to do, feel free to reach out to me. I’m more than happy to be part of your support network because I know how life-changing taking this action this can be.