Seven years after giving up caffeine

It’s been seven years since I gave up caffeine.

That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

Too Much Coffee Man, my ideal superhero, once upon a time.

Ever since I went public with this story, people have been asking me about it, both in person and online.  (The gist: I used to drink more caffeine than any human I’ve heard of, then I ended up dangerously ill, so went cold turkey.  Here are the original posts: part 1, part 2.) I don’t normally write about health issues, especially my own, but I do want to address my readers’ interests.  And those original posts are, weirdly, two of the most widely read things I’ve ever written.

One detail: when I cut myself off from caffeine I also gave up alcohol, spicy foods, and acidic foods (tomatoes and oranges, notably).  I’ll set that aside for this post, but I can return to the topic if people like.

So what’s it like to live without caffeine in 2019?

tl:dr version – I just live well and work hard.  Caffeine isn’t something that comes up, typically.

Usually I don’t experience cravings for caffeine.  My muscle memory equates the smell and taste of coffee with horrific gut pain and worse, so I’ve been neatly conditioned on that aspect.  I do miss the taste and weird appearance of Mountain Dew, but not with any great attachment.  It’s a pleasant memory of a faraway, now inaccessible land.

One difference between then and now is that I don’t rely on caffeine for energy boosts.  For example, I wake up differently than I used to.  When I was a serious caffeine user, I used to struggle towards consciousness in a dark fog, deeply craving that first morning coffee shot.  Thinking was sluggish and bleak.  After each sip of brew my mind would gradually ascend to awareness.  I could feel and almost hear alertness settle in.  Now I usually wake up with a kind of calm clarity.  Gone is the addict’s deep funk. Instead, I simply rise and go about my business.  I don’t wake up buzzed, usually, but at a decent level of alertness. (I wrote “usually.”  If I’m sleep deprived or ill, I wake up badly, like most people.  If I get a lot of sleep, I rise happily.)

Mid-afternoon sleepiness hits me far less often.  In my overcaffeinated days I would reliably get clobbered by drowsiness waves between 2 and 4 pm, badly enough to fall asleep, even when driving or sitting in meetings.  My body needed emergency caffeine doses to keep going.  That would include, for example, my second or third coffee pot of the day, or another liter of Mountain Dew.  Nowadays my afternoons are pretty good.  If I didn’t get enough sleep the night before and I work hard during the day I’ll experience an energy drop, which makes sense, but changing up my physical situation usually solves that (stretching, housework, walking around a bit, playing with kettlebells).

So now I move through the days without the help of caffeine.  Usually I don’t notice it at all, to be honest.  I can’t think of the last time I’ve thought of coffee or other caffeine delivery mechanism, without some external prompt – making coffee for my wife, walking past a giant Mountain Dew display in a truckstop.  I don’t think of the stuff for myself, but will consider it, logistically, for others.  

I should say more about that physical exercise point.  Perhaps counterintuitively, exercise boosts my energy level.  The involved muscles feel sore or worn out afterwards, of course, but I also become more clear-headed.  Sets of kettlebell lifts, pull-ups, walks, or cycling improve my ability to think, which, given my profession, aids my ability to work.  In this way decaffeinating is healthy.

Also healthy is eating less chocolate.  I love white chocolate, but it’s not often present when people provide sweets.  I eat trail mix fairly often, and have to avoid any that contains (dark) chocolate.

the caffeine curve, a cartoonA second big difference between my caffeinated days and now concerns social interactions.  Caffeine is a convivial drink with some interpersonal rituals attached, depending on the cultural context.  I don’t really participate in these any longer, since I refuse tea, coffee, or chocolate when proffered.  I can stand there and be polite, like a teetotaler among drinkers. That sets me apart  – briefly, slightly – from other people.  Refraining from caffeine is still an odd thing, stranger than avoiding alcohol or gluten, but it’s usually not a big deal.  I make do with hot water, my drink of choice, and really like white chocolate.

Being noncaffeinated doesn’t prevent me from providing caffeine to people.  I do like making coffee and bringing it to my wife every morning, or serving tea for friends.  I’m not revolted by what I prepare and carry, and I don’t think my ability to do that well has been impaired.  The experience of making coffee or tea feels more like bringing home non-food items from the grocery store: stuff that’s valued, but not edible.

I feel pretty good about this situation, overall. 

I do test my body occasionally to make sure things are stable.  Every year or so I conduct experiments to see how I respond to caffeine.  Last year I quaffed some Diet Coke during a very long drive (400 miles) when I was tired and ill.  The soda didn’t hurt, as far as I can tell, and I was slightly less fatigued for a few minutes.  The year before that I drank some black tea; my guts punished me afterwards.  I’ve nibbled (black) chocolate every couple of years; afterwards I do get pains or a queasy feeling.  Based on such admittedly few samples in uncontrolled situations, I don’t foresee returning to caffeine in this lifetime.

Curiously, I don’t evangelize the decaffeinated lifestyle.  I have never advocated it, online or in person.  It feels too intimate and also too conditioned on particular medical circumstances.  Beyond explanations when asked and the occasional blog post, I rarely mention it.  Sometimes I joke about going straight edge, but it’s just not part of my identity.

However, I do recommend this diet to readers if the preceding picture appeals to you.  I didn’t choose the path deliberately, but you might if you see a net benefit after reading this post.  I haven’t spoken here of the many downsides of caffeine – jitters, coffee breath, overeating, dental issues from soda, etc. – and you can find those out online.  What I wanted to do here was outline one person’s lived experience of a better life without caffeine.

If people are curious I can follow up with a post about giving up alcohol, acids, and hot spices.  Which looks awful as something I’ve just written, but let me know if you’d like to hear more.


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20 Responses to Seven years after giving up caffeine

  1. S. says:

    One of my favorite beverages is a cup of steaming hot water. Haven’t found many others who appreciate it.

  2. Tomás says:

    I’m going on 4 years coffee free and almost 1.5 years caffeine free. It’s been great to not be dependent on it for productivity. When I made the shift, your earlier posts were most helpful in preparing for the difficult transition. Aside from those first 2-3 weeks, it’s been pretty easy. Like you, I no longer have afternoon slumps, which is a great thing in my book. I’ve become super sensitive to it, should I slip and have a diet soda at the movies or dark chocolate, which can both keep me up until 3:00AM now. All that is more motivation to stay attentive and intentional.

  3. Joe Murphy says:

    I appreciate these posts, and I think it’s smart to consider them in a broader context of what modern hospitality looks like. There’s been some discussion recently about the role of alcohol in professional gatherings (and the way its prominence can feel excluding to those who don’t drink). It feels useful to include caffeine in that thought process as well.

  4. Ben says:

    Being 22, living in Philadelphia and working in construction almost every person I encounter socially or on a jobsite has a thermos of their own java or a wawa cup. It started my caffeine dependency seeing these guys constantly get more coffee, more coffee, more coffee and always be productive. I thought they must be onto something. So I matched their coffee intake for 6 months and realized I’m totally hooked. So I cut it out cold turkey three weeks ago and expeienced a two week hangover worse than any hangover I’ve ever had. I didn’t think many people had such a dependency like I did before I saw this. Life is livable without a liquid form of speed! Thanks for the post

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh yes, that hangover can be AWFUL.
      (My old family doc actually prescribed Percocet)
      I am impressed at your strength.

  5. I’ve very much enjoyed your articles about getting off coffee and caffeine, thanks for writing them.

    I’m an ardent coffee addict, though the amount I consume daily sounds modest in comparison to the basin you used to drink daily. I’ve had some nagging stomach problems for the past year, accompanied by the requisite anxiety of moving to NYC, and have considered giving up coffee. I experimented with 30 days of no caffeine about a year ago, but found that I fell into a crippling depression. I’m a programmer and somehow stimulants seem elemental to the job — though maybe that’s just a harmful fiction I tell myself, and I should be more patient.

    Did you feel that it took you more than a month to get back to baseline in terms of creative output?

  6. ALICE says:

    I’ve been trying for more than a decade to cut down and about 4 years to cut it out. Just can’t last more than about 6 weeks. Thanks for writing this.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      It’s hard to do, Alice.
      What’s your reason for attempting it?

      • Alice says:

        I’m mega addicted to cola and it’s ruining everything. Used to have a problem with coffee until about 2 years ago, never much cared for black tea (even though I am British ha). The caffeine in most all cola is actually synthetic you know, I’m wondering if I’m actually allergic to it. I’m really sensitive to the theobromine in chocolate as well. I’m on my latest attempt at quitting all stimulants. Trying to replace wirh herbal tea and coffee. Currently at 3 weeks. For some reason it seems easier in the summer. Wish me luck.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I would love to read a follow up post about how you’ve managed to give up alcohol and not have a single drink in 7 years. Do you get cravings? Alcohol can cause a lot of pain and misery and regrets, and yet that initial buzz can be quite enticing even though it doesn’t last long. Not to mention the social pressures. You wrote about how you turn down coffee and tea when offered. When it comes to weddings, holidays, or even business dinners or office parties, alcohol is almost always part of the picture. How do you decline it without envying those around you getting tipsy and having a good time?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good questions.
      Caffeine: I have no cravings at all. My body associates caffeinated drinks with gut agony.
      Alcohol: I sometimes feel that, especially in social settings. I miss the taste of certain drinks: Guinness, vodka. I usually turn down proffered drinks.
      Envy of those having a good time? I do feel that. But there’s also something valuable in being calm.

  8. Mahendra says:

    Great read, thank you.

    Although I wouldn’t say I was addicted to coffee & caffeine, my days consisted of the following:

    Morning pre-workout – 16oz cup of black coffee
    Post work out – 8oz cup of black coffee
    Lunch – 500ml of diet coke
    2 PM – 8oz cup of black coffee and a piece of dark chocolate.

    I’m a guy, 35, and 5’5.

    On December 1st, 2018, I went cold turkey on all sources of caffeine. Interestingly, although I didn’t experience any headaches, my body felt sore as if I just went through a tough workout. But within 2-3 days, I was completely fine.

    I’m still able to wake up and exercise without the need for caffeine, and I no longer feel a drop in energy at ~2PM. (I work an office job in finance).

    People give me odd looks whenever I politely decline coffee or chocolate, but they are usually okay with it after asking me 2 or 3 more times 🙂

    I no longer crave coffee & diet coke, but I sometimes miss chocolate.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you for your story, Mahendra.
      I admire your strength in going cold turkey.
      That soreness – I remember it.

  9. Michael Rittenhouse says:

    my experience w/caffeine:
    At 10,I got my first job as a wharf rat working illegally at a boat yard in NJ.
    I escaped my domestic scene of chaos and bad parenting each morning to help the owner who paid me with peanut butter crackers and cokes.
    At 55 my knee pain was so severe I almost quit my Tae KwonDo after decades.
    Not arthritis as one might expect given my age and flexibility ( I can still kick the top of the doorframe),but it was muscle tension betraying the natural alignment of my long bones and knees. I dropped form 4-5 cups a day to one and the headaches put me in bed ofr 2 days.
    I’m on to something…keep going.
    I love reading your posts,Bryan. Salute

  10. Lil says:

    I’ve read all your articles, quick question, I am 16 days caffeine free soda pre workouts chocolate green tea etc. How was it first month or 3 months as far as depression, anhedonia? Did your motivation come back? Creativity to thins you enjoyed. Did you feel genuine joy? When did those start coming back? I would really appreciate your insight. Please

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Lil, hello.
      The first few weeks were hard. It began like having the flu, for a few days, then things felt… tired, muted.
      Motivation and creativity came back within a few weeks. The trick was really to get used to a continuous, level of energy, after heavy caffeine use’s peaks and troughs vanished. That meant I was in charge of my energy, and that was clarifying.

      Joy? It felt deeper and more sincere. Caffeinated delights were buzzy and to an extent fake.

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