I love coffee. Maybe too much. I used to drink up to four cups of Nespresso a morning—the darkest roast I could find. I looked forward to my first cup, and by the third, I knew I shouldn’t head to the kitchen to make the fourth, but I don’t always listen to my better judgment.
And I pay the price. I usually start to feel jittery, and if I don’t eat breakfast, my stomach can feel upset. Turns out, each of those pods has as much as 100 milligrams of caffeine. That can add up pretty quick.
So, when my former colleague, author Jeff Pearlman, shared on Twitter that he had given up caffeine in August, I wondered if I should, too.
A heavy coffee drinker, he hated how it made him feel. “I dig the initial buzz,” he told me. “But then I’d drink and drink and drink, and by 3 p.m., I’d need a nap. It made my hands shaky and my mind race. I work in coffee shops a lot, so it came with the turf. But after a while, I needed to shift.”
Pearlman switched to decaf and said it was shockingly easy to give up caffeine. “Didn’t miss it much,” he says, adding that he’s not 100% done. “Sometimes, if there’s a flavored caffeinated coffee that I like, I’ll go 70% decaf, 30% of the flavored kind. Just for taste, texture. But it’s been overall easy. No headaches, no urgings.”
After contemplating it for a few months, I decided to give it a try.
What Happened When I Stopped
Like Pearlman, it was easier than I thought. I love the taste of coffee and drink mine black. Switching to decaf pods did the trick. Unlike Pearlman, though, I had side effects. On the first day, I had a bad headache.
“The headache experience, which is very common, is a sign of withdrawal from the caffeine dependency,” says Kara Fitzgerald, author of Younger You: Reduce Your Bio Age and Live Longer, Better. “It’s temporary but can really be tough to plow through and keeps many of us searching for a caffeine fix to avoid withdrawal.”
I also felt tired all day for the first two weeks. That’s because going caffeine-free can make you sluggish at first, reducing your energy and your ability to focus, says Hayley Miller, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Persona, a personalized vitamin and supplement company. “The good news is, this will be short-lived—thanks to the human body’s amazing ability to adapt. You can expect to regain your mental clarity and focus within a few weeks of quitting.”
It took time, but my focus eventually evened out and seemed to be more consistent throughout the day instead of peaking in the morning and waning in the afternoon. I also slept better. I only had caffeine in the morning, and the fact that it could impact my sleep surprised me.
“You discovered the best benefits by far of going caffeine-free,” says Fitzgerald. “Given that it is a potent stimulant, readily entering into the brain and blocking adenosine receptors, the number one benefit of stopping is improved sleep.”
Fitzgerald says the caffeine half-life is on average five hours. “It’s longer for some of us who have slower biotransformation enzymes,” she explains. “This means that to completely clear caffeine from the body, it can take over 10 hours. It’s not surprising it influences sleep. Those of us who are slow metabolizers can have additional problems, including higher blood sugar and blood pressure, altered tolerance to exercise, and increased risk of nonfatal heart attacks.” (She says that direct-to-consumer genetic tests like 23andMe may be able to tell you if you metabolize caffeine quickly or not.)
Quitting coffee has another benefit: “Since caffeine is a diuretic—meaning it speeds up urine production—you’ll find this change will cut down your trips to the bathroom,” says Miller. “Even better, going caffeine-free could actually improve your nutrition by helping your body absorb B vitamins and other important nutrients. In other words, quitting coffee could help you get more from your food.”
But Caffeine Does Have Benefits
While Fitzgerald says the evidence is still being scientifically teased out, caffeine might be a longevity agent. “It looks to be in fruit flies, mice, and worms,” she says. “Human studies are lacking. It’s also thought to be neuroprotective in moderate intake in humans, [meaning it] is protective against age-related illness like dementia or Parkinson’s.”
Looking beyond caffeine to the vehicle that the caffeine is found in, such as coffee or tea, you’ll find that both drinks are hailed for containing phytochemicals that are also beneficial.
“When we look at human studies of coffee drinkers, we see that they tend to live longer—caffeinated coffee or not,” says Fitzgerald. “I personally love my daily morning coffee ritual and appreciate those beneficial phytochemicals. I don’t have it after the morning hour unless it’s the occasional decaf, which allows me to sleep well at night.”
Caffeine is a natural stimulant, and Miller says it’s a great way to get a burst of energy in the morning and to fight the midday blues. “But too much of anything is never good,” she says. “You should never drink more than the equivalent to about four cups of coffee a day.”
It’s been a month into my experiment, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’ll go back. I love the quality of sleep I now have, but I do miss that little burst of energy caffeine gave me. I might try an occasional cup or a mix of regular and decaf to see what happens.
Miller says the decision to go caffeine-free should depend on your lifestyle and your reasons for using it. “If you drink coffee for the taste or because you love a latte at the local coffee shop, then quitting probably isn’t necessary,” she says. “If you’re relying on caffeine to power through your day, there may be other things at play: Your sleep quality, stress levels, or nutrition may be affecting your ability to stay alert and focused. It’s better to manage your energy through lifestyle choices than to lean on that cup of Joe.”