What Happens When You Quit Caffeine
Like many students, I have a codependent relationship with coffee. Even though it drains my bank account and exacerbates my overthinking spirals, I need caffeine to function as a healthy, semi-productive human being.
But beyond coffee’s stimulating effects, I also have the worst sleep quality known to man. No matter how many I Can’t Sleep podcast episodes I listen to, or many times I attempt the military sleep method, it always takes yonks for me to fall asleep. When I eventually do, I automatically enter my second life in some parallel universe, where I’m constantly being chased by an unknown figure, or experiencing hyper-realistic interactions with characters that are reminiscent of people I know in my waking life.
If you’re a regular drinker of coffee, you’ll know that overtime, you eventually build up a tolerance. Although I started the semester only needing one cup, or none if I was feeling brave, this quickly escalated into two or three by the time the mid-sem break rolled around. For reference, the recommended maximum daily caffeine intake is equivalent to roughly five shots of espresso, which is easily three lattes.
What happens if you’re an all-or-nothing person faced with a problem that requires solving? You immediately pull the plug, of course. Even though studies have shown that quitting caffeine cold turkey can cause withdrawal symptoms like headaches, decreased concentration and irritability, my delusional faith in my self-discipline convinced me that the challenge would be easy peasy. Sure, it would probably suck in the first few days, but I’d push through and eventually come out victorious. After all, how hard can it possibly be to give up drinking some silly bean juice?
To give myself the best shot at not caving in the first 24 hours, I managed to get in a solid 10 hours of sleep. In the morning, I was pleasantly surprised that I felt relatively normal. While I didn’t exactly feel rejuvenated, it was still a manageable amount of tiredness, which is a win in my books.
That was until the afternoon came around and a pounding headache hit me like a truck. I was absolutely steamrolled. I couldn’t do anything except lie in bed and writhe in agony. Luckily, a one hour nap was able to shut up the nightclub unce unce unce in my head, and I was back to being a functioning human again by 3pm, whoop whoop. All in all, the first day felt like an extended hangover, but I didn’t give up! In the words of Liz Truss, I AM A FIGHTER, NOT A QUITTER.
Days Two and Three
Continuing the spirit of Britain’s shortest serving prime minister, my caffeine free streak was also outlived by a lettuce by days two and three. In my pathetic defence, because I’d only had four hours of sleep on day two, there was no way I could make it through the day without walking into a pole, or getting into some other accident. Personal safety always comes first! As for my excuse for day three, I had an interview I needed to be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as humanly possible for, which I thought justified caving two days in a row. Besides, when is progress ever linear?
After the embarrassment of the previous two days, I was determined to come back with a roar. No more sleeping late. It was time to clock in a nice eight hours of sleep and try again.
Admittedly, the morning wasn’t. I found myself “resting” my eyes the whole bus ride into uni. While I walked down Symonds street, it took every ounce of self discipline, an already scarce resource, to fight the temptation to cash in my free coffee I’d scored on a loyalty card. Unfortunately, the afternoon was even more of an uphill battle. By the time the 3pm slump hit, I was definitely losing the war. All I wanted to do was crawl into a corner and hibernate the rest of my existence away. I also didn’t realise how much caffeine helps with concentration until I started to slog through my 60 page reading, and it seemed like all the words were swimming on the page.
Life hack: the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal are far less noticeable when you don’t have to sit on your butt behind a laptop screen. Unlike the previous day, where I was trying to process chapters of dense political theory without much success, on day five, I was able to walk around during my shift at work, which helped tremendously with fighting off the fatigue. Although I was still lion yawning like there was no tomorrow, my eyes weren’t watering anymore—a positive sign of progress, surely?
However, reality came back to bite me on the butt on the bus home. All I remember is resting my eyes for what felt like maybe 30 seconds, before being jolted awake just moments before my stop. Totally not concerning that an afternoon nap was slowly becoming a non-negotiable for me, at the ripe age of 22!
Days Six, Seven, Eight and Nine
While I was no longer crying every time I yawned, my caffeine deprived brain decided it would be more fun to have me bawling my eyes out at everything underneath the sun. I was ugly sobbing at random Tik Tok’s, the end scene of Titanic on YouTube, and even just the thought of my favourite emotional movies like Marriage Story or Aftersun.
When I wasn’t experiencing every feeling on the emotional spectrum, I felt like a deflated saggy balloon. In the mornings, I was less bothered by the fatigue and more about how “blah” I felt. Trying to tick off even a small task on the checklist, like replying to an email, took five times as long, while also sapping five times as much energy as usual.
At first, I thought that there was no way cutting out caffeine could have this drastic of an impact on my mood. Maybe I was just being overdramatic, or confusing tiredness with feeling flat. As a generally emotional person with neurotic tendencies, riding the emotional rollercoaster is part and parcel of my everyday life. But even taking into account my disposition, my emotions weren’t usually this whack.
After some googling I found that scientific research has shown that consuming caffeine can not only elevate mood by increasing the level of dopamine in our brains, but also reduce the symptoms of depression. I’m no STEM girlie but what better way to test out a scientific finding than to conduct the experiment yourself?
Driven partly by my curiosity to see if caffeine really makes us feel happier, and partly by being tired of feeling so deflated all the time, I permitted myself to order a coffee. For science, am I right?
Right off the bat, my oat latte tasted extra scrumptious after a week of abstaining from cafes and my Aeropress. Maybe it’s all placebo and just me gaslighting myself, but I felt like my mood became brighter after a few hours. It seemed like by lifting that fog of tiredness, the coffee could simultaneously help to lift my spirits.
I was also exponentially more productive. Digesting the dense readings I had to finish before class? Easy. Scouring Google Scholar for journal articles to use in my next essay? Breezy. Actually listening to what the lecturer is saying in the recording? Covergirl.
Clearly, quitting coffee is not something I’d recommend for the faint-hearted or the neurotic. Spare yourself the unnecessary suffering of going cold turkey, by taking baby steps to reduce your coffee intake. And honestly, unless you’re consuming life-threatening amounts of caffeine, why stop? Life is far more pleasant when you actually have enough energy to enjoy it.