Dependency and withdrawal — detoxing from caffeine
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Breaking up with caffeine —why it’s hard to do
Caffeine addiction quiz
Quitting caffeine “cold turkey” — can it be done?
How to support your body through a caffeine detox
“I don’t have a problem with caffeine — I have a problem without it!”
For some women, this statement (or something similar) is a rueful acknowledgment that they simply can’t get through the day without a pick-me-up from their favorite beverage. For lots of people caffeine intake does not cause problems, but there are several reasons why someone might want to end her love affair with caffeine. Perhaps you think it makes you jittery, or your practitioner has recommended you cut back or give it up. You may have tried to quit caffeine before and found yourself with a pounding headache.
Read more about caffeine: Caffeine and your adrenals, Caffeine pros and cons
But while caffeine in moderation is relatively benign, you might just feel that kicking the habit (or simply cutting back) would improve your health. If you have had trouble with insomnia, adrenal imbalance, or anxiety — all of which can be exacerbated by caffeine — or even if you have some indefinable sense that you’d be better off without it, you may want to consider undergoing a caffeine detox.
Let’s learn more about how caffeine works in the body, then explore some simple ways to make the detoxification process go more smoothly for you.
To detox or not — the caffeine addiction quiz
Wondering if you even need to quit? Some women can drink coffee every day of their adult life with no problem. Others tolerate caffeine well for years, only to find it causes symptoms as they approach menopause. And still others find that any amount of caffeine triggers more severe concerns.
Consider the following questions, and trust your inner guidance.
- Do you use caffeine to facilitate a physical activity (waking up, exercising, having a bowel movement, concentrating)?
- Do you have to have caffeine in the morning? Could you substitute hot water with lemon or herbal tea?
- Do you crash or have caffeine/sugar cravings in the afternoon/early evening?
- Do you grow irritable, get a headache, or feel disembodied if you miss your caffeine fix?
- Do you have difficulty falling asleep at night and waking up refreshed?
- Do you need caffeine to heighten the effects of other substances, such as nicotine, alcohol, or sugar?
- Do you feel your social routines would suffer if you went caffeine-free?
- Does a life without caffeine seem impossible to you?
If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, consider examining your attachment to caffeine.
For certain groups of women, even moderate caffeine dependency can cause problems, so you may also want to consider quitting if you’re:
a woman who suffers from adrenal burn-out (a rapidly growing group)
a woman who is insulin resistant and who isn’t getting enough energy from good food
a slow detoxifier, meaning that it takes you longer to recover from encounters with toxins.
So the last and most relevant question for you to answer is: How do I respond to caffeine? (For further guidance, see our article on the pros and cons of caffeine.)
Breaking up with caffeine is hard to do — here’s why
Most of us understand that caffeine is habit-forming, but we may not think about what it means to be addicted to it. Part of why caffeine is so hard to give up is that we may develop a strong dependency on it for a number of physiological, psychological, and emotional reasons.
- Physiological. Caffeine has measurable physical effects in the body, increasing our pulse, heart rate, and respiration, making us feel “more alive.
- ”Psychological. Research shows that caffeine improves concentration and task performance. Caffeine also helps people feel more “social” and at ease, and we love to share the caffeine ritual with friends.
- Emotional. Perhaps the strongest aspect of our dependency on caffeine relates to its mood-lifting effects. We look forward to the times of day when we consume caffeine as treasured, oasis-like moments.
Many of us develop deep-seated patterns specific to our caffeine consumption. Some people always drink coffee right before an important meeting. Others like to knock back a caffeinated drink after lunch because it helps them stay on-task at work. And some avid exercisers regularly consume caffeine before working out.
As if these factors weren’t enough, over time, many women find that their response to caffeine changes so that, ultimately, they aren’t in charge anymore — their body needs that caffeine to feel “normal” or have energy. And if they try to ignore the desire for caffeine, they find themselves experiencing withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are often uncomfortable enough to cause some to surrender to the confines of caffeine dependency. But if you’ve reached a decision to cut back or eliminate caffeine from your life, there are some simple, effective ways to meet your goal while easing the discomforts of withdrawal.
Caffeine detoxification is easier for some, harder for others
Taken together, caffeine’s modes of action in the body are complex, involving multiple systems. This may explain the wide variations in response, tolerance, and dependency on caffeine between individuals, and even in the same person over time. To the liver, caffeine is a drug-like substance it immediately sets about “detoxifying” — meaning, clearing it from the system. To the brain, caffeine has some potent psychoactive effects that make it habit-forming, as mentioned above. But chances are, if you’ve been consuming a lot of caffeine every day, you’ll notice a few unpleasant symptoms as you reduce your intake.
On average, it takes the body about 5–8 hours to eliminate caffeine, but many factors influence the breakdown of this molecule — including gender. It may seem unfair, but we think it’s important for women to know that research shows our bodies usually take longer to detox caffeine than men’s, and we can experience more symptoms of withdrawal than men do, too.
Other factors that influence the body’s response to caffeine include age, pregnancy, nutrition, and drug use (including birth control, hormones, antibiotics, NSAID’s, alcohol, and nicotine.) Altogether, these variables can significantly impact your liver function. Additionally, you could have one of several genetic variants that alter the way the liver detoxifies certain molecules, causing the rate at which you eliminate caffeine, its downstream metabolites, or some of the other substances present in coffee or tea, to be distinctly slower — or faster!
Why quitting “cold turkey” may backfire — or work
One notorious method for quitting an addictive substance is to stop “cold turkey,” which, in theory, is supposed to offer the immediate reward of vanquishing your demon. This technique is described by some as the “quickest and most painful” way to kick the habit, and many who have tried it claim it is the least effective as well.
If you try to quit caffeine all at once, you may find yourself muddling through for a few days, but your body can rebel with a slew of symptoms, including severe headaches and extreme grumpiness. Uncomfortable symptoms can even reduce productivity because you feel so awful and blurry. All this can make relapse more likely.
But for a stalwart few, going cold turkey with caffeine actually works. And it is a viable option for anyone whose caffeine intake isn’t all that high, or for those with a less “committed” relationship to caffeine. Here are a few helpful tips for going cold turkey with caffeine.
- Look ahead and try to reschedule any obligations that could interfere with your goal.
- Time your quit date to coincide with a vacation, so your productivity won’t be an issue.
- Grant yourself permission to be pampered for a few days (enjoy a massage or another spa treatment).
- Provide nutritional support — eat three small meals per day plus two healthy snacks. Choose low glycemic-load foods to keep cravings to a minimum.
- Enjoy plenty of delicious, non-diuretic liquids that you look forward to drinking. Water is the ultimate thirst-quenching, health-promoting drink.
- Rest, listen to your favorite music, and indulge in naps.
- To assist your resolve and ease symptoms of withdrawal, consider acupuncture or acupressure, gentle exercise, and meditation.
If you treat yourself well, stopping all at once just might turn into a pleasant “awakening,” where you find you’re finally freed of caffeine’s grip.
Quitting caffeine — slowly but surely
For most women, it’s probably a lot easier and less painful to detox from caffeine a little at a time. If you are a coffee drinker, start the day by first having a regular cup of coffee. For your second serving, pour a cup that’s half-regular and half-decaffeinated coffee — but any ratio will work, as long as you continue to taper down methodically. If you just want to cut back, you can hold the step-down at any point that provides the balance you seek.
If you normally drink coffee throughout the day and want to quit, you can begin directly by cutting your consumption in half right off the bat. You get to “zero cups per day” twice as fast. If your goal is total abstinence for health reasons, keep going until you are drinking all decaf. Once you reach this point, you may even decide to give up coffee altogether.
Common symptoms of caffeine “withdrawal”
We may be unaware of a dependency on caffeine, until we miss a cup, or try to give it up. Here are some common symptoms of withdrawal.
Headaches (A throbbing, pressure-type headache is the most common symptom of both “overdose” and withdrawal.)
Inability to focus
Reduced sense of well-being
As you’re tapering off, you may notice symptoms as your system adjusts to lower levels of caffeine. But take heart: withdrawal symptoms peak within two to four days. Even if you quit cold turkey, most symptoms should disappear after just one week without caffeine. For help with headaches, supplement with extra vitamin C, take regular breaks, enjoy a walk, and get to bed on time. You can also try white willow bark tablets, which contain a natural type of pain-relieving salicylate. (Like aspirin, however, willow should be avoided for two weeks before and after surgery.)
Additional options for quitting caffeine include limiting your intake to before 12 noon. If you drink caffeinated beverages at “morning teatime,” they’re less likely to interfere with your natural cortisol curve. Cortisol — a wake-up hormone produced by your adrenal glands — is highest in the morning for alertness and gradually declines throughout the day. Another option is to take a “mini-break” from caffeine each month, to allow your body to rest from repeated stimulation.
Note: For some people, the love affair with caffeine is complicated by its presence in certain over-the-counter and prescription drugs, or by close associations with other habits like nicotine. In such cases, counseling and medical assistance may be helpful — or even necessary — for caffeine detox.
Taking away caffeine — adding more support
Again, it is your liver that breaks caffeine down so you can eliminate it from your body. You may want to talk to a functional medicine practitioner about supplemental nutrients that bolster the liver as it runs through its enzymatic detox steps.
vitamin C (also helps with withdrawal symptoms and supports adrenal function)
amino acids (may also help balance energy levels)
You can greatly reduce stress on your liver by eliminating foods and drinks that are likely to contain toxins or allergens, and make sure to eat enough protein. An alkaline diet — good for your health for many reasons — is helpful because it provides the mineral salts and antioxidants that help clear out reactive debris created during detoxification.
Ample dietary fiber encourages bowel function, which may slow down during caffeine withdrawal. Fiber promotes good bacterial balance in the digestive tract, to further assist nutrient absorption and detoxification.
One of the best tips for cutting down on caffeine is to drink a big glass of pure water or a cup of herbal tea immediately upon awakening, before you take in any caffeine. That helps quench simple thirst. Then eat your breakfast as soon as possible, making sure to include adequate protein. After breakfast, if you still want your usual caffeinated drink, go ahead and have it.
Even if you think that nothing could ever replace your favorite caffeine drink, there are lots of alternatives you can check out. “Grain coffees” are well-known substitutes brewed from a variety of ingredients such as almonds, malted barley, and chicory — a long-time staple in New Orleans. Teas made from dandelion root, peppermint, sassafras, ginseng, ginger root, comfrey, lemon grass, and red clover are other good options.
Respect your body’s natural rhythms
If you’re worried you might lose your edge if you quit caffeine, consider this: your body and mind are not designed to be “on” all day, every day. The body works best when its natural cycles are honored, with a time for energetic activity and alertness and a time for relaxation and rest. That period of rest is when it engages in much of its detoxification and repair processes, so respecting these natural rhythms will not only reduce your dependency on caffeine, but also any damaging impact it may be having on your health. So take it easy as you go about your caffeine detox — you’re being good to your body — without adding stress!