How To Quit Caffeine Painlessly and Eliminate Terrible Anxiety, Insomnia, and More
How to quit caffeine. It is a question rarely asked aloud. In our modern society, almost 80% of people take caffeine daily. With Starbucks being one of the most recognizable brands in the world and populating thousands of street corners all over the world, caffeine is the most acceptable and readily available drug in world history.
Caffeine is so common that figuring out how to quit caffeine is, in and of itself, an enormous mountain to climb. In other words, quitting caffeine is not that simple. Not only are their withdrawals, but there are access issues and even, dare I say public scorn. Because so many people are hooked on caffeine and numerous articles cite is as healthy, coffee has legions of fans who fervently support it.
Full disclosure: I’m writing an article on how to quit caffeine at a Starbucks. I’m having an Ethos water, some almonds, and contemplating my life sans the mental jet fuel. I learned a whole lot by quitting caffeine, more than I ever expected to learn. The most important points were:
Most how to quit caffeine info understates all the real obstacles
I’m a hell of a lot better person off the caffeine jet fuel
I will discuss how I quit caffeine, the often not talked about benefits of quitting caffeine, and how most people don’t understand their real relationship with caffeine.
Why I Quit Caffeine
When I finally quit caffeine for good, it was my third real try at quitting. I’d quit before, but unsuccessfully, as I’d always ended up back on the coffee. Thirty days into the quit, I’d just decide that I had “brain fog” and go back to the brain fuel.
My original reasons for wanting to quit caffeine prior revolved around saving money and the ambition to feel a little calmer. I was motivated, but not enough. I was strategic in my caffeine quit, but not educated enough to think long term.
A few years ago, I was in Florida. My wife and I had traveled by car with our toddler across the country. I was drinking more iced coffee and more americanos than usual, but not that much more. My anxiety had always been troubling. I’ve lived with a crippling form of anxiety all of my life.
Four years prior, I only drank hot coffee. But years of Starbucks education turned me into an iced coffee and americano kind of guy. And with that, came increased anxiety issues, something I sadly didn’t note on the trend line for years. The iced coffee went down faster and easier, maybe that was the change. Maybe it ramped up my consumption. No matter, the prior years of discovering iced coffee were also filled with anxiety.
Coffee, ever since I discovered the cappuccino when I was 16, has always been my crutch. If I knew I was going out with friends at night, I drank more coffee. If I felt stressed, more coffee. if travelling, more coffee. If writing, definitely more coffee.
Coffee was the fuel of the fuel. In other words, the more anxious I felt, the more coffee I ingested.
Coffee was always a problem, I exemplified all the trademark behaviors of an addict. I never set out to drink two large iced coffees. I always went into my first iced coffee or Americano with, “this is it.” But that’s never how it worked out. I always had to get he second one. My caffeine intake was at about 500 to 700 MG per day, something I had no idea about.
Caffeine and Anxiety
In my early 30’s, I began to toy with the idea that my caffeine intake was related to my anxiety. It was a tough negotiation of information because caffeine, as luck would have it for Starbucks, is ripe with information claiming it helps your brain work better. It helps stave off depression and alzheimers. Coffee junkies are quick to share and recite such information the moment you question your allegiance to coffee.
All of my worst fears about quitting caffeine could be confirmed within an hour of missing my morning coffee. I’d feel more anxious, more depressed, and a general sense of uneasiness. I’d feel unfocused and less productive. If I’d miss caffeine for more than a day, these symptoms got worse and only served to confirm that without caffeine, my life would be worse off.
Most of my caffeine was the ruminating-type. I’d come up with some random (or not so random) stressor and I’d think about it over and over. It was grueling. Sometimes it was events from 20 years ago, even as little as something I said to someone that maybe caused them to be offended. I’d ruminate remote possibilities. Once one thought was gone, the celebration and relief was fleeting as the next stressor filled in.
When I turned 40, I realized that such a life was no life at all. But there were clues along the way and I started noticing them.
My anxiety was best managed in the morning time
When I’d wake up, that was the best I’d mentally feel.
My anxiety kicked into high gear around 3 PM.
Around 3 PM, the mental ship began to sink. This would cause a number of dominoes to fall. For one, I’d start thinking about comforting my mental state with food. I’d want sugar and salt. Pizza, Chinese food, were two favorites. Stuffing myself with food seemed to help ease the anxiety. The anxiety was so bad that I’d stand in a grocery store for over an hour making sure I “had enough food to make it through the night.”
Additionally, I’d crave alcohol (because, of course). The alcohol was the quicker fix. One glass of wine on an empty stomach and typically the anxiety was receded a good amount.
Of course, this all amounted to crappy hangovers and weight gain.
It took me years to figure this out, but once I did, the variable was undeniably obvious.
I’d wake in the morning and that would be the most removed from caffeine I’d exist that day. I’d drink my first coffee between 9 and 10 AM. I was never one to rush out of the gates and drink it, I was good about having water first. This often delayed my first coffee to sometimes as late as 10:30 or 11 AM.
Because I was afraid of insomnia, I forced myself to cut off the coffee supply prior to 2 PM. This sometimes meant “chugging” an ice coffee or Americano.
I felt the least anxiety first thing in the morning because I was roughly 15 hours removed of my last ingestion of caffeine
I felt the most anxiety between the hours of 3 PM and 10 PM at night because my body was juiced from the mid-morning and early-afternoon coffees.
Quitting Caffeine Cold Turkey – My Failures
Once I realized that caffeine was the issue, I was hardly concerned about quitting. In fact, I felt a sense of resolve. I’d simply quit caffeine and hopefully reap the rewards of being caffeine free.
But that’s not how things worked out.
I’m a big believer in cold-turkey quitting of addictions and habits. If you ween of cigarettes, or sugar, or booze, you are going to open yourself up to a load of increased opportunity to use those substances in heavy quantity. The faster you remove yourself from the situation, the more of a chance you have at fully quitting.
Why quitting caffeine cold turkey failed.
When it comes to caffeine withdrawal, we often hear about the headaches. We hear about the irritability. And we hear this all last for a few days.
That’s all true, until it isn’t.
Headaches are a bad thing. Being moody isn’t a good thing, either. But both of those caffeine withdrawal symptoms turned out to be the least of my concerns. The greater concerns were the longer-term depression and lack of focus. I’d easily get a couple of weeks being caffeine free, but I’d always suffer in the area of productivity. Being I’m a writer, it was next to impossible to work with the inability to focus and feeling downtrodden all the time.
I wouldn’t be able to read even one paragraph or write one paragraph, without looking away from the screen. I would not comprehend anything I read.
Inevitably, I’d just go back to caffeine because in the end, making money is more important than being broke.
How To Quit Caffeine – The Better Way
Anxiety’s musical chairs don’t ever just vanish. You can make more money, have a happy marriage, own the car of your dreams, but anxiety won’t care if you are feeding it through a poor diet.
I knew two things:
I needed to quit caffeine if I wanted to live a happy life
Quitting caffeine made me brutally unproductive, causing me to sink at work
I researched, researched, and then researched some more. I didn’t look for articles that were science-based “withdrawal may last up to two weeks” type articles, I sought out real people discussing their own efforts and journey.
Here are the changes I made:
- I decided on a few days to start my caffeine quit. No addiction breaking process is going to be easy, so I reserved three days where I could get away with either no work, or less work than usual.
- I switched to green tea. Yes, green tea has caffeine, but in order to avert some of the harsh caffeine withdrawals on the longer term, I decided to start a ween off caffeine strategy.
- I bought two supplements readily available at GNC, Whole Foods, or on Amazon. I got Suntheanine and Rhodiola Rosea.
The green tea would be used for “as long as needed,” but my ultimate goal was two weeks, which I achieved. I’ve read where others used it for a much longer duration. The supplements would be used for helping to stave off withdrawal issues that affect productivity. Beyond the headaches and irritability, having a lack of focus can force you right back into the caffeine cycle.
Caffeine Withdrawal Supplements
L-Theanine: You can find this at your local Whole Foods, or on Amazon. Just make sure you buy “Suntheanine” versions. The one I buy at Whole Foods is pictured below.
L-Theanine is an amino acid naturally found in green tea. It will help you improve your focus. It can also help take the edge off of anxiety.
Rhodiola Rosea: This is an adaptogenic. Again, it can be bought at Whole Foods or on Amazon. It will help you improve your focus and your energy.
Quitting Caffeine – The Process
Days 1 – 3: Decent headaches, but not overwhelming. I drank a medium-sized iced green tea from Starbucks each day. I was productive because the concentration and focus issues hadn’t yet set in. I find that the first few days are mostly centered around physical issues like headaches. My sleep was deep at night, I’d wake up feeling like I needed to keep sleeping.
The green tea undoubtedly helped to soften the blow of the headaches. Remember, I just went from 500 MG+ caffeine per day to a mere 55 – 80 MG.
Days 4 – 8: The headaches became much less pronounced. I started to feel challenges in terms of concentration. Mornings seem to be the best for my brain, but after around 11 AM, it got tougher. The supplements definitely helped me with productivity, however, my production output remained less.
I was a bit detached from people socially, almost feeling as though I had nothing to really say or contribute. I felt a defined depression, but not severe. I was just sort of existing, making it through my days. The supplements were giving me a bounce, allowing me to get work done and keep my head above water.
Sleep became almost an extraordinary experience. Around 10 PM, I’d begin to feel tired. Once I laid down, I didn’t have all those anxious thoughts circulating through my brain. I would sleep all night. I used to wake up and urinate, but that seemed to be much less frequent in general.
Yes, there was a depression in general, but the newly found sleep depth and the fact that I was surviving at work were motivating me to keep going.
I should also note, at this point, I had no real cravings for coffee. The green tea resulted in no real “pop” of caffeine or energy.
Days 9 – 14: The headaches were all but gone. Sleep got better and better. In general, I still had that “depressing haze,” but my daily anxiety ruminations were mostly gone. Or, as I like to say, the volume on them was turned down severely.
By about the 12th day, I noticed a major change. I started craving the green tea. Suddenly, I realized, my body was getting that “pop” from the green tea. This indicated to me that I’d adjusted to the new levels. This signaled that I was likely beyond the major addictive phase.
Day 14: I quit the green tea and replaced it with water. I suffered no real issues other than very mild headaches and very mild focus issues. Overall, my energy had increased by leaps and bounds.
Why My Productivity Is Leaps and Bounds Better Without Caffeine
One of the main reasons people build up an addiction to caffeine is that they feel it makes them more productive. There are studies that back up this claim. Most people believe my saying that productivity goes up sans caffeine is heresy.
When I was on brain sauce, I felt an adrenal rush to get my work done. I would pound the keyboard all morning. I often thought that I was in a “zone” and more productive than anyone else around me. When that feeling faded, I got more caffeine.
When the caffeine was gone, I realized suddenly that the adrenal rush was gone. My brain was better organized. Rather than having a feeling that every bit of work needed to be accomplished by 10 AM, I was suddenly realizing that I had an entire day. With caffeine, I was done doing anything productive by 3 PM. Sans the caffeine, I am able to work anytime I like because I have energy all day.
Feeling rushed by caffeine makes every task feel equally urgent. Now I can see the bigger picture and organize accordingly. I get more done in a day now because I don’t feel insanely rushed. When I was on caffeine, I never realized that I felt rushed at all. But that’s now obvious with it gone.
My past attempts to quit caffeine were derailed by my lack of productivity. The green tea quit method, along with L-Theanine and Rhodiola, helped me transition through that phase without enduring more dramatic consequences.
Could I have just kept the green tea in play?
Yes, for sure. Once my caffeine intake was down to just green tea, most of the hideous anxiety had lifted. I considered keeping the green tea, but I think in a way, I felt motivated to just drop it totally.
Additionally, if you feel as though cutting off the green tea at two weeks is two aggressive, don’t do it. Don’t make it too hard, it will just drag you back into the cycle. You are likely to find that life sans coffee is pretty good.
Benefits of Quitting Caffeine
I will keep the unoriginal preface you see at the beginning of every how to quit caffeine article as short as possible. No, I’m not saying caffeine is bad for you. No, I’m not saying everyone has to quit caffeine. I’m saying, if you’ve decided to research how the benefits of quitting caffeine might play for you, you’ve likely surmised that caffeine might not always be great for you.
My Sleep Got Fascinatingly Deep
Caffeine has a half-life of 5 to 6 hours. I say this first because often times, I notice that people respond to the “quitting caffeine improves your sleep” with, “I cut myself off by 2 PM to prevent sleep issues.”
I’ve always been one to cut myself off from coffee by 2 PM. Rarely in my life have I ever drank coffee beyond that. My preferred drinks became ice coffees and straight americanos, no sugar, no milk. I’d sleep at night so long as I didn’t drink them too, too late.
But why then did my sleep vastly improve when I quit caffeine?
Right when I quit, my sleep improved dramatically to levels I never dreamed (yes, pun intended). Not only did I fall asleep faster, but the depth of my sleep was magnificent. Two weeks into my full caffeine cessation, I would sleep undisturbed for 7 straight hours. Prior to that, I’d fall asleep, but woke up a good number of times to urinate. I also didn’t realize what “real sleep” actually meant.
Caffeine’s half-life actually makes it present in you for 12 hours or more. Caffeine, even in small quantities, disturbs REM sleep. So yes, if you drink coffee at noon, it may still be wreaking havoc on you at midnight.
I’m not unusual, many “only morning drinkers” of coffee report much-improved sleep from quitting. Too many people live under the “just don’t drink caffeine after 2 PM” strategy without realizing that may not be working as well as they think.
My Anxiety Was Lowered Dramatically
Anxiety was why I quit caffeine and the entire experience has lived up to all I imagined and more. All the same anxious thoughts are still there, but the volume is turned way down. I no longer ruminate over stress items anymore. I no longer zone in on remote possibilities. My brain quickly discards irrational thoughts that used to wreak havoc on my brain.
This has resulted in an overall change to my personality. Anxiety used to “take me out of play” during social situations. I’d have to drink alcohol to survive social situations because otherwise, my sober brain was ruminating on some odd line of anxious thinking.
My Frequent Urination Stopped
I’ve lived with frequent urination my entire life. I’ve been tested for this and that, but overall, I was just told “I have a small bladder.” Bathroom access has long been a stressor in and of itself for me. Roadtrips, going to dinner, laying down to sleep, always came with a bathroom stop. If I went to Target, I walked in and immediately went to urinate. I urinated upon leaving, as well.
My bladder would go from 0 – 60. If I felt a slight need to urinate, I’d feel pain and severe discomfort if I didn’t find a bathroom within 20 minutes.
I no longer have this issue. It is like it up and vanished right when I dropped the caffeine. I drink tons of water all day and feel as though I now urinate on a healthy schedule.
I Became Less “Reactive”
When you are under the constant siege of adrenaline, you tend to be severely reactive to criticisms or obstacles in life. When someone cuts me off in traffic now, I’m not feeling that angry rush to the brain.
This overhauled my personality for the better. I didn’t “change” as a person, I simply lost the bad edge.
My Productivity Soared
No longer feeling adrenaline rushes when I work means a more thoughtful interaction with my work. My brain feels focused, yet relaxed, and much more organized.
I always thought caffeine was helping my productivity. As it turns out, it was harming it.
My Appetite Improved
One of the biggest fears people have is that quitting caffeine will equate to weight gain. I’ve actually lost some weight.
Drinking caffeine often resulted in my skipping breakfast and lunch, but the problem was, at night, when the caffeine wore off, I was revved up to eat crap. I’d overeat all the time. Now, I wake up hungry for healthy foods.
Adrenaline rushes can make you eat crap. Without the rush, you are better equipped to make healthier, more long-term oriented food decisions.
I Make Better Decisions
Have you ever been at the store and suddenly “wanted” something? Of course, we all have. You go into the store needing a power cord when suddenly you want that new big screen TV. Suddenly, you are walking out with a big TV. On the way home, the buyer’s remorse kicks in and you feel depressed.
This is adrenaline screwing you.
Without all the “edgy, fight or flight” in your brain, you are able to make a better decision on the spot. This goes for food as well.
Learning how to quit caffeine was one of the best life improvements I’ve ever made. I would never go back to coffee. Vastly improved sleep combined with dramatically lower anxiety has made my life better in every way.
That said, I don’t recommend cold turkey. Shifting to green tea in the interum is the main reason I was finally able to quit. Not many people have 30 to 60 days to throw away being unproductive, the green tea helped eliminate that issue while also giving me immediate life improvements via a much lower caffeine intake.
Author: Jim Satney
PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.