Caffeine Is Nice but Overrated
Here’s the secret for how to quit caffeine—permanently or as a temporary break—without feeling terrible.
For a society that vilifies “drugs,” we sure seem to love our caffeine. From morning coffee to pre-workout supplements to the soda coolers in the checkout line at almost every store these days, caffeine is nearly as ubiquitous as water.
Now, caffeine isn’t evil. In fact, as you’ll see, it can be amazing … at low dosages. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to consume too much, too often. Especially if you’re a stimulant junkie like me.
I spent most of my life being addicted to caffeine. From washing down daily Dr. Peppers when I was a teenager to chugging green tea to help me work as an adult, I’ve always found it hard to practice moderation. I’ve quit caffeine a few times, but it was always brutally painful and difficult, at least at first.
More recently, though, I’ve been able to quit caffeine for weeks at a time, whenever I want to, without experiencing much in the way of withdrawal. Now I don’t have caffeine every day, and on the days I do have some, I usually limit myself to one or two Diet Cokes or cups of tea.
What changed? I learned how caffeine works and discovered a reliable method for quitting it without feeling like crap.
Caffeine Is Nice but Overrated
The positive effects of caffeine are real and valuable, but in this case, more is not better.
The mental benefits of caffeine are, for the most part, fully realized at very low doses. Consuming as little as 40 mg of caffeine can improve attention, alertness, vigilance, and reaction time. Higher doses of caffeine can actually be counterproductive from the standpoint of productivity or mental performance: after a certain point, more caffeine will cause anxiety, jitters, and brain fog, and the increase in energy level it produces can make it hard to stay still.
To give you some context, here’s the amount of caffeine in some common beverages, as reported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
One tall (12 oz.) Starbucks coffee, Pike Place Roast: 235 mg
One cup of Folgers ground coffee, House blend, made with 2 tablespoons of coffee: 60–80 mg
One 8 oz. cup of brewed green tea: 29 mg
One 20 oz. Diet Coke: 76 mg
One 8 oz. Red Bull: 80 mg
One 2 oz. 5-Hour Energy (or one caplet of Vivarin or NoDoze): 200 mg
Improvements in physical performance require higher doses of caffeine. Improvements in endurance start happening at dosages of 3 mg per kilogram of body weight, and sometimes even more is needed. Since most people weigh between 40 and 100 kg (1 kg = 2.2 lbs), a minimum of 120 to 300 mg of caffeine is needed to aid with distance running.
Improvements in strength and power require even higher dosages, and many studies find that caffeine leads to no improvement at all. One research reviewfound that 11 of 17 studies found a relationship between caffeine and improvements in power, and 6 of 11 studies found that caffeine was associated with improvements in strength. Of the studies that did show a benefit of caffeine usage before resistance training (weightlifting), the minimum dosage required was always at least 3 mg per kilogram of body weight, and sometimes as high as 6 mg/kg.
What most people don’t realize is that the physical effects of caffeine are largely due to the placebo effect. So strong is this effect that it actually gets stronger the more caffeine subjects believe they’re consuming. In fact, there’s not even a plausible physical mechanism whereby caffeine could improve strength and power—it actually works primarily by boosting your motivationso that you push yourself harder, which you could potentially train yourself to do without caffeine. Studies also consistently find a greater benefit to caffeine usage early in the morning, when it works in part by banishing any remaining sleepiness from the night before.
As you’ll see in a minute, it only takes 100 mg or so per day to start getting addicted to caffeine. With that in mind, usage is best limited to very low dosages, taken early in the morning and with an eye toward mental rather than physical benefits.
How Bad Is Caffeine Addiction?
This is really two questions: How easily can you get addicted to caffeine? and How much can excessive caffeine consumption hurt you? I’ll tackle the “How addictive is it?” question first.
Caffeine’s Addictive Potential
Consuming as little as 1.5 mg per kilogram of body weight per day is enough to start building up a tolerance for caffeine. That means tolerance will start to build at a daily intake of somewhere between 70 and 150 mg per day. This amounts to roughly one cup of coffee a day or maybe two cups of relatively weak coffee or tea if you’re especially big.
Once you build up a tolerance, you become dependent on caffeine just to function normally. Effectively, your baseline level of physical and mental performance goes down, and your usual caffeine dose is only enough to get you up to normal. So if you normally consume 100 mg per day, for instance, after a few weeks you’ll be subnormal without caffeine; 100 mg will get you functioning normally, but it will take an even higher dose to truly reap its benefits.
Once your consumption rises to around 750 mg a day—the equivalent of 5 to 8 cups of coffee or 15 to 20 cups of tea—your tolerance will be complete. You’ll cease to get any benefit from caffeine, even at higher intakes. And, of course, the withdrawal will be … not fun.
Withdrawal can begin to occur when you’re habitually consuming around 100 mg per day. On the plus side, while caffeine withdrawal is painful, it’s not dangerous. Also, some of caffeine’s withdrawal symptoms, just like some of its positive effects, are purely subjective—caffeine withdrawal does not significantly reduce cognitive ability, even though it almost always feels like it does.
Why You Shouldn’t Be Consuming Much Caffeine Anyway
Everyone knows that caffeine can disrupt your sleep, but most people vastly underestimate just how easily it can do so. The standard advice to stop consuming caffeine in the afternoon actually doesn’t go nearly far enough, because even a single moderate dose of caffeine consumed first thing in the morning—such as a double espresso or two cups of coffee—can measurably reduce the amount of time spent in deep sleep later that night.
This reduction occurs despite the fact that by nighttime, the caffeine is almost entirely gone from your bloodstream; that is, its effects seem to last beyond the active life of caffeine itself. Note that a much smaller dose of caffeine consumed in the afternoon, like a can of soda, will also have been metabolized by this time and thus could be expected to have the same effect.
Caffeine also causes anxiety—in fact, this is likely a secondary mechanism behind its sleep-inhibiting effects. Even 150 mg of caffeine, usually considered a moderate dose, will significantly increase anxiety levels in most people.
Daily consumption of even lower doses of caffeine can have even worse long-term effects. If you regularly consume more than 100 mg a day, you’ll experience increased anxiety and have chronically elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol, of course, is known as the body’s main “stress hormone.” And while it’s not as bad of a hormone as it’s often made out to be—you want it to be high first thing in the morning, for instance—chronically elevated cortisol levels are one of the most reliable biomarkers of poor overall health.
When your cortisol levels are consistently high, you’re likely to die sooner. As if that wasn’t bad enough, higher cortisol levels can also cut your ability to recover from exercise in half—meaning you’ll make half as much progress as you would with low cortisol and only be able to exercise half as much before experiencing symptoms of overtraining.
With all that said, there is good news here. You don’t need to quit caffeine forever, but habitual users should go on a one- to two-week caffeine detox every so often. Thankfully, there’s a way to kick a caffeine addiction in one week with very little pain.
The Good News: It’s Not That Hard to Quit
Typical caffeine withdrawal symptoms include the following:
Increased heart rate
Decreased motor activity (you don’t feel like moving much)
Shakes or hand tremors
Increased need to urinate (i.e., a diuretic effect)
In addition, the following symptoms can occur, but usually only after a person has been habituated to higher dosages (several hundred milligrams per day):
Muscle aches and stiffness
Nausea and/or vomiting
Withdrawal symptoms usually set in about 12 to 24 hours after cessation of caffeine intake. Fortunately, it only takes about nine days to get over a caffeine addiction and reset your tolerance, and the worst of the withdrawal symptoms will usually be behind you after two to three days. Those first few days can be quite unpleasant, however.
The good news is that there are a couple of things you can do to make the process—and particularly the first two days—easier, and in fact nearly painless. Surprisingly, a simple amino acid supplement can block the worst effects of caffeine withdrawal.
Here’s how that works: While caffeine’s primary mechanism of action is inhibition of the depressant neurotransmitter adenosine, the most painful symptoms of caffeine withdrawal aren’t linked to this process. Among other things, caffeine causes the brain to overproduce three stimulant hormones and neurotransmitters: dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine.
All three of these chemicals are synthesized by the body from the amino acid tyrosine, which in turn is synthesized from the amino acid phenylalanine. The biosynthesis pathway looks like this:
Phenylalanine → tyrosine → L-Dopa → dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine
Chronic caffeine usage can therefore deplete the brain’s stores of tyrosine and phenylalanine, two amino acids that act as building blocks for dopamine and adrenaline. This depletion is partly responsible for caffeine tolerance, as well as some of the more painful side effects of caffeine withdrawal—which is why research shows that phenylalanine and tyrosine depletion reduces the effectiveness of stimulants.
As such, it is unsurprising that anecdotally, many people find that supplementing either tyrosine or phenylalanine can make recovery from caffeine addiction (and probably addiction to other dopamine-producing drugs) faster and easier. You might also recognize phenylalanine as an ingredient in diet sodas: a 12 oz. can of Diet Coke, for example, contains 104 mg of phenylalanine, one of the components of aspartame.
Of the two recommended supplements—tyrosine and phenylalanine—I recommend phenylalanine, in the form of DL-phenylalanine (abbreviated DLPA), over tyrosine. Since each step in the synthesis pathway described above is irreversible, taking phenylalanine will restore your tyrosine levels as well, whereas taking tyrosine won’t directly restore your phenylalanine levels. DL-phenylalanine is a mixture of the left and right isomers of phenylalanine, and because your brain uses both, it’s best to supplement with a mix of the two.
The other thing you can do to make the withdrawal process easier is replace your caffeine habit with another habit. According to The Power of Habit, the seminal book on habit change, it’s almost impossible to simply get rid of a habit without replacing it with something else. It is far more effective to replace that habit with something else that you can do at the same time and under the same circumstances as your old habit.
What this means for caffeine is that you should replace your usual caffeine source with a decaffeinated version of the same thing. This decaffeinated substitute should also be available from the same sources from which you’re used to getting your caffeine. So if you normally have coffee at home, instead have decaf at home. If you normally get Diet Coke from 7–11, instead get caffeine-free Diet Coke if your store has it; otherwise, go for diet root beer, which is the closest thing to decaffeinated diet cola.
The One-Week Caffeine Addiction Solution
Putting all this information together, here’s the exact schedule you should follow to kick your addiction in one week.
Before starting: Figure out what your substitute habit is going to be—decaf coffee, herbal tea, root beer, etc. If you normally make or consume your caffeine at home or the office, acquire a supply of your substitute that will last you more than a week. Also get a bottle of DL-phenylalanine capsules.
The last day you consume caffeine: Throw out all your caffeine. Coffee, soda, caffeine pills—get rid of them all.
Day 1: Consume 1,000 mg of DL-phenylalanine first thing in the morning and another 1,000 mg around noon. Start consuming your substitute beverage in place of your usual caffeinated beverage at the same time and place you would normally be consuming caffeine.
Day 2: Take 1,000 mg of DLPA in the morning and 1,000 mg at noon. The morning of Day 2 is the hardest for most people—once you go without caffeine that morning, it only gets easier from there.
Day 3: Take 1,000 mg of DLPA in the morning and 500 mg at noon. By the afternoon of Day 3, if not sooner, your caffeine cravings should be all but gone.
Day 4: Take 1,000 mg of DLPA first thing in the morning and 500 mg at noon. Things will be noticeably easier by this day at the latest: withdrawal symptoms should no longer be noticeable, although you’re still a few days away from completely resetting your tolerance.
Days 5 and 6: Take 500 mg of DLPA in the morning and 500 mg at noon.
Days 7–10: Take 500 mg of DLPA in the morning, but not at noon. By Day 7, your tolerance will probably have been completely reset and your addiction will be over, but you should keep going for 10 days just to be absolutely certain.
Day 11 and beyond: After 10 days, you can resume having one caffeinated beverage a day, in the morning, if you so choose, as long as it has less than 100 mg of caffeine. Check this list to find the caffeine content of a beverage.
You may also take 500 mg of DLPA either in the morning or around noon as desired. Be aware that taking it with or shortly before caffeine will potentiate the effects of the caffeine.
Reset Your Caffeine Tolerance
This system is simple and has been proven effective time and time again. Even for an ardent tea drinker like me, it’s well worth taking a week or two off from caffeine in order to once again enjoy the full benefits of the world’s favorite drug.
Caffeine withdrawal can be tough, but if you follow this system, you’ll only experience mild discomfort for the first two days. By Day 3, you’ll barely even miss caffeine. After a week or so, your tolerance will have been completely reset—it will be as if you had never had caffeine before.
The even better news is that you don’t have to quit caffeine forever, and your effort will not have been “wasted” if you start drinking coffee again. In fact, a one-week caffeine washout will allow you to once more experience the full benefits of caffeine from a nice, low dose while still functioning at 100 percent the rest of the time and sleeping soundly at night.