At the start of this year, I did something unthinkable. I turned my back on a beloved social institution that I had endorsed for my entire working life. Yes, I quit coffee, just like that. No gradual tapering down my daily intake or swapping in decafs here and there; just brutal, cold turkey abstinence.
Now, if you’re a sensible ‘one coffee a day’ type, this probably won’t seem like a big deal. But if you’re like me (former me, that is) and you punctuate your day with multiple caffeine hits, it’s a daunting prospect. So, why did I decide to shun the golden, aromatic, fatigue-fighting brew? Because I realised that my daily ritual was edging towards a reliance, whereby mornings just didn’t feel right without a coffee, followed by a mid-morning one. I was quaffing between three to four coffees a day, sometimes as late as 9pm if I was on a work deadline, and I’d hit a point where I was completely out of touch with my body’s natural energy cycles. If I was tired, I’d just override it with caffeine.
The pull of coffee
If you’re a coffee lover, you’ll be familiar with the magnetic pull of your morning kick-starter, or afternoon pep-me-up. But is coffee actually addictive or is it more of a dependence? “It almost comes down to semantics,” says Professor Andrew Lawrence, head of the Division of Behavioural Neuroscience and the Addiction Neuroscience laboratory at the Florey Institute. “Caffeine acts as a stimulant in a similar way to a very low dose of amphetamine or cocaine but that’s at a subjective level; it’s not as reinforcing by any stretch of the imagination as those drugs, which is why people don’t develop urges to drink more and more coffee.”
According to Lawrence, it may be that some of us are more susceptible to coffee, whereby drinking it becomes a habitual behaviour. “Those people learn to make associations between certain cues or contexts, and associate them with having a coffee,” he says. “So, it might be first thing in the morning, at 10.30am or after a meal, these signals come back and tell you ‘oh, it’s coffee time’.”
Clean of the bean
I confess to Professor Lawrence that the start of the working day was always my cue to fire up the pod machine on autopilot, but now, I just head straight to my desk. “What you’ve done is taught yourself to dissociate that time of the day equating to coffee time, which is a basically a self-imposed cognitive therapy,” he says, approvingly.
For people who can’t fathom starting the day without a steaming beverage, could they have decaf coffee instead? Not if you’re serious about breaking the habit. “It’s far better to try and learn a new set of rules that the cue [i.e. arriving at work] no longer signals coffee, and in fact it doesn’t signal anything,” says Lawrence.
At this point, you may be wondering how I cultivated such steely willpower. I’ll let you in on a secret. Once you stop drinking coffee, your cravings for it subside, and sooner than you think. I had my last hurrah latte on a Friday, then went cold turkey over the weekend. The ensuing two days were a blur of fatigue, irritability and headaches but come Monday, I felt normal again and haven’t had any cravings since. According to Lawrence, my withdrawal experience is pretty standard. “The fact that you don’t crave coffee now demonstrates that while coffee does act upon systems in the brain that other drugs of abuse act on, it doesn’t have the same long-term impact on those circuits, because it’s relatively easy to stop taking,” he says.
Reading your body’s signals
The reassuring truth is that giving up coffee isn’t as hard as you think, and life without it is perfectly tolerable (I promise). For me, the upsides are that I’ve learnt to respect my body’s natural fatigue signals, without just downing a latte and powering on. Instead, I’ll have some water, go for a walk or get some sleep. I feel calmer and less wired and if I do want a hot drink, I’ll whip up a matcha latte or peppermint tea.
So, should you break up with coffee? It comes down to your individual sensitivity. If you’re getting side-effects like insomnia, agitation, anxiety, tremors or a rapid heart rate, you should reduce your intake down to a level where those symptoms disappear. “It’s a matter of adjusting the dose for your own physiology,” advises Lawrence.
There are some instances where people need to be particularly mindful of their caffeine intake, and ideally flag it past their GP. “That includes smokers, those with underlying liver disease, heart conditions or high blood pressure and during pregnancy,” says Clare Collins, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
The balancing act
If you can master a balanced relationship with coffee, it’s likely to be good for you, thanks to the health-boosting phytonutrients it contains. For starters, coffee has been found to promote liver health and reduce the risk of gout and type 2 diabetes. It’s also linked to a longer lifespan. “In a systematic review of close to one million people, they found that people who usually drank coffee had a lower risk of premature death from any cause,” says Collins. Encouragingly, decaf coffee is linked to these benefits too, so even if you do wean off the turbo-charged stuff, you’ll still reap the health perks.
“For the majority of people, one to two coffees per day is not going to present a problem, especially if you’re having them earlier in the day,” notes Collins. “If you’re drinking more than that, you might want to think about having decaf instead, which seems to have health benefits as well.”
As for me? My tactic is total abstinence. I may treat myself to a coffee at some point, but for now, I’m enjoying not needing it in my life.