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Would you believe me if I said I haven't had a cup of coffee in a year, and that I don't really miss it that much? Let me preface this by saying that I love coffee. It's not just the flavor that I adore (not to mention the insanely gratifying smell of freshly ground beans), but also the ritual. I am such a morning-brew buff that our entire kitchen counter is practically devoted to making it. Here's my setup at home: A Rancilio coffee grinder ensures each cup is made with freshly ground beans, and a top-notch Italian Ascaso espresso machine pours the perfect espresso shot (with the creamiest crema), not to mention a frother to create the fluffiest almond milk ever—no sugar needed. And I'm not alone in this ritual. Many of my friends and colleagues drink a cup of joe each morning more for the ritual of it than the actual caffeine hit it provides.
My decision to give up this holy grail of a.m. beverages wasn't mine initially. Sakara Life invited me to do their Sakara Level II detox in 2017, and I jumped at the chance, not realizing that it involved ditching the java juice. But knowing ahead of the five-day cleanse that I couldn't have caffeine, I decided to go cold turkey. It won't be that hard, I thought to myself. But I was wrong. Despite only having one cup of coffee a day (when you add that regular cup over the last 10 years), in my perspective, I clearly had a caffeine addiction. Should I be worried?
"Breaking up with coffee and caffeine is not a joke," affirmed Carly Brawner, holistic nutritionist, health coach, and founder of Frolic and Flow. "For those who have repeatedly tried to give it up and can't because it's too difficult, you are not alone. There is a reason Johns Hopkins Medicine considers caffeine withdrawal a disorder. For some, the process is less painful than it is for others." Unfortunately, I was one of the "others," and I suffered terribly. Ahead is my account of what really happens to your body when you give up coffee, along with Brawner's professional analysis. Let me say this: Caffeine withdrawal is real, so very real. It was rough, but on the other hand, you'll see what it did for my skin.
Day 1: Dizzying Headache Arrives
I woke up on the first day of my caffeine detox thinking it would be a breeze. I was tired (but not completely fatigued) and decided to have a cup of rooibos tea. It's worth noting that I went cold turkey on all caffeine beverages—not just coffee. So that meant no green tea or Earl Grey for me (even though I really did miss the smell of bergamot in the morning.) This fact is important to note because many of my friends who gave up coffee didn't ditch caffeinated tea or green tea either, which is why I think their detox symptoms weren't as bad as mine.
Withdrawal symptoms vary from headaches, depression, muscle pain and stiffness, flu-like symptoms, constipation, heart rhythm abnormalities, and more. For some, the symptoms last a few days, but for others, they can last for a few months.
By midday, I felt a dizzying headache, which quickly escalated into a migraine that swept across my forehead and behind my eyes. Thankfully, I decided to work from home that day because I certainly wasn't in any shape to speak with anyone. According to Brawner, caffeine withdrawal severity typically depends on how much caffeine an individual has consumed and for how long.
"The more [caffeine] consumed, the more severe the withdrawal," she said. "Withdrawal symptoms vary, from headaches, depression, muscle pain and stiffness, flu-like symptoms, constipation, heart rhythm abnormalities, and more. For some, the symptoms last a few days, but for others, they can last for a few months." Unfortunately, I fell into the latter category.
Day 2: Headache Intensifies and Nausea Sets In
Without coffee, my brain was really hurting, and I felt fairly nauseated thanks to an intense migraine. I didn't expect this, nor was I prepared for the headaches and body aches to go on that long. When I asked Brawner why, she told me it's because caffeine is chemically addictive. "It's both fat- and water-soluble and is able to enter the blood-brain barrier," she explained. "It's structurally very similar to adenosine, a molecule that produces a feeling of tiredness in the body. Because of their similarities, caffeine is able to fit into the brain cell receptors where adenosine would normally go."
This is also why coffee can keep us up at night: Caffeine disrupts our brain's sleep signals. "On top of that, extra adenosine (the molecule that is supposed to give us a tired feeling) in the brain tells the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline. Hello, alertness," said Brawner.
Day 3: Body Aches Begin
Remember when Brawner mentioned the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal earlier? Well, while many of you will be very familiar with that banging headache when you've missed that morning cup, for me, that was just the beginning. After nausea and a two-day migraine, muscle aches kicked in. These were no ordinary muscle aches, either. They started in my lower back, moved down to my butt, and then eventually down my thighs and into my calves. But this wasn't like your typical soreness after a tough workout. No, this was a deep-tissue throbbing that went all the way down the bottom half of my body. It was so intense that it woke me up in the night. I sought out some heating pads, but when that didn't work, I eventually resorted to taking a pain reliever (which, as most people who know me would say, I don't take lightly).
Day 4: Body Aches Continue
Day four was so bad that I feared I had the flu. The withdrawal had officially kicked in. I thought, Is this really what caffeine addiction can do to your body? It was difficult to believe, and I was in sheer denial. The weird thing is that through all of this, my self-discipline was a trooper, and I didn't resort to any caffeine to relieve my symptoms (even though I knew a simple cup could easily take all the pain away).
But after three days (and nights) of aching from the legs down, my discipline was starting to wear thin. I bought some of those intense heating pads for advanced muscle pain therapy and wrapped them around both legs, stuck some Salonpas pain-relieving patches up and down them, and even purchased a hot water bottle to help soothe and calm my tight, caffeine-deprived muscles. It was hell. And this is why:
The fact that I was detoxing so badly made me realize that caffeine was causing some serious inflammation in my body and that perhaps giving it up would be better for my health overall.
"Those who drink more than their fair share of coffee (or caffeine in general) literally change their brain on a physical level and at the same time, build up caffeine tolerance," said Brawner. "The brain creates more adenosine receptors because the existing receptors are constantly 'filled up' from caffeine. When more receptors are created, caffeine tolerance increases and a coffee addict will have to drink more to feel the caffeine's effects."
According to Brawner, the brain makes more adenosine receptors because the existing receptors are consistently full. "More adenosine receptors means more coffee is needed to fill the receptors up," she said. "When receptors are full, the effects of coffee are felt." And boy, did I feel the effects.
Day 5: Body Aches Diminish and Skin Clears Up
Finally, five days after quitting coffee, and three full days of aching legs, I began to feel like my body was returning to normal. By this time, I had replaced my beloved coffee ritual with golden lattes, and my energy levels seemed better than ever (which is the total opposite of what I thought would happen). Not only that, but the caffeine detox seemed to have done wonders for my skin: My skin literally glowed. The redness disappeared from my chin, and it was the clearest it had looked in years. My colleagues also started asking me what I'd done differently, but this time my response wasn't a new skincare product. After talking with a few workmates about my caffeine detox, I soon realized that ditching coffee wasn't uncommon; a few people in my office had recently given it up too, and now we're all drinking superfood lattes.
Day 6: High Energy Levels and Glowing Skin
I honestly can't believe how good I feel and how much my skin has changed since giving up coffee. I am also sleeping like a baby, whereas before I woke up several times a night. Now, I'm jumping out of bed in the morning and feeling fresh, not sluggish. It's now been almost three weeks since I had my last cup, and I honestly don't miss it. I'm also slightly terrified of going back to drinking it daily because I detoxed so badly... but never say never.
Now, I'm jumping out of bed in the morning and feeling fresh, not sluggish.
As I consider the future, I can see myself drinking coffee again one day. For example, instead of a daily cup, I would make it a weekend indulgence for whenever I feel the urge, or as an accompaniment to bakery treats on a Sunday with friends. But I haven't given up everything. Wine (in particular, chardonnay) will always be a part of my consumption habits. A girl has got to have some vices in life, right?
If you enjoy coffee and simply can't bear the thought of giving it up, then you don't have to. Just drink it in moderation, Brawner advises. "My take on coffee is to enjoy it without dependence," said Brawner. "Coffee has many proven health benefits and can be very healthy for those who drink it using common sense. If you have it daily, drink up to two cups. Take breaks from drinking it, buy high quality and organic, don't add sugar or artificial sweeteners to your mug, and don't be afraid to blend in some ghee, coconut milk, or MCT oil for some healthy fats."
UPDATE: I haven't had a coffee (besides decaf) since I detoxed on August 7, 2017. It's now been over a year. I can truly say that I feel so much better and more alert. I also don't suffer from the mid-morning energy crash that I used to experience when I was downing a daily cup of joe. I'm sleeping so much better than I ever have, and honestly, I still don't miss coffee. Now I enjoy my one decaf drink in the morning—either rooibos chai tea, a green tea on occasion (my go-to's are matcha and sencha), or dandelion tea (particularly, the caramel nut flavor by Teecino is a game-changer).
Giving up coffee is hard at first (and for some people, totally brutal), but trust me—if you have the desire and will to, you won't regret it.
Shop some of my caffeine-free favorites below:
This dandelion tea is without a doubt my favorite coffee alternative. It has a delicious caramel flavor and a creaminess that most others I've tried don't have. It's also a great natural detoxifier too.
Now that I've removed caffeine from my diet, I had to find another tea. Regular rooibos is a little too earthy for me, so I was happy to find this chai fusion. It's so delicious and tastes even better when you add sweet almond milk.
When I'm not feeling like a milky rooibos tea or if I need a bit of an afternoon energy bump, I'll pour myself a green tea, which I probably only have once a week. I prefer the taste of the traditional toasted rice flavor, and now that I'm not drinking caffeine, I definitely notice it when I have one of these. While it does have caffeine, there are other benefits that outweigh the caffeine content such as being packed with antioxidants to reportedly help fight inflammation, as well as other anti-aging properties like boosting brain health and lowering your risk of stroke and heart disease.
I've also been reaching for matcha—a more concentrated form of green tea—a lot more and I am a huge fan of the iced-tea versions at my local café (just need to keep an eye on the sugar added). This is a ceremonial grade, so I also really enjoy the ritual of preparing it. This also has caffeine, but green tea, especially the higher grade matcha, has been said to boost metabolism if consumed regularly, so that benefit definitely trumps the latter. I also keep this to a minimum.
There's nothing quite like an afternoon tea among friends. Pour your milk from a stoneware pitcher and create a long-lasting memory.
Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda. Journal of Caffeine Research. September 13, 2013;3(3):114-130. doi:10.1089/jcr.2013.0016
Flavonoids: The Secret to Health Benefits of Drinking Black and Green Tea? Harvard Medical School. May 21, 2018