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 fresh ground beans) but also the ritual. I am such a morning-brew buff that our entire kitchen counter is practically devoted to making it. I have a Rancilio coffee grinder so the beans can be freshly ground for each cup and a top-notch Italian Ascaso espresso machine that pours the perfect shot (with the creamiest crema), complete with a frother to create the fluffiest almond milk (no sugar needed). In fact, the more people I speak to about my recent decision to quit coffee, the more I realize I'm not alone in this sentiment. More of my friends and colleagues drink a cup of joe each morning for the ritual of it than the caffeine hit.
My decision to give up this holy grail of a.m. beverages wasn't mine initially. I was invited to do the Sakara Level II detox (story coming soon), and I jumped at the chance, not realizing initially 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—and boy was I wrong. Despite only having one cup of coffee a day, when you add that regular cup over the last 10 years, I clearly had a caffeine addiction, and let me just say that caffeine withdrawal is real, so very real.
"Breaking up with coffee and caffeine is not a joke," affirms holistic nutritionist, health coach, and founder of Frolic and Flow, Carly Brawner. "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 John 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. So here's my account of what really happens to your body when you give up coffee, along with Brawner's professional analysis. It was rough, but on the other hand, you'll see what it did for my skin…
DAY 1: Yes, You Get a Dizzying Headache
I woke up on the first day thinking it would be a breeze. I was kind of tired but not completely fatigued and decided to have a cup of rooibos instead. It might be worth noting here that I went cold turkey on all caffeine beverages, not just coffee. So that meant no green tea or Earl Grey either (I really did miss the smell of bergamot in the morning). I think 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.
By midday, I had a dizzying headache which quickly escalated into a migraine across the forehead and behind my eyes. Thankfully, I decided to work from home that day, because I did not feel good at all, and I certainly wasn't in any shape to speak with anyone. According to Brawner, withdrawal severity typically depends on how much caffeine an individual has consumed and for how long.
"The more consumed, the more severe the withdrawal," she said. "Withdrawal symptoms vary from headaches, depressions, muscle pain and stiffness, flu-like symptoms, constipation, heart rhythm abnormalities, and more. For some, symptoms last a few days and for others up to a few months." Unfortunately, I fell into this latter category.
Day 2: The Headache Intensifies, and Hello, Nausea!
Without coffee, my brain was really hurting, and now I was feeling fairly nauseous thanks to an intense migraine. I clearly wasn't expecting this, nor was I prepared for a headache and the aches to go on this long. When I asked Brawner why, she said 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 (and then blocks adenosine)."
This is also why coffee can keep us up at night—some of the sleep signals are disrupted. "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," she said.
Day 3: Welcome to the Body Aches
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, the muscle aches kicked in. These were no ordinary muscle aches either. It started in my lower back, then 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 heat pads, but when that didn't work, I eventually resorted to taking aspirin, which, as most of the people who know me closely know, I don't take lightly.
Day 4: My Legs Continue to Ache, Day and Night
It's now so bad that I fear I have the flu. Withdrawal had officially kicked in. Is this really what caffeine addiction can do to your body? I just couldn't believe it. I was in sheer disbelief and 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 take all the pain away). It was quite the opposite. 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. So I stuck with it.
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 heat pads for "advanced muscle pain therapy" and wrapped them around both legs, stuck some SalonPas 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…
"Those who drink more than their fair share of coffee (or caffeine in general), literally change his/her 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."
Brawner says the brain actually 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: Leg Aches Diminish (Slightly,) and I See the Light at the End of the Tunnel
Finally, five days after quitting coffee (and three full days of aching legs), I eventually start to feel like my body is going back to normal. I've replaced my beloved coffee ritual with golden lattes instead, and my energy levels are better than ever (which is the opposite of what I thought would happen). But not only that, my skin is literally glowing. The redness has gone from my chin, and it's the clearest it's looked in years. I can't believe it. My colleagues also started asking me what I'd done differently, but this time it wasn't a new skincare product. After talking with a few workmates in the kitchen about my caffeine detox, I soon realized that ditching coffee wasn't uncommon, and a few people in my office had recently given it up—now we're all drinking these superfood lattes.
But 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. "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."
Day 6: My Energy Levels Are at An All-Time High, and My Skin Is Glowing, Literally
I honestly can't believe how good I feel and how much my skin has changed since giving up coffee. It's amazing. I am also sleeping like a baby (I used to wake up several times a night) and jumping out of bed in the morning 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 at going back to drinking it daily because I detoxed so badly, but never say never.
I can see myself drinking coffee again one day, but this time it will be a weekend indulgence when 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 diet. A girl has got to have some vices in life, right?
Have you ever tried to give up coffee? Did you have similar withdrawal symptoms too? What are some of your favorite coffee alternatives?