Quitting Caffeine: The Complete Guide

image of a cup of coffee

What if I told you that there is an addictive drug whose intake has increased by 70% over the past 30 years by children and adolescents across the United States?

What if I told you that 9 out of every 10 adults consume this drug regularly, often multiple times per day?

And lastly, what if I told you this drug were legal?

Of course, I’m talking about caffeine. While you may not think the consequences of caffeine consumption are of nearly the same magnitude as certain illegal drugs, you are most likely aware of its addictive nature.

 

What Is Caffeine Addiction?

An addiction is characterized by two conditions: tolerance and withdrawal.

Tolerance means that you need a higher dose of the drug to experience the same effects. Withdrawal is the feeling of discomfort that arises from the abrupt cessation of the drug.

For anyone who has been a regular coffee drinker, you don’t need me to tell you that caffeine tolerance builds up quickly and withdrawal is painful.

But for those of you who aren’t as familiar with caffeine’s addictive qualities, I’ll break it down for you.

Tolerance To Caffeine

Tolerance to caffeine has been demonstrated under laboratory conditions, and developed in less than 18 days of repeated use. Most people would agree that tolerance builds much faster than that.

In my personal experience, some tolerance will develop within 3-4 days of repeated coffee drinking.

Tolerance builds up faster when you use a larger amount in a small period of time. For example, if you have one cup a day for a couple days and then have four cups the next day, you will find yourself more tolerant to caffeine’s effects the following day.

Withdrawal From Caffeine

Caffeine withdrawal does not occur for everyone, but a large percentage of people will experience withdrawal symptoms if they abruptly stop consuming caffeine.

Symptoms will generally be more intense for people who have consumed larger amounts and for longer periods of time.

These symptoms commonly include headache, sleepiness, irritability, and lack of concentration, but plenty of other symptoms may present themselves.

Withdrawal usually begins about 12-24 hours after last consumption, peaks between 20-48 hours, and lasts about a week.

There is also evidence of withdrawal symptoms appearing after short term usage of large quantities of caffeine.

 

What Does Caffeine Do?

Warning: I’m about to get just a tad scientific with you. Bear with me. Understanding one of the mechanisms behind caffeine’s effects is helpful in understanding how to quit.

First, let’s talk about adenosine.

Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that suppresses the activity of the central nervous system. It helps regulate how awake or tired you feel. As the day goes on, your brain pumps out more adenosine, which then binds with your adenosine receptors, which makes you feel more tired.

Caffeine is an adenosine antagonist, which means that it can bind to adenosine receptors but does not provoke a response from them. In other words, caffeine competes with adenosine to bind to the receptors.

See where this is going? The consumption of caffeine blocks the effects of adenosine, and therefore helps keep you awake and alert.

That’s all well and good, but what happens when you consume caffeine more regularly?

Your brain is a very clever organ. It knows that it needs its adenosine, and it can tell that it isn’t getting as much as it used to. So more adenosine receptors are created. Now, with the same levels of caffeine, more adenosine can bind to receptors, and your brain can function like normal again!

This is how tolerance develops. If you want to have the same stimulating effects of caffeine, you’ll need to consume more in order to effectively compete with adenosine again.

But, like an arms race, your brain will continue to adapt, creating more and more receptors.

Now let’s say you’ve built up a tolerance, and you’ve decided it’s time to quit. No more coffee for you!

Without the supply of caffeine that your brain has adjusted to, it finds itself with a huge amount of extra adenosine receptors. Many more adenosine molecules get to bind with them now, and you feel the effects of this increased binding.

Remember how adenosine builds up over the day to make you feel tired? Well, imagine what happens when adenosine builds up to insane levels super quickly. That is caffeine withdrawal.

But your brain, clever as ever, realizes that there is now too much adenosine. Over time, it reduces the number of receptors, and levels adjust back to normal. You’ve successfully quit your caffeine habit!

Keep in mind that this was a bit oversimplified, but it’s good enough for our purposes.

 

Where Do You Find Caffeine?

image of coffee beans

Caffeine can be found in a number of different places. In fact, many people probably consume significant amounts of caffeine without even realizing it!

Coffee

Coffee is the most stereotypical caffeine containing beverage.

It helps power the corporate world. Seriously. Imagine an office where free coffee wasn’t provided for the employees. There would be a revolt!

There are many factors that influence the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee, including the type of bean used and the method used to brew it. But even coffee from the same batch can result in wildly different caffeine levels in different cups.

Darker roasts tend to have slightly lower levels of caffeine than lighter roasts because exposure to heat breaks down more of the caffeine. Finer coffee grinds, such as Turkish coffee or espresso, tend to have higher caffeine concentrations. When coffee is brewed for longer, it tends to have a higher caffeine content.

As a good rule of thumb, an 8 oz cup of coffee will usually contain 80-120 mg of caffeine.

Instant coffee usually has less caffeine, or approximately 65-90 mg per cup.

A shot of espresso will usually contain approximately 75 mg of caffeine.

Even decaf coffee has some caffeine. Usually, there will only be a few mg left, but sometimes it can be much higher.

An important thing to note is that when you buy coffee from Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, or any other place, the servings are usually much larger. A “small” might be 16 oz and contain more like 200 mg of caffeine in total.

Here is a reference for the caffeine content of various Starbucks drinks.

Tea

There are so many varieties of tea with such varying levels of caffeine, it can make your head spin.

If you drink herbal tea (or, for aficionados, “tisanes”), there is usually no caffeine.

For real teas, however, the level of caffeine has a lot to do with how it is brewed. If you use boiling or near boiling water for several minutes, there will be more caffeine than if you use cooler water or steep it for a shorter period of time.

The more your tea leaves are broken up, the more caffeine your cup will usually have. Since tea bags contain much finer ground leaves than loose tea, they generally have a higher caffeine content.

In case you are interested, here are more factors that affect the caffeine content in your tea.

It is commonly believed (including by me until I did the research for this post) that white and green teas contain less caffeine than oolong and black teas. Apparently, the method of brewing has a much larger impact, and white tea can very possibly have a higher caffeine content than black tea!

An 8 0z cup of green tea usually contains 25-40 mg of caffeine, but can often have even more.

An 8 oz cup of black tea usually contains 25-100 mg of caffeine.

Keep in mind that the amount of caffeine in your tea will vary considerably, and you probably have almost no idea how much is in it. I like to think of a cup of tea as nearly equivalent to a half a cup of coffee, but even that is just an approximation.

If you buy bottled iced tea, there are also very different caffeine contents. Many Snapple Iced Tea varieties contain 42 mg of caffeine, and their Diet Green Tea contains 60 mg of caffeine. Other brands and flavors have different amounts, so you should find out how much caffeine is in your favorite variety.

Tea also contains other compounds that help mitigate the effects of caffeine, so drinking tea will often provide a more calm alertness than coffee or energy drinks.

If you are interested in the health benefits of green tea, I’ve written a comprehensive guide already.

Sodas and Energy Drinks

Another common way people consume caffeine is through sodas and energy drinks. Different drinks have different quantities of caffeine…are you noticing a pattern yet?

Most regular and diet cola drinks contain 30-40 mg of caffeine per 8 oz serving.

Energy drinks usually contain approximately 70-80 mg of caffeine per 8 oz serving.

Since there are so many different types of drinks in this category, I will just refer you to this database on caffeine content of various beverages.

Chocolate

I am an avowed chocoholic. I seriously cannot get enough of my dark chocolate. And I know I’m not the only one.

Chocolate contains a number of psychoactive compounds, most notably caffeine. Since the caffeine comes from the cocoa, darker chocolates contain more caffeine. Most large bars of chocolate are 3.5 oz, so…

Dark chocolate contains approximately 20 mg of caffeine per oz, or 70 mg per bar.

Milk chocolate contains approximately 5-6 mg of caffeine per oz, or 20 mg per bar.

Unless you are eating tons and tons of dark chocolate, it probably won’t contribute too significant of an amount of caffeine, at least not compared to coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks.

That being said, many other products contain chocolate, and thus have small amounts of caffeine. Do you drink a lot of chocolate milk or hot chocolate? It can add up.

Medicines

One of the most common ways that caffeine can sneak into your system without you even realizing is through medication you might be taking.

Caffeine is very commonly added to over the counter and prescription pain relievers for headaches. It helps the body absorb the other pain relief drugs more effectively, as well as relieve the headache on its own.

A tablet of Excedrin contains 65 mg of caffeine, a considerable amount.

There are plenty of other medicines containing caffeine, so take a look at this list to see if you take any.

Caffeine Pills And Supplements

Some people prefer to get their caffeine fix through supplementation.

While this is not incredibly common, caffeine is often taken by bodybuilders or physique athletes in an attempt to help burn fat or pump them up before a workout.

If you take any “pre-workout” supplements, chances are it contains significant quantities of caffeine.

 

How Can I Quit?

Phew. We’ve already covered quite a lot of ground.

But that was all just background. Now we get to the real meat of this post: how to actually kick the caffeine habit.

The two main options you have for quitting are the cold turkey method (stopping all at once) or weaning yourself off gradually. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, which we will get into shortly.

First, we should go over some general principles that will help you during the challenging withdrawal phase.

Your first task before you quit should be to estimate the amount of caffeine you have been consuming. Go back to the previous section, add up all the caffeine containing substances you take on a daily basis, and come up with a number (or range) in mgs.

This number won’t be 100% accurate, but it will help give you an idea of how much of an ordeal you will be going through while you quit.

Next, realize that for up to two weeks after you begin kicking the habit, you may be irritable and have difficulty focusing on tasks. In other words, you will be less pleasant to be around and less effective at work.

Plan your quitting with that in mind.

The beginning of a huge project at work might not be the best time. But you know yourself best, so do what you have to do.

I recommend letting key people in your life know what you are doing and what to expect, and they will be more supportive.

Minimizing Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can be challenging to deal with. If you can manage the symptoms effectively, quitting becomes fairly easy!

The two most disruptive symptoms are headaches and fatigue. If you quit cold turkey, you will feel these symptoms to a larger degree than if you wean yourself off (but for a shorter period of time), making this section even more important.

  • Have some ibuprofen around. Pain killers can be very helpful in preventing the headaches that would occur from withdrawal. Only take them if your headache is particularly bad though; taking pain killers for an extended period of time is not healthy. Make sure it isn’t Excedrin or another caffeine containing medication.
  • Drink more water. Staying hydrated is very important for your health, but particularly important when you are cutting back on caffeine. If you get your caffeine by drinking it, you need to replace those fluids. But drink some extra water too, because staying hydrated helps prevent headaches. Aim for at least 10 cups per day.
  • Get more sleep. You will be tired, so leave extra time to catch up on sleep. This way you will be less fatigued during your waking hours.
  • Take a power nap. A short nap in the middle of the day can help re-energize you. You probably cant do this at work, but when you can, take advantage of the opportunity. I’ve written a detailed post on how to get the most from your naps, so check that out if you plan on using this strategy.
  • Exercise. Staying physically active will make you feel better in general. Even if you feel tired, try to get a workout in. It will leave you feeling more energized.
  • Keep the lights on. Being in a dimly lit area will make you even more tired. So if you need to stay awake, make sure the lights are on and shining brightly wherever you are.

Quitting Cold Turkey

If you have been consuming less than 300 mg per day of caffeine, you can try to quit cold turkey.

You will certainly be tempted to consume caffeine during this time. I suggest you don’t have any caffeine containing products in your house. Out of sight, out of mind.

The toughest part will be when you are at work and most likely have free coffee available, and plenty of people around you taking advantage of it.

If you feel particularly tempted, drink a glass of water instead. Grabbing a small snack can give you some energy as well.

For the first two or three days, feel free to take some ibuprofen if you deem it necessary. Beyond those first couple days, you should do your best to fight through the headaches without medication.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend quitting cold turkey, especially if you have been consuming large amounts of caffeine already.

Weaning Yourself Off Gradually

If you habitually consume more than 300 mg of caffeine per day, or if you want to reduce the withdrawal symptoms as much as possible, I would highly suggest that you wean yourself off gradually.

There are a number of different ways you can do this. Two common methods would be cutting the equivalent of a half cup of coffee per day (about 50 mg), or by cutting a full cup every few days.

No matter how gradually you reduce your consumption, the principle is the same: progressively decrease your caffeine intake while minimizing the withdrawal symptoms.

You should expect to have a slight headache and feel moderately lethargic while you wean yourself off, and for a couple of days after. But if you do it properly, the symptoms shouldn’t be too bad.

There are a number of tips and tricks to make this process as easy as possible.

  1. Avoid decaf. Decaffeinated drinks still contain some caffeine, and they can be addictive themselves.
  2. Substitute tea for coffee. If you drink coffee, switch to drinking tea, which contains less caffeine. It is still a hot beverage that is stimulating, but it will help you cut back. For example, if you drink four cups of coffee per day now, cut back to three and then add a cup of tea. The next day drink two cups of coffee and two cups of tea, etc.
  3. Substitute herbal tea or hot chocolate for coffee and tea. Herbal tea is caffeine free, and hot chocolate contains only small amounts of caffeine. You can use whichever one you want as a substitute for coffee or tea, and they will satisfy your need to drink something hot. There are a great variety of herbal teas with varying effects that you can experiment with.
  4. Substitute seltzer water or fruit juice for soda. Does your caffeine fix come from excessive soda consumption? You might love the carbonation, in which case seltzer is a much healthier alternative that is still bubbly. If it’s the sweetness of soda that draws you to it, try substituting fruit juice. Don’t drink too much fruit juice though, because it is still full of sugar. Move on to water as quickly as possible.

 

Conclusion

Caffeine is a helluva drug. Many people find themselves addicted without even realizing the implications. It is not easy to stop, but it can be done.

There are techniques you can use to make the process far easier. Knowing the right way to quit makes all the difference.

Do you have any stories about your attempts to quit caffeine? Please share your wisdom!

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Comments

  1. Girl Ryan says:

    I actually went a bit overboard with my caffeine intake this summer and switched to tea in order to cut myself back a little bit. (Plus, I love tea.) I feel very off if I don’t wake up in time to make myself one or the other; it feels like I never got to start my day. I think it’s a good idea to switch up such routines once in a while so that you feel less cranky when they are not feasible, and it certainly can’t hurt to be sure you’re monitoring your intake on something like caffeine.

    • Yeah, it’s easy to go off the deep end with something like caffeine. And you are right. If you change your routine, it makes you less attached to the action of performing it, so you feel less anxiety when you cant.

  2. Caffeine is indeed very addictive. I used to drink coffee about 5 times per day before I understood how unhealthy it is…
    Daniel recently posted..How to Increase Muscle InduranceMy Profile

  3. Michelle says:

    I have been drinking 1 cup of coffee every single day for about a year now. 120 MG caffeine that is. How would I go about weaning off of this? I don’t need something hot to replace it. I just need to quit this addiction. I don’t want to be reliant on it. I don’t want to feel as if I didn’t want a cup one day and get a headache from it. Don’t want to be reliant. When I quit my Excedrin addiction after 10 and more years of taking it, I weaned off and did it in dosages. Toward the end, I experienced bad withdrawals but stuck with it and glad I don’t abuse it anymore. Didn’t realize the rebound headaches I was getting was from tolerance. How would I go about caffeine quitting in dosages. I drink 8 Oz each day, would I go for a less or higher cup? Thank you.

    • Mikey D says:

      If you only drink one cup of coffee per day (and you don’t have other sources of caffeine), I would go cold turkey. Just stop drinking coffee if you want to quit.

  4. Well, there is a good number of workout supplements that do not contain caffeine. I also try to stay away from caffeine as much as possible, since it does not have the best effects on me. However, I found out that the fat burning pre-workouts I use are totally caffeine-free, and they work magnificently!

  5. Thanks for the post. It is really a complete guide.
    Emily recently posted..JordgubbscheesecakeMy Profile

  6. Thanks for the post. It is really a complete guide. I am really happy to know this about quitting-caffeine. I am a coffee addicted. So It is really good information’s for me.
    Emily recently posted..JordgubbscheesecakeMy Profile

  7. I have found this article interesting. But there is one point I miss:
    What is the point in quitting caffeine? Is there an actual health risk? I saw some studies saying that a moderate amount is good for you.

    I sure enjoy my ~4 cups of coffee and a cup of earl grey daily. Cutting down/quitting is hard for me if I can’t see a proper reason/goal.
    …on the other hand I also used to “enjoy” a pack of cigarettes a day some time ago.

    Best regards.

    • Good question! Coffee does seem to be very healthy (for most people), but anything that is addictive can cause problems. Certainly, some people want to quit caffeine for a variety of reasons not directly related to the immediate health impact. For instance, it stains your teeth, and it shouldn’t be drank by pregnant women.

  8. Rachel Curson says:

    I gave up about a month ago and feel amazing! GEtting up in the morning is so much easier. I cut down by switching to decaf, then gradually replaced decaf with herbal tea or roibos. I felt a bit tired for a week or so but it was well worth it.

    Question, if I have a cup of tea now, will I have to go through all the withdrawal again? Or is the odd one ok?

    • Everyone is a little bit different, but the occasional cup of tea shouldn’t give you any withdrawal. I think for most people, you’ll need around 100 mgs of caffeine (2 cups of black tea, or 3 of green, roughly) for several days in a row before there is a risk of that.

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