A short prehistory
Two years ago, the (then still) very naive author of this text thought it would be a good idea to give up coffee, cola and the like for a while and declare war on the caffeine in them. Her mum, aunt and sister also thought it was a great idea and were also very enthusiastic. The book from which they got this idea recommended at least three days, but ideally three weeks without the so-called medicinal drug.
What had none of the four women expected?
Day 1 already did not bode well. Headaches and fatigue were the least of the problems they had to deal with.
The sister gave up on the first day and treated herself to another cup of the wonderfully fragrant, black liquid at noon and lo and behold: the headaches had disappeared, her concentration had been restored and all fatigue had been blown away.
The mum simply didn’t leave her bed for three days, the author slogged through customer orders day after day listlessly and with a headache, and the aunt was begged on day 2 by her two daughters to please drink coffee again, as they could no longer bear her bad mood.
The end of the story? After day 3, the women officially declared the experiment over and admitted to themselves what they had already feared: without caffeine, it simply doesn’t work any more.
This begs the question: why? What exactly is the reason for all these symptoms? What happens in the body when you regularly consume caffeine and then suddenly no longer do so? And is there a gentler way to get away from caffeine? These are exactly the questions we want to answer in this article.
Can you develop a caffeine addiction?
Doctors don’t call caffeine an addiction, but a habit, and although they call it a ‘medicinal drug’, as mentioned above, it sounds more serious than it is.
So why does one go through caffeine withdrawal anyway?
Even though our bodies ‘only’ get used to caffeine and there is no addiction medically, studies have shown that at least half of the subjects who consume more than 200 mg of caffeine daily and then abruptly stop consumption react to the ‘withdrawal’ with various symptoms.
In the USA, caffeine withdrawal has even been an officially recognised mental illness since 2013.
Why not everyone reacts to withdrawal in the same way and some people even do not go through withdrawal symptoms at all is not yet entirely clear. However, it is assumed that it has to do with individual caffeine sensitivity and is genetically determined.
What symptoms should I expect during caffeine withdrawal?
The most common symptom is headache. Studies show that 50 percent of participants suffer from headaches during caffeine withdrawal. Another 13 percent even report suffering from such severe headaches and their accompanying symptoms that they are limited in their ability to work as a result.
The type of headache triggered by caffeine withdrawal is usually localised on both sides of the head and is exacerbated by physical activity.
The reason for the headache? Because caffeine constricts the blood vessels, stopping or even reducing the intake of coffee and the like causes them to open up again and more blood to flow into the brain all at once. This increased blood flow then leads to a throbbing headache, similar to a migraine.
Everyone probably knows that coffee helps you wake up. This is because caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine is responsible for slowing down our nervous system.
The blockage increases the release of messenger substances such as dopamine – one of the so-called happiness hormones – and adrenaline, which in turn make us feel motivated and able to perform. However, since the effect of a cup of coffee only lasts about four to six hours, many people tend to drink several cups of it (or other caffeinated drinks) a day.
So those who rely on coffee or other sources of caffeine to keep them alert and fit during the day are at increased risk of being tired and sleepy without constant caffeine intake.
Studies have also shown that the more caffeine one habitually consumes, the more severe these fatigue symptoms are.
3. Mood swings
As explained above, caffeine changes the chemical make-up in the brain quite a bit, creating a whole new mix of hormones that are mood elevating, concentration enhancing and more.
So it’s not surprising that many people struggle with severe mood swings and irritability during caffeine withdrawal. Those who consumed a lot of caffeine before withdrawal sometimes even react to the abrupt discontinuation of the drug with anxiety and depressive moods.
4. Difficulty concentrating
After it was explained above that caffeine withdrawal can lead to fatigue, it is not surprising that the ability to concentrate can also decline rapidly.
This is partly because caffeine is actually very good for our concentration, according to a 2019 study. Just 80 mg a day already ensured that the memory performance and reaction time of the study participants improved.
Another study from 2016 found that regular caffeine consumption reduces the risk of dementia in women over 65.
If we suddenly stop taking caffeine into our bodies, this can have a negative effect on our concentration.
5. Flu-like symptoms
Symptoms not dissimilar to the flu have also been observed in some study participants. These include nausea, vomiting, aching limbs and muscles, flushing, chills and a stuffy nose.
Other known symptoms
Constipation, increased yawning, general malaise, restlessness, listlessness, blurred vision …
How long does caffeine withdrawal last?
As a rule, withdrawal symptoms start 12 to 24 hours after the last caffeine consumption. The symptoms are most severe in the first two days and can last up to nine days. However, the exact duration of caffeine withdrawal varies from person to person.
How to successfully 100% quit caffeine also without those nasty withdrawal symptoms? We got you covered.
But we can reassure you. Caffeine withdrawal can also look different. Because all the side effects described above are the symptoms of ‘cold turkey’, which is a very abrupt, sudden withdrawal. The trick, as with so much in life, is to take things slowly, without unnecessarily stressing the body, so that it can get used to a life with less and then maybe even without caffeine altogether.
So here are some tips for a gentle caffeine withdrawal without side effects:
1. Take it slow
Researchers have found that the most effective way to avoid withdrawal symptoms is to reduce caffeine intake slowly and gradually.
The amount of caffeine to reduce and the duration of the slow withdrawal vary, but most recommendations advise a gradual reduction over a period of two to six weeks.
One way you can make the reduction in a relaxed way is to replace coffee with decaffeinated coffee from lunchtime onwards.
2. Drink a lot of water
Adequate water intake can help reduce side effects such as mild headaches or fatigue.
3. Replace coffee with decaffeinated coffee products
If you are used to drinking several cups of (strong) coffee a day, gradually swap these for weaker coffee, then half-decaf (just mix half/half) and finally decaf. You could start with one cup a day and then swap more and more.
Studies have shown that participants who drink decaffeinated coffee during withdrawal have fewer or even no withdrawal symptoms because of a so-called placebo effect.
4. Try to get enough sleep
Especially at the beginning of withdrawal, it is important to give your body enough sleep (seven to nine hours) to counteract symptoms such as tiredness, listlessness and difficulty concentrating.
5. Draw on natural sources of energy
If you feel listless and lacking in energy at the start of withdrawal, there are also natural ways to re-energise. From light physical activity, yoga and a balanced diet to stress-relieving methods, there are many things that can serve as an alternative to caffeine.
Avoid all sources of caffeine:
It is very important that you not only slowly reduce your intake of coffee, but also slowly eliminate all other sources of caffeine.
- Tea (including black tea, green tea, chai, matcha and oolong).
- Lemonades such as cola, iced tea and co.
- Energy drinks
- Coffee-flavoured foods such as ice cream or yoghurt
- Chocolate (especially dark and plain)
- Food supplements and medicines
So now you know that you go through a kind of ‘withdrawal’. Caffeine is addictive. In medicine, caffeine is called a medicinal drug. And many people’s bodies react accordingly as soon as caffeine is withdrawn.
The “cold caffeine withdrawal” is no walk in the park and due to the sometimes serious side effects, at least from our point of view, not recommended.
If you do want to slowly wean yourself off high caffeine consumption, take the tips for gentle withdrawal to heart and perhaps take advantage of the placebo effect that occurs when you gradually switch to decaffeinated coffee.
Finally give yourself more reasons to quit coffee by watching below video: