Addicted to Coffee? Same. A Nutritionist Shares Simple Tips to Quit Caffeine (and Stay Sane!)

Don’t go cold turkey!

By Edie Horstman
Kimberly Snyder's morning routine, meditation, coffee, drink, books

It’s that time of year. Copious cups of coffee are just what the holidays ordered. Mellow, rich, bold, fruity—coffee keeps the holiday traditions alive. Caffeine also fuels endless to-do lists: Gift shopping, family activities, email replies, and everything else December entails. When presence feels impossible, we swiftly reach for an extra cup of joe. And while coffee is chock full of benefits, it’s easy to overdo it, especially during the holidays. If you think you’ve become too reliant on your cup (or three) of coffee, don’t fret. I’m a ball and chain to my coffee pot, too. Thankfully, it is possible to become less reliant on caffeine and still feel energized. If saying sayonara feels impossible, we’ve got you covered. Read on to learn how to quit caffeine (temporarily or permanently). Good news! You don’t have to quit cold turkey.  

Edie Horstman
Edie Horstman

Edie is the founder of nutrition coaching business, Wellness with Edie. With her background and expertise, she specializes in women’s health, including fertility, hormone balance, and postpartum wellness.

What Is Caffeine?

Every day, billions of people rely on caffeine to wake up, sail through the afternoon slump, or power through a night shift. Working, studying, parenting, or simply running errands are all made easier with a cup of caffeine. Unsurprisingly, caffeine is a natural stimulant (a drug). It works by stimulating the brain and central nervous system. It helps you stay alert. Said differently: Caffeine prevents the onset of tiredness. In many ways, your cup of coffee (or soda or tea) acts as an adenosine receptor antagonist.

Adeno what? Adenosine is a chemical present in all human cells. It promotes sleepiness. As soon as you take your first sip of caffeine, it blocks the adenosine receptor. This keeps you from feeling sleepy. In essence, caffeine works by blocking the effects of adenosine and at the same time, triggers the release of adrenaline. It’s a double whammy.

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How Quickly Does Caffeine Affect the Body?

It varies. For most, caffeine begins affecting the body very quickly. It can be felt as soon as 15 minutes after it is consumed. It reaches a peak level in your blood within 30-60 minutes, with a half-life of three to five hours. Meaning, your body can eliminate some of the caffeine within three to five hours, but the remaining amount of caffeine can stay much longer. Ultimately, it depends on if you’re a “fast metabolizer” or a “slow metabolizer.” This all comes down to our genes. The fast group breaks down caffeine more quickly than the slow group. And thus, the effects of caffeine don’t last as long for this group.

Sources of Caffeine

Caffeine ranks as one of the most commonly consumed dietary ingredients across the globe. It is naturally found in coffee beans, cacao beans, kola nuts, guarana berries, and tea leaves (like yerba mate). It can also be made, synthetically. Coffee and tea are the two most prominent sources, but sodas and energy drinks rank high as well. Curious to know how much caffeine is in your shot of espresso? Here’s the gist:

Coffee: 1 cup (or 8 ounces) of brewed coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine. The same amount of instant coffee contains about 60 mg of caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee only contains about 4 mg of caffeine.

Espresso: 1 shot or (1.5 ounces of coffee) contains about 65 mg caffeine.

Tea: 1 cup of black tea contains about 47 mg caffeine. Green tea contains about 28 mg. Decaffeinated tea contains 2 mg, and herbal tea contains none.

Soda: A 12-ounce can of regular or diet dark cola contains about 40 mg caffeine. 

Cacao: 1 ounce of dark chocolate contains about 24 mg caffeine, whereas milk chocolate contains much less caffeine.

Energy drinks: 1 cup (or 8 ounces) of an energy drink contains about 85 mg caffeine. However, the standard energy drink serving is 16 ounces, which doubles the caffeine to 170 mg. Energy shots are much more concentrated, though. A small, 2-ounce shot contains about 200 mg caffeine.

Supplements: Caffeine supplements contain about 200 mg per tablet or the amount in two cups of brewed coffee.

Recommended Amounts of Caffeine

Moderate caffeine consumption is considered safe, but even small amounts of daily caffeine can become a crutch. For healthy adults, the FDA has cited 400 milligrams a day—that’s about four or five cups of coffee—as an amount not generally associated with dangerous, negative effects. However, there is wide variation in both how sensitive people are and how fast they metabolize caffeine. Certain conditions and medications tend to increase caffeine sensitivity, including pregnancy. Breastfeeding moms also want to be mindful of their caffeine consumption. As always, talk to your health care provider about your caffeine consumption.

How Caffeine Impacts Sleep

You’ve probably been told not to drink coffee after a certain time of day. And there’s plenty of truth in this. Years ago, a study monitored caffeine’s impact on sleep. Here’s what they found: Caffeine significantly disrupted sleep at 0, 3, and 6 hours before bedtime. After when caffeine was consumed six hours before bedtime, sleep amounts were disturbed by over an hour. Furthermore, when caffeine was consumed throughout the day, the level of sleep decreased. Participants spent a significant amount of time awake when they should have been sleeping, even when caffeine was last consumed 6 hours beforehand. The study is an interesting window into how caffeine can significantly impact our sleep.

Caffeine: The Good and the Bad

So, is coffee really that bad for you? Most schools of thought would say no. In fact, caffeine has its fair share of benefits. It may improve mood and brain function, may boost metabolism (fat burning), and enhance exercise performance. Coffee, specifically, has been associated with liver protection, life longevity, and gut health. That said, it’s easy to over-consume caffeine. And the habit is hard to break. Some caffeine downsides include:

  • Insomnia
  • Jitters
  • Anxiousness
  • Fast heart rate
  • Upset stomach
  • Headaches
  • Shakiness
  • Agitation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Dehydration
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Can You Be Addicted to Caffeine?

This is up for debate. While you can develop a dependence on coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) quite quickly, some health care officials don’t qualify it as an actual addiction. The main reason for this is that other addictive substances stimulate an area of the brain—linked to reward and motivation—to a much higher extent than caffeine does. That said, if you drink caffeine on a daily basis, you will develop a tolerance. After a while, you require more and more caffeine to produce the same effects of alertness. Regular caffeine drinkers gradually require higher amounts to achieve the same “caffeine fix.”

4 Signs It’s Time for a Caffeine Detox

In terms of knowing when it’s time to detox (or quit, altogether), these are a few signs. First, you notice a change in your sleep cycles. It takes a long time to fall asleep or your sleep is restless. Second, you have headaches every morning. Once you form a dependency on caffeine, your body will expect it to come consistently. While your body waits, your blood vessels dilate. This could produce brain irritation, thus activating pain centers that form pounding headaches.

Third, you have feelings of anxiety or panic attacks after drinking caffeine. Fourth, you experience muscle spasms. When you’re constantly drinking caffeine, it can lead to dehydration. This causes your muscles to spasm. If you notice that your calves, hamstrings, or thighs spasm throughout the day, that could be a sign of over-consuming caffeine. Luckily, learning how to quit caffeine (even for a short while) can be tremendously helpful.

How to Quit Caffeine With These Straightforward Steps:

Without becoming a totally miserable and tired person, you can quit (or temporarily detox) from caffeine in a practical, ease-into-it kind of way.

  1. Slowly back away from caffeine.
    For example, set a time limit. Set an alarm for 2 p.m. to end your caffeine intake for the day. Or, if you usually drink a light roast, switch to dark roast (this has less caffeine). And of course, lean on decaf. Start by cutting your coffee consumption with half (or even a quarter) of decaf coffee. Mommee Coffee makes half and quarter-caf beans!
  2. Start during vacation or a long weekend.
    It’s an ideal time to lay off caffeine because you’re not spending hours glued to your computer or performing work tasks. Maybe, you can sleep in. And most likely, what you’re doing doesn’t require very much concentration and energy. Ultimately, your body will likely find it easier to adjust to abstinence once post-vacation work sets in.
  3. Figure out your replacement bev.
    In order to not feel deprived, consider what hot (or iced) non-caffeinated drink you’ll want to sip. Wanting a boost without the crash? We’ve got just the teas and potions for you. For that morning jolt of sustained energy, try these delicious drinks.
  4. Keep a running list of motivators to quit caffeine.
    For example, better sleep. More money saved. Less sugar consumption. Freedom from dependence on caffeine. Remember that behavior change is supported by motivators. If you have them written down, and can add to the list, you’ll have positive reinforcement. Thus, you’ll be more likely to stick with your detox.
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Benefits of Quitting Caffeine

These speak for themselves, but cutting down on your caffeine consumption can lead to less anxiety, better sleep, more efficient nutrient absorption, whiter teeth, balanced hormones, improved brain chemistry, and fewer headaches.

How Long Does It Take to Detox From Caffeine?

The duration of caffeine withdrawal symptoms varies from person to person. However, caffeine withdrawal usually lasts at least two to nine days. Someone who abruptly stops caffeine intake (after regular use )will usually feel withdrawal effects between 12 and 24 hours after stopping

What Are the Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal?

According to research, caffeine withdrawal symptoms vary. However, they can include lethargy, an increased heart rate, decreased motor activity (general laziness), hand tremors, an increased need to urinate, and flu-like symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms usually set in about 12-24 hours after quitting caffeine. As mentioned, it only takes a little over one week to get over a caffeine addiction. In that time, you can reset your tolerance. Plus, the worst of the withdrawal symptoms usually go away after two or three days.

Should You Wean Off Caffeine or Quit Cold Turkey?

I’m a fan of weaning off of caffeine (it feels more realistic and isn’t nearly as miserable!), but if you want to quit cold turkey, here’s an exact schedule to follow. Otherwise, circle back above for four straightforward steps to lower your caffeine consumption. Eventually, you might surprise yourself and quit altogether.