Fasting from caffeine

Coffee out
Pentax ME, 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M, Agfa APX 100 (expired 7/98)

I stopped drinking anything with caffeine in it on Saturday, February 22.

I have been a coffee drinker my entire adult life. I started in college, where instant Taster’s Choice fueled many a late-night homework session. When I entered the work world I took a cup in the office every morning. Later I added a couple of cups at home with breakfast. When I started having insomnia during my divorce I drank more coffee to push through sleep-deprived days. By about 10 years ago I was drinking a pot a day.

Last year my doctor suggested that all that caffeine was probably making it harder to nod off at night, so I started drinking half-caff in the morning at home. Later I cut out my after-lunch cup. I had a little less trouble falling asleep.

Early in February I read this article in which food writer Michael Pollan described a three-month caffeine fast he took. He said that after he went through very real withdrawals, his sleep started to improve. When I read that soon he was “sleeping like a teenager” I knew I wanted to try a caffeine fast, too.

My sleep has been so-so for several years. The stress of the last few years has added frequent insomnia to the mix. I’m tired most of the time. I’d very much like to sleep better.

I tried to wean myself off caffeine a little more over the next couple weeks by drinking quarter-caff in the morning and cutting out coffee in the office altogether. Then on that February Saturday, I quit entirely. I drink herbal tea now. Bigelow’s orange-spice tea satisfies me best.

This fast also means no Diet Coke or iced tea. Drinking water at a restaurant saves me a couple bucks on lunch, which was nice until the coronavirus ended restaurant lunches.

The Saturday I quit, I fell into in such a low mood that I lay around in bed half the day watching dumb TV. It didn’t help that I’d experienced a heavy disappointment that morning. I hadn’t had such a low day in years and years.

Sunday the headache came. It lasted three days, pulsing right at the base of my skull. Aspirin and ibuprofen dulled it but did not quell it.

For about a week I kept wanting …something. I couldn’t figure out what. I tried chocolate, I tried salty snacks, I drank extra herbal tea. Of course, my body was asking for caffeine. These heavy cravings subsided by the end of the first week. I guess that was the end of withdrawal.

Then I noticed a general lack of tension in my body. If you’ve been reading here for a while, you know I’m a generally anxious man. My mind still worries about stuff, but my body doesn’t carry it very much anymore. The feeling of physical calm feels both odd and wonderful.

I feel tired more easily and more often. Even the way tired feels has changed. I used to go, go, go, and then suddenly crash, feeling hollowed out. Now my body runs down more slowly and I am more aware of when it’s time to start wrapping up and getting ready for bed.

My sleep has not improved so far. I still have trouble nodding off, and I still frequently wake in the middle of the night for an hour or two. I hope better sleep comes.

I also notice I don’t feel as sharp. There’s just an edge that’s gone. I can’t decide whether I miss it or not.

Even without that edge, I function fine without caffeine. I’m as productive as I ever was. It turns out caffeine wasn’t helping me very much, even after a night of bad sleep.

I miss coffee, though. I like how it tastes.

I plan to fast entirely from caffeine until June 1. Then I’ll have a single cup of coffee and see what it feels like. If my sleep doesn’t improve, I’ll return to drinking coffee — just far less of it, one or two cups a day. Either way, I believe I’ll drink Diet Coke and iced tea again at restaurants.

So far, life is fine without caffeine.

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23 thoughts on “Fasting from caffeine

  1. Wow, JG – Soon you will be down to nothing but grass clippings for your diet. Joking aside, I hope your sleep improves. Sleep is one of the few things unaffected by the current lockdown, so it should be a luxury experienced deeply and frequently.

    • I hope sleep improves too. Stress at home and at work, and now with COVID-19, are conspiring against me. I so wish I could process challenging things more in real time, and stop lying awake either tense with them or full-on thinking about them.

  2. Caffeine can and does have very strong effects on folks. I know that as I retired some 10 or so years ago my intake increased simply because I was home and could basically have it at anytime. However, it didn’t seem to effect my sleep, luckily, but by golly did it make me twitchy. Only a little at first and long after a coffee drink. However it wasn’t long before the twitches were almost instant and it was really easy to link the cause. I quit for perhaps six months and then thought I’d try out some decaf. Not really thinking it would help or be any good. How could it – it wasn’t the real thing !!!!!. Well blow me I found that I wasn’t getting the twitches but I was enjoying the coffee. Next step for me was to find a brew that suited my taste. It was quite enjoyable trying out many different tastes and I now feel confident enough to select all manner of different brews to use. I’ve even got to the stage now where I don’t necessarily have a preferred type or brand.
    My advice to you Jim is to do what suits you best but decaf is certainly worth trying.


    • Barry, interesting the effect caffeine had on you. I’ve had a little decaf here and there during my fast and I find that I like it just as much as regular. Maybe the decaf process has improved over the years. I’m not switching to it wholesale during this fast, however, because it does have a few milligrams of caffeine in it. After the fast all bets are off.

  3. Olli Thomson says:

    I gave up around seven or eight years ago because caffeine was exacerbating my Meniere’s Disease. Apart from a week’s worth of very severe headaches it was a relatively easy transition. I switched to tea instead – particularly, but not exclusively, green tea since it’s lower in caffeine than black – and started exploring the history of tea, the culture of tea and the huge variety of teas available today. Now, having got used to the taste of tea, when I do have an occasional cup of coffee I find I don’t really like it much anymore.

    • Ooh, Meniere’s, that can be tough. Good to avoid anything that can exacerbate it!

      I’ve never been a giant tea guy. The whole rest of my family drinks it nonstop, though.

  4. Jon says:

    In my lifetime I have quit drugs, alcohol, and smoking. Caffeine was harder than anything else. I do use coffee and tea again but am cutting down for the same reasons as you. Good luck Jim.

    • I had a monkey on my back until about 15 years ago and that was way harder than caffeine. For me anyway! I guess each of us is different.

  5. Roger Meade says:

    Years ago while I was still working, I ran a locomotive on an afternoon job switching an auto plant in Michigan. The job worked 12 hours a day almost every day except Sunday. With almost an hour drive each way, those were long days.

    After I retired I calculated how much coffee I had been drinking while working that job. Turned out to be about 23-25 cups a day- all fully leaded. No wonder I was taking antacids and prescription stomach drugs to untie the knots in my gut!

    I still drink coffee, but I make a 12 cup pot in the morning for my wife and myself, mixed 1/3rd caffein 2/3rd decalf. That tastes good and does not bother either of us, but usually no more coffee after the morning pot is gone.

    Individuals certainly have different reactions to caffeine. I guess I am lucky to be able to tolerate a fairly heavy dose.

  6. Victor Villaseñor says:

    Jim did you ever pick up on sci-fi or fantasy books for bedtime? Supposedly having your mind wander into a fantasy / fiction primes you for sleep.

    Quitting caffeine? Unthinkable for me! But I do enjoy herbal tea, that Bigelow orange spice is good, also their “I love lemon” is very tasty!

    Good luck, hope you manage it and come out of the craze all herbal, long bearded and very well rested!

    • I used to read a lot of sci-fi! I don’t have much time for reading these days. I struggle to have a good enough bedtime routine – just too much happening in our lives.

      I’ll take herbal and rested, but I think I’ll skip the beard! I can’t handle the itchy phase.

  7. Michael says:

    I think you need to stop sending mixed messages and change the text of your support button.

    I understand the poor sleep thing. My better half has started snoring sometimes the last few years, which also doesn’t help. I’ve started using earbuds playing brown noise to drown her out, but haven’t decided if that has helped much yet.

  8. Nancy Stewart says:

    I had to stop drinking regular coffee years ago, because it makes me too jittery and causes irregular heart beat. But I still drink 3 or 4 cups of de-caff everyday and switch to tea in the evening.

    • You are fortunate!

      It’s my anxiety that keeps me from sleeping. Or it’s something I ate that disagreed with me. One or the other. Every time.

  9. I went on a fast once, for ten days. I was challenging myself to see if I could. Basically I just had water and but of honey. After 3 days I got a massive headache. Then it went away and I was fine. I kept busy so I didn’t miss meals. And then you just adapt and don’t think about meals. Then in the 9th days, I simple forgot and got up and made breakfast. While eating cereal and watching TV, I look down and remembered…damn it. Not something I will try again though.

    • A ten-day FULL fast? Wow! Well, eight day. But still, that’s intense. Your experience is interesting, especially how quickly you adapted.

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