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Ending my caffeine fast

My caffeine fast reached its intended three-month mark over the weekend. I was disappointed not to get the sleep benefits I hoped for.

When food writer Michael Pollan tried a three-month caffeine fast and said that by the end he was “sleeping like a teenager,” I wanted in. My sleep has been poor for years.

The first three weeks were challenging as I went through withdrawal. I had a mild headache most mornings and I wanted …something. A salty snack? A stiff drink? A long walk? My body was confused. Obviously I wanted caffeine, but I didn’t specifically crave a hit like a heroin addict.

Drink Coffee Do Work

I switched to herbal tea so I’d still have a warm morning drink. Orange spice tea satisfied me best. But after about six weeks I realized I very much missed the taste of coffee. This made me happy — I worried before the fast that I drank coffee not because I liked it, but because it delivered caffeine into my addicted body. But in truth, I like coffee.

By this time we were on stay-at-home orders thanks to COVID-19. Adapting was hard for the first few weeks. Some of our kids lost their jobs in the pandemic and, struggling, made some choices that caused family stress. I was also leading a critical tight-deadline project at work that drained me dry most days.

With all of this stress I said to hell with it and started making a half pot of decaf every morning. I am delighted that quality decaf tastes very good today. The last time I drank much decaf was at least 25 years ago, and it was all crap then.

Strictly speaking, this ended my caffeine fast as a 12-ounce mug of decaf has about 10 mg caffeine in it. This is still very little caffeine compared to regular coffee, which delivers at least 140 mg caffeine in 12 ounces. It’s even not much caffeine compared to my favorite soda, Diet Dr Pepper, at 41 mg caffeine in 12 ounces. However, before the fast I drank six mugs of coffee every day. That’s a whopping 1,680 mg caffeine! The 30-40 mg caffeine in my daily decaf is a 98% reduction in caffeine intake.

One surprising challenge of quitting coffee was that my digestion … how can I say this delicately … immediately had trouble working its way to its expected end. I was uncomfortable a lot. This resolved entirely when I started drinking decaf.

But quitting caffeine didn’t help my sleep one bit. I’ve never slept easily, and when I’m under stress I wake up at 3 am and can’t go back to sleep. The enormous amount of caffeine I was consuming had to be making it worse. But after eliminating caffeine I still woke up a lot in the middle of the night. Even when I didn’t I frequently woke up not feeling rested. Who knows whether this would have been any different had COVID-19 and the big work project not happened.

It hurts that my alcohol intake has increased during the pandemic. I know alcohol makes my sleep less restful. The stressful work project ended, and when it did I decided to go on the wagon for a while. We will see whether sleep improves.

Now that this is over, I intend to keep limiting caffeine. I haven’t had a cup of regular coffee yet and I’m in no hurry to. I’ll keep brewing decaf at home. I’ll let caffeinated diet sodas back into my life at the couple-a-week rate I drank them before.

Perhaps a good cup of regular coffee can become a tool, something I use occasionally for caffeine’s boost. Perhaps I will approach regular coffee like I approach a good cocktail: I go out for one once in a while, to a place that makes them very well.

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38 thoughts on “Ending my caffeine fast

  1. Andy Umbo says:

    I was off caffeine for 25 years, and I slept like a baby! My last employer had free coffee, the first time that’s happened in about 10 years, and I slowly started drinking it again; and I am sorry I do. Now I have one to two cups a day, like a habit, almost like something to do, make a french press few cups of coffee. I hate myself for it, but can’t stop! I will agree, tho, that de-caf has never been better! I used to cut it to one cup of half-caf a day from my local coffee house while I was checking my e-mails; but they are closed during the pandemic, and I don’t want to buy two 12 ounce bags of coffee, de-caf and reg, and mix then together (I have done that in the past, tho, and it works).

    Sheesh, that black devil….

    • Before the fast I had cut back at home to half-caff. I just used an equal number of scoops of regular and decaf in the filter, rather than pre-mixing the coffee.

  2. You are a better man than me. I am still a 4-5 large mugs a day guy. And now your lack of significant results from quitting will help me to remain one. Your result may be atypical (like the healthy 85 year old smoker who used to pop up occasionally) but it will be good enough for this caffeine addict.

    • I hoped caffeine was playing a large role in my sleep difficulty. When I eliminated it and my sleep didn’t improve, I had no choice but to blame stress, and my mediocre response to it.

  3. Fascinating. I have never understood the appeal of coffee and always assumed that people like it for the caffeine rather than the flavor. Guess I was wrong but what a neat experiment! ☕️

    • I started drinking coffee in college for the caffeine. I’m not sure when along the way I started to enjoy it for its own sake! Coffee, beer, whiskey — there are many beverages that are an acquired taste.

      • Lol. I don’t drink any of the above. I drink water. During the pandemic I’ve been trying some of those powdered flavor packets. If I have fast food I get a Diet Coke. I’m pretty boring!

  4. I went years without ever having a sip of the brown stuff. In fact my mantra was “I like my caffeine cold” because I drank sodas like they were becoming extinct. Once we bought a house a few years back we got a Keurig machine and I figured I’d give a few of the starter packs that came with it a try and actually discovered that I kinda like the stuff. Since working from home I typically have a cup first thing in the morning and my soda intake hasn’t waned at all. Call it the caffeine or the taste because I’m pretty sure it’s a good combination of both.

  5. I only drink green tea, so I do drink some caffeine. For sleeping, I find 2 things make a huge difference: my pillows so my back is in alignment and a cool room. I hate waking up in a cold room, but I love sleeping in one. Good luck.

    • For me it’s really emotional stuff that interrupts my sleep. I also find that more than 2 drinks can wake me up for good in the middle of the night, as well. The alcohol thing is easy enough to change. The emotional stuff is a longer road, but I’m working on the old Serenity Prayer, of accepting what I can’t change and changing the things I can — the things that work up my emotions, that is.

  6. Back in my radio days, I could drink pot after pot of coffee without it ever bothering me. And that was real coffee, brewed in a Bunn drip machine into a carafe that was never washed, only rinsed between brews. Sometimes, the coffee would sit in those carafes so long it would begin to burn. These days, two…maybe three cups and I am done.

    • Oh yeah, I know the taste of burnt Bunn coffee. I used to be able to subject my body to all sorts of things in my 20s that I can’t do anymore!

      • Mark says:

        CBD – Have never smoked, or done drugs, go years between any alcohol, don’t like. Do do coffee, tea, ice cream. Real CBD (we use Charlotte’s Web) at bedtime helps to stay asleep. May wake at 3 but can rollover till natural wake at 5:30-6. Not high, not drugged. -Do check with your DR for any possible drug interaction.

        • I’ve tried CBD and it didn’t help me. Truth is, I’ve just got to manage my stress better. No substance is going to do that for me.

  7. Victor Villaseñor says:

    Leaving coffee? Never!

    But I did had to cut it down the first few weeks of the mandatory stay at home period, I guess having access to good quality coffee and the whole brewing ritual, increased the number of mugs to scary levels, in my case the stomach started severely complaining, couldn’t sit unless perfectly straight back, anything less was a jolt of pain irradiating from my stomach.

    Great experiment, you know yourself better now! Hopefully the long walks with a film camera ( and reports back here, of course) will help with the sleeping.

  8. I enjoyed reading about your self-challenge. My husband makes my coffee for me & honestly I feel like a queen. Also I ❤ specialty – lavender white chocolate cold brew is my latest.
    Our local coffee drive thru, and shop really give a good vibe.
    I remember days I couldn’t afford these luxuries so it’s definitely psychological & yeh, caffeine.
    I am walking 2.2 miles a week +. Uphill & downhill & brisk. If I don’t do this I I can’t sleep. It’s a new thing since warm weather. 1 lost. 13lbs but mainly it’s the mental relief. And I have to walk the dogs min every other day to maintain mental balance. I’m hoping to be habitual so when cold weather hits I won’t return to sedentary.

  9. I’ve tried this experiment before and also saw no positive results in my sleep patterns. I have no “withdrawal” from caffeine. It is not uncommon for me to skip coffee on random days, just because. I have no headaches or other… ahem, distress. Nor do I have jitters etc when I drink it. Other than my 0 to 10 cups in the morning, I don’t normally have any other caffeinated drinks past about noontime.

    I think everyone processes things differently, so it is important to know what works for you. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  10. tbm3fan says:

    When I first tried coffee in 1973 I couldn’t stand the taste. Of course there wasn’t anything good around. One trait of mine during the 70s was that I’d get home from college or work around 6 pm sit on the couch and find myself waking up at 7:30 pm.

    Then I started grad school at Cal in 1977 where there were a lot of coffee houses which were a new thing to me. Nothing like that around SDSU. Someone suggested a latte so I went to Cafe Roma and had one and I was hooked immediately. Not from caffeine but the warmth and the taste. However, I did notice I no longer fell asleep at 6:00 when getting home.

    Since then I routinely have two 10 oz. cups of my French Roast, back to back, every day before 5:00 pm. Preferably around noon. I will also have one if I have a headache as it with food and aspirin have always worked to end one. I don’t hit the bed till 11:30 so caffeine is out of my system. Nonetheless, there are weeks where I sleep through the night and a week where I wake up at 4:00 am many nights. I just chalk that up to the variables of life. Oh, and try natural fiber, lots of it, as it works wonders on a daily basis.

    • Coffee in the 70s in the US was all Robusta beans – bitter, thin, yuck. It wasn’t until the 80s that good Arabica beans started showing up in the US. Now it’s pretty much all Arabica, except for Folgers and maybe Maxwell House, which still blend in Robusta.

  11. Sometimes when I go to bed I make a cup of black coffee and take it to bed. I read for about 5 minutes while taking about 3 or 4 small sips and then I am too tired to continue and fall asleep.

  12. I’ll offer my usual advice for problems sleeping. Eat a banana in the evening before bed.

    There are numerous websites explaining the benefits (e.g. this one picked at random: https://amerisleep.com/blog/banana-before-bed/ – an online search will reveal many more), but I know they can help from personal experience.

    A couple of years ago I was under a great deal of stress and anxiety and my sleep was terrible. I’d fall asleep easily because I was tired, but then wake in the early hours unable to drop back off again. I’d eventually succumb to fatigue at around 4am but then wake again aroud six with terible anxiety.

    The banana “cure” resolved all this to a significant degree. While I’d still wake in the night, I would usually fall back to sleep again, and although I’d still wake quite early, the anxiety I’d been suffering was greatly reduced too.

    Other things such as tart cherry juice, almonds, and camomile tea can produce similar effects, but bananas have the benefit of giving you slow-release carbs which fend off the primordial early morning “I need to eat or I’ll die” anxiety. :)

    It may help but, if not, you’ve just eaten a healthy piece of fruit.

    • Sadly, bananas are full of oligosaccharides. Those tie my stomach up in knots. A few hours after I eat something with oligosachharides, I am cramped up. It wakes me up from a deep sleep and that’s all she wrote for my night. :-(

      This also means that garlic, onions, wheat, and beans are out of my diet.

  13. I have one cup of coffee first thing in the morning, not for the taste or the caffeine. It’s for the ritual. That’s it. I don’t really like the taste. The rest of the day I drink herbal tea. As for sleep, I have never slept well. I’m lucky if I got five hours and some nights no sleep at all. I have found an answer though, but I don’t know if it is legal where you live. I make cookies with cannabis butter. One cookie, an hour before bed time and I sleep 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep. I wake up with no ill affects. I NEVER did any kind of recreational drugs, this is my sleeping pill and that’s it. We need sleep. Good luck.

      • A friend of mine makes it. I use it to make pumpkin spice cookies. One small cookie gives me hours of peaceful sleep. I never thought I’d try cannabis but when you haven’t slept in decades, and you find something that works, well……so worth it. Better than prescription drugs

  14. Roger Meade says:

    It seems like coffee may not be the main culprit Jim. You are a tech worker, so I assume you look at a computer screen for long hours. That can be part of the problem. Have you tried physical exercise in the evening? A sleep apnea test?

    If I have a couple of glasses of wine, I get to sleep easily but wake after 4-5 hours with stuffy nose. Without the wine (or other alcohol) I get 6-7 hours and feel more rested when I do wake.

    • I knew stress was the main culprit. I hoped that by eliminating caffeine it might help. I didn’t expect at all that eliminating caffeine would have zero effect on my sleep!

      I’ve tried exercise in the evening; it tends to hype me up. I’ve not done a sleep apnea test. I do snore; who knows.

  15. Sleepless fits? Try a daily dose of 2000 IU of Vitamin D3 during those times when you just can’t get your dose of sunlight needed to produce your own D3. Most American adults are D3 deficient, so that might be your real problem with chronic sleeplessness. When I start experiencing that problem (and it happens often), I start a regiment of D3 every night and almost always gets better. Might try that. Oh, there is some sound science behind the idea, too.

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