How does a decades-long death before decaf hardliner end up extolling the virtues of a less caffeinated existence? And how does that happen without any withdrawal symptoms?
But first, why should you even think about this?
Caffeine doesn’t do you any good when you use it every day. For regular users, your caffeinated state is how nonusers feel all the time.
Addiction is a drag. It just is.
Better sleep. My body was so juiced up on caffeine I could be incredibly tired but still not able to sleep. I can take naps again.
The Good News
You don’t have to give it up forever. We’re not talking heroin here. Drinking an occasional cup of the real stuff won’t send you into a massive binge.
But anyway… let’s get back to the how
Caffeine is a hell of a drug
I’d been drinking coffee daily since I was 15. My high school had a McDonalds across the street. A cup was 10 cents. This wasn’t 1915 but some amount of corporate calculations decided 10 cent coffee would be a good loss leader.
This McDonalds was a hangout to anyone who wanted to escape the school grounds — much to the workers’ annoyance. My friends would be kicked out while I got to stay because I had spent 10 cents on a cup of a dangerously hot brew that would’ve burned off skin if I had the misfortune to spill it on myself. This isn’t hyperbole. It took forever to get cool enough to drink and McDonald’s eventually got sued for serving much too hot coffee. In college, this all continued. I even made sure I had coffee in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. People were literally robbing the store and I’m waiting in the checkout line with my Folgers.
A career as a software engineer provides an easy track to keep consuming coffee every day. I loved coffee. Coffee loved me. All was well. Until it wasn’t.
I’d always had trouble keeping a good sleep schedule. I chalked this up to leading a dual musician and software engineer sleep schedule. Late-night gigs mixed with Monday - Friday normal working hours meant I never had a regular time to sleep.
But it was all workable until I was starting to get terrible bouts of insomnia, usually starting mid-winter. It was bad enough that I considered seeing a sleep doctor. I figured the first thing they’d tell me to do was to cut out caffeine. So for a few years, I’d quit cold turkey. It was rough. But I toughed it out until Spring when I got more sun exposure.
Needless to say, this wasn’t a pleasant experience. Once I got more sun exposure I started to sleep better. I gladly went back to regular coffee.
How I Quit
How I got the caffeine monkey off my back.
Based on advice from an article I can no longer locate. I started drinking my first cup 15 minutes later each day. The theory is that your body releases Cortisol naturally as you wake up. Moving your consumption later helps you reduce caffeine intake because your body releases Cortisol on its own when you let it.
I wasn’t really trying to quit. But thought my daily 6 cups of (strong) coffee was probably something I could reduce. This went well for a while. Maybe a week or so. I didn’t feel any major withdrawal symptoms and kept with the program.
Then it happened. One day around 9:45 I felt a massive rush of Cortisol before I had my first cup. A caffeine buzz. As a hardened addict, I hadn’t felt one in years. It was like my body suddenly said: “oh, it’s time to be awake and you’re not providing the ‘go juice’ anymore so I guess I’ll make it myself”.
I decided to see how far this could go. I stopped all caffeine intake. The next day the buzz was even stronger. No headaches, no tiredness, no withdrawal.
This was the push I needed. I went months without caffeine. Even after a bad night’s sleep (or a late night out), I stayed away. My reasoning was I’d be better off powering through until I could get a nap in. This worked, mostly.
Of course, there were hiccups: Even without the caffeine addiction, I still had a long-standing habit of drinking something hot in the morning. It took a while to find a routine that worked for me without feeling something deprived (more on that somewhere down the road).
What was different
I wasn’t pounding caffeine right when I got up (often before sunrise) when my body would normally be producing go juice. This helped my body pick up the slack naturally. Even if you don’t want to cut out caffeine altogether I advise understanding how your body naturally works and managing your caffeine intake appropriately.
I fixed a bunch of other problems with my sleep. This could be an entire other post but everything got easier when the rest of my sleep habits improved. To look at caffeine intake by itself was a mistake. This also begs the comment: If you’re a new parent, I’m not sure how my advice will work for you.
This happened 6-7 years ago. I went a couple years caffeine-free. Nowadays, I’ll have an occasional cup of the real stuff. But most days are still sans caffeine.
A huge benefit is I can have a cup and actually feel caffeine’s purported benefits. This works great when I need a boost of creativity or an extra focus to work through a challenging software problem.
Also, I can appreciate the coffee I drink. I always made a decent brew at home but it was always about quantity. The coffee scene here in Minneapolis has really stepped up since I stopped using caffeine regularly. When I consumed 5-6 cups a day, $5 for an 8 oz drink was unthinkable. If I went to a coffee shop it was always “Just give me the biggest cup you have thanks!”. I’ve enjoyed getting to explore the nuances of single-origin coffees. And, in my quest to improve the decaf experience, I’ve learned how to make a cup at home comparable to any pour-over from a so-called 3rd wave shop.
Occasional imbibing has some drawbacks. If I string too many caffeinated days together I can feel the dependence creep back in (along with a diminishing return of the effects). This mostly manifests as a mild craving for a Cortado. It doesn’t help that my current client site sits above one of the better local coffee shops. Nevertheless, if I resist temptation 2-4 days of good sleep and no caffeine can get me back on track.
If you’re trying to reduce caffeine intake, start by shifting your first cup later in the day to utilize your body’s natural cortisol release cycle. But this probably won’t help much if the rest of your sleep hygiene is off.