The love of coffee and tea transcends national and cultural borders. Around the world, most of us start our day with one of these beloved beverages. We meet friends, clients, and first dates at coffee shops or tea houses because they are comforting spaces. Connoisseurs take pride in sourcing the best beans and leaves, pairing them with the ideal grind and brewing method.
Yet today, I’m going to make a case for quitting caffeine. Before I get into why—and before you grab your pitchforks—let me assure you that by and large, I still think coffee and tea have more benefits than downsides. (Energy drinks and soda, not so much.) Coffee improves workouts, boosts memory, and fights fatigue. Tea delivers powerful antioxidants. Epidemiological evidence links both coffee and tea consumption to a host of health benefits.
There are downsides, though. In the pursuit of optimal health, it’s essential to examine our choices and behaviors and ask which of them might be holding us back. That’s what I’m suggesting you do today.
Why Would You Want to Quit Caffeine?
Caffeine isn’t just a neutral pick-me-up; it comes with certain health risks.
I don’t want to be dependent on any substances, and many people are at least somewhat dependent on caffeine.
As to whether caffeine is truly addictive, we clearly shouldn’t be talking about coffee in the same breath as something like heroin. However, there’s no question that it shares common features with other addictive substances. Caffeine stimulates dopamine release in the brain, creating a “this feels good, gimme more” effect. With repeated exposure, you develop a tolerance such that it no longer exerts the same effects. Plus, as you might know if you’ve tried to kick the habit, caffeine withdrawal can be brutal.1
Even if you don’t feel dependent on coffee, taking a break from caffeine is akin to doing a Keto Reset. It’s a chance to shake things up and try something new. You might feel better, worse, or the same. In any case, you’ll have learned something about yourself. We should all strive to be curious and open-minded in the pursuit of health. For many people, coffee is a blind spot. They conveniently overlook the ways in which it’s not serving them.
Downsides to caffeine consumption
Caffeine can cause your adrenal glands to release cortisol, although this effect is tempered in habitual coffee drinkers.2It can also interfere with your body’s ability to cope with the stressors,3 which is why practitioners often recommend that folks with HPA axis disorders limit or avoid coffee.
Caffeine consumption worsens anxiety in some people and can even trigger panic attacks.45 People with certain psychiatric conditions are advised to limit or avoid caffeine consumption.
On the other hand, two recent meta-analyses concluded that coffee actually helps with symptoms of depression.67
If you’re a menopausal woman, think twice about drinking too much coffee. Caffeine intake is associated with increased vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes.8
Need I go on? Okay, one more: caffeine can interact with prescription drugs, blocking absorption, increasing absorption rates to unsafe levels, or otherwise changing their effects.9
Many of these effects are dose-dependent, meaning they get worse the more coffee you consume.
Potential Benefits of Quitting Caffeine
Besides avoiding the downsides of caffeine, people notice all sorts of benefits once they significantly reduce or give up coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks, including
Fewer headaches and migraines (after the withdrawal period passes)
If you’re buying multiple frappe drinks every day, you might put some cash back in your pocket, too.
And when you cut out soda or energy drinks, you’re also ditching a bunch of sugar or artificial sweeteners, plus any other gnarly ingredients in those products.
How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?
As I said, on the whole, I think that coffee and tea consumption are beneficial for most people—assuming you drink them in reasonable quantities. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration10 and the equivalent European Food Safety Authority11 agree that adults should limit caffeine intake to 400 mg per day.
A typical cup of brewed coffee has somewhere around 100 mg of caffeine, while espresso averages around 65 mg per shot. Green tea, black tea, and soda clock in around 40 mg per serving.12 These values can vary dramatically, though. Coffee, for instance, can easily double that or more based on the beans and brewing method.13 And really, how many people enjoy a single 8-ounce cup of coffee in the morning and then stop for the day? In practice, it’s easy to hit that 400mg recommended limit with a single venti beverage from your favorite unnamed coffee purveyor.
Even at a moderate level of consumption, some people can have adverse reactions to caffeine depending on their genetics and underlying health issues. Headaches, jitters, and racing heartbeat are common, and of course, caffeine can majorly mess with your sleep. It’s easy to slip into a vicious cycle where you’re sleeping poorly, so you drink coffee throughout the day to combat fatigue, which means you don’t get enough restorative sleep that night, repeat ad infinitum.
Who Should Take a Break from Caffeine?
For the sake of self-experimentation, I’m going to go ahead and say everybody.
It’s especially pressing if:
You suspect you have become dependent on caffeine.
Your sleep is anything other than deep and plentiful.
You have health issues that might be exacerbated by caffeine.
Also, if you’ve built up a tolerance—and you certainly have if coffee is a regular habit—taking a break means you should be able to return to your beloved coffee and actually feel the desirable effects of caffeine again when you use it strategically. That would be nice.
Anyway, aren’t you a little curious?
How to Quit
As with any big change, expect an initial adjustment period. The half-life of caffeine is about five hours, so within a day of quitting, your body should be free of it. However, you may experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms, like:
Feeling anxious or “on edge”
These should resolve within a week or so, at which point you can assess how you feel without caffeine. To make the experience as smooth as possible…
1. Time it right
Unless you have an urgent health concern that means you should stop ASAP, consider waiting until a lower-stress period. Coffee withdrawal can lead to some pretty miserable symptoms—migraines, fatigue, irritability. Pick a week where you’ll have the mental capacity to deal with those, the ability to sneak away for naps, and ideally, fun distractions to keep your mind off the suck.
2. Pick your strategy
Some people have no problem quitting cold turkey, but tapering down your caffeine intake will probably be more pleasant. If you’re drinking coffee in the afternoon, eliminate that first. Start cutting your regular coffee with decaf, or switch to tea with less caffeine, with the goal of going fully decaf. (Technically, decaf coffee does have small amounts of caffeine, so if you want to be hard-core about it, switch to truly caffeine-free herbal tea.)
3. Find a new ritual
For some people, coffee and tea are merely caffeine delivery systems. Others enjoy the ritual of preparing it in the morning, breathing in the aroma, sipping a hot beverage while they work, and communing with coworkers and friends over a cup. If it’s a calming morning routine you crave, consider alternatives like journaling, meditation or deep breathing exercises, yoga or tai chi, doing a crossword puzzle (my favorite), or reading.
Alternatives to Coffee
If a hot beverage is what you crave, try herbal tea or even bone broth. Coffee drinkers might instead try chicory root coffee or dandelion tea, which offer some of the coffee flavor with none of the caffeine. Fans of these options swear they get a lift similar to the one they got from coffee without the jitters.
My go-to hot or iced option is Primal Kitchen’s Matcha andChai Collagen Keto Lattes, and not just for the obvious reason. Caffeine can inhibit collagen synthesis in the body.14 I intentionally supplement collagen to combat this effect.
What if You Quit Caffeine and Don’t Feel Any Different?
If you don’t notice any differences, then by all means, go back to drinking coffee or tea in moderation to reap all the great benefits.
I’m not suggesting that you give up caffeine for the rest of your life. Coffee is one of life’s pleasures, as far as I’m concerned. However, it shouldn’t be a vice, and that can be a slippery slope. Periodically taking a break allows you to make sure you still have a handle on things.
If you’re still resisting the idea, that’s a sure sign that taking a caffeine hiatus is a good idea. Give it a try. There’s always a Starbucks on the next corner awaiting your return.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.