Thank you for reading past the title of this post. I wasn’t sure anyone would. After all, here I am offering advice on how to quit the world’s most beloved beverage. (“Hold my beer,” says Beer.)
The love of coffee transcends national and cultural borders. Around the world, most of us start our day with coffee. Folks take pride in sourcing the best beans and pairing them with the ideal grind and brewing method. We meet friends, clients, and first dates for coffee because coffee shops are comforting, safe spaces.
As good ol’ Anonymous observed, “Humanity runs on coffee.”
Yet here I am suggesting you might want to quit. Before I get into why, let me assure you that by and large, I still think coffee has more benefits than downsides. It improves workouts and memory, fights fatigue, and epidemiological evidence links coffee consumption to a host of health benefits. You can check out my Definitive Guide to Coffee to learn more.
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 undermining your health and longevity goals. That’s what I’m suggesting you do today.
Kidding, of course. Really, if you think quitting coffee will be that painful, that’s a sure sign that you need to take a break. No substance aside from water or air should hold you so firmly in its grasp. I want to enjoy, not depend on, my morning coffee (and maybe a glass of red wine at dinner).
As to whether coffee 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. It stimulates dopamine release in the brain, creating a “feels good, want more” effect. With repeated exposure, you develop a tolerance such that caffeine no longer exerts the same effects. Plus, as many of you know if you’ve tried to kick the habit before, the withdrawal can be brutal.1
Even if you don’t feel dependent on coffee, taking a break from coffee is akin to doing a 21-Day Primal Transformation or 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 and how they’re more dependent on it than they’d like.
Besides the philosophical, there are concrete reasons for taking a more honest look at your coffee habit.
Coffee: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
As I said, on the whole, I think that coffee consumption is beneficial for most people, assuming you drink it in reasonable quantities. Nobody needs a gallon of coffee per day, sorry. A “reasonable quantity” is up to four cups a day, or so say the experts. As a one-or-two-cup-a-day guy, that sounds like a lot to me.
Even at that 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 it 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, and repeat ad infinitum.
Caffeine can also cause your adrenal glands to release cortisol, although this effect is tempered in habitual coffee drinkers.2 For people dealing with a lot of stress—and who isn’t right now—drinking too much coffee may not be wise. It can interfere with your body’s ability to regulate cortisol and cope with the stressors.3 This is why practitioners often recommend that folks with HPA axis disorders limit or avoid coffee.
Caffeine consumption also 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.6 On the other hand, two recent meta-analyses concluded that coffee actually helps with symptoms of depression.78
If you’re a menopausal woman, think twice about drinking too much coffee. In two studies, caffeine intake was associated with increased vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes.910 Those were correlational studies, but in a separate experiment, researchers administered caffeine to pre- and perimenopausal women who were or were not on estrogen therapy. Perimenopausal women’s blood pressure rose significantly after taking 250 mg of caffeine (equivalent to two to three cups of coffee), regardless of estrogen status.11
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.12
Many of these side effects are dose-dependent, meaning they get worse the more coffee you drink. For most people, modest coffee intake—two or four cups per day—is probably fine, maybe even desirable. Nevertheless, there’s always the possibility that you could quit coffee and feel better than you do today. Wouldn’t you want to know that?
Other Potential Benefits of Quitting Caffeine
Anecdotally, people notice all sorts of benefits once they significantly reduce or give up coffee. They promise glowing skin, whiter teeth, and better digestion.
They also promise you’ll save money, but in my experience, I just end up reinvesting those supposed savings into trying new teas, so that’s a wash. That said, I also don’t buy multiple frappe drinks from Starbucks every day. If you do, you might put some cash back in your pocket.
Who Should Take a Break from Coffee?
For the sake of self-experimentation, I’m going to go ahead and say: everybody.
It’s especially pressing if:
Your inner voice is telling you that you have become dependent on caffeine
Your sleep is anything other than deep and plentiful
You have health issues that might be exacerbated by coffee
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 Stop Drinking Coffee
Time It Right
Unless you have an urgent health concern that means you should stop ASAP, consider waiting until a lower-stress period. Normally I’d say vacation is a perfect time, but we’re not taking many vacations right now. Perhaps a staycation is in order (for more reasons than one).
I wouldn’t advise ditching coffee the same week you have to deliver a big presentation at work, your kids are starting a new schedule at school, or you’ll otherwise be stretched thin enough as it is. 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.
Pick Your Strategy
Some people have no problem quitting cold turkey, but tapering down your caffeine intake will probably be more pleasant. Start cutting your regular coffee with decaf, and slowly decrease the amount you consume altogether. Make your coffee weaker, and stop adding cream and sweeteners so it’s not as appealing. If you’re drinking coffee in the afternoon, cut that first.
Whatever you do, don’t compensate by adding caffeine back in the form of energy drinks or caffeine pills. Don’t drink energy drinks anyway, but definitely not now. That defeats the purpose entirely.
How Long Will it Take to Get off Coffee Completely?
The half-life of caffeine is about five hours, so within a day of quitting, your body should be free of it. However, withdrawal symptoms can last significantly longer—a week to ten days or more, though some lucky people don’t experience any noticeable withdrawal.
Beyond the chemical dependency, there is also a behavioral component to coffee. For most coffee drinkers, it is a habit, and habits are harder to break. You might find yourself headed to the coffee pot in the morning, or reaching for the mug that’s usually on your desk, well after the initial weaning period.
Worthy Alternatives to Coffee
For some people, coffee is merely a caffeine delivery system. Others enjoy the rituals around coffee—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. You can still have all those things if you strategically replace coffee with an alternative that fills the hole coffee leaves.
The most obvious answer is switching to tea. There are so many different types of tea, each with its own benefits and flavor profile. If you were a snob about your coffee, you can easily channel that energy into tea. Brewing tea is an art unto itself. Just watch your caffeine intake. Teas vary considerably in caffeine content, though they are still lower than the average cup of joe.
You might also consider mushroom coffee, which has about half the caffeine of regular coffee, or 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 and Chai Collagen Keto Lattes, and not just for the obvious reason. Caffeine can inhibit collagen synthesis in the body.13 I intentionally supplement collagen to combat this effect.
Finally, 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. Just don’t read the news!
What if You Quit Coffee and Don’t Feel Better (Or Even Feel Worse)?
As with any big change, you’ll have an initial adjustment period after quitting coffee. After that, you should feel better. Still, some people don’t. Let’s go through the difference between the initial withdrawal and other reasons you might not have a great experience with the change.
Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
For a few days, you may experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms, like:
Feeling anxious or “on edge”
These should resolve within a few days. After about a week, you can truly assess how you feel without coffee.
If you don’t notice any differences once you quit coffee, then I’d say go back to drinking it in moderation to reap all the great benefits.
If you end up feeling worse, that doesn’t mean that you need coffee. It’s possible you were using coffee to mask the symptoms of an underlying health issue. Maybe you already suspect that’s the case, and you’re using coffee to push off having to deal with it? Before you go diving for your French press, take a health inventory, and see a doctor if necessary.
I’m not suggesting that you give up coffee for the rest of your life. I certainly don’t intend to. 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 from coffee allows you to make sure you still have a handle on things and see more clearly where you need to be paying more attention to your health and stress management. 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.