When you look at the vintage advertisement above, it’s hard not to notice some things about it that you wouldn’t see in ads today.
For one, you’d of course never see a company these days depicting spanking. And though it’s still around, you never see ads for Sanka anymore, period.
But there’s another interesting difference on display in the old ad: a public recognition that drinking caffeine may have some ill-effects.
Today, caffeine is America’s most popular drug — touted as an energy-boosting, focus-enhancing wonder supplement without any downside.
But is this really the case? Setting aside all the hype created from millions of dollars spent by the marketers of coffee and energy drinks, what’s the truth about caffeine? And is it possible that quitting it just might help you become a better man?
My Story of Quitting Caffeine
I can remember when I first started consuming caffeine in a deliberate attempt to enhance my performance. Before that point, I didn’t drink Coke or Dr. Pepper hoping it would help me run faster or think better; I drank soda because it tasted good with my Mazzio’s pizza.
But my relationship to caffeine changed during my junior year of high school football. Looking for any advantage I could get during games, I started drinking Red Bull before I took the field and during half-time. I guess I thought it helped, because I stuck with this energy drink regimen throughout the rest of my high school football career.
But football games were the only time I drank energy drinks. I didn’t use caffeine to wake up (even though I was rising at 5:45AM for early morning scripture study with some other high school kids) and I didn’t really drink caffeine during the day, except for an occasional soda on the weekends.
But then I got to college. One semester my sophomore year, I had to pull an all-nighter to finish a project for class. There was a 7-Eleven right next to my apartment complex, so I walked over and got a Big Gulp of Diet Mountain Dew. The fizzy, citrus taste was wonderful, and the 162 mg of caffeine in my 32oz cup kept me alert and awake through the night.
Of course, I was tired the next morning. So on my walk to campus, I made a detour to the 7-Eleven and got another Big Gulp to enjoy on my trek. And I did it again the next morning. And the next one after that. Pretty soon, swigging 32 ounces of neon yellow elixir became a regular part of my balanced breakfast.
Then I learned about 5-hour Energy. They were too expensive for my broke college student budget, so I only used them when I thought I really needed an edge, like before a big exam or when writing a research paper. The daily morning Diet Mountain Dew continued, and after I got married, I even got Kate drinking the stuff — though she was satisfied with just a few sips.
Fast forward to law school, and my morning Dew habit just wasn’t enough to keep me going through my long days in the library, so I expanded to a second one at lunch. 5-hour Energy made more frequent appearances in my routine too. On exam days, I’d have one shot in the morning and another right before starting the test.
It was also at law school that I discovered pre-workout supplements. I started off with one scoop that contained 100 mg of caffeine, but I adapted rather quickly to it. It was only a matter of weeks before I was throwing back four scoops at once. By this time, I could afford to buy 12-packs of 5-hour Energy, and I’d knock one back at lunch, and take another when the 3PM drowsiness started kicking in. At dinnertime, I’d often have some sort of caffeinated soda with my food, so I’d have the energy to do some work after the kids went to bed. And I’d sometimes take a few sips of 5-hour Energy right after dinner as a “palette cleanser.”
Doctors and scientists recommend that folks consume no more than about 300-400 mg of caffeine a day. I didn’t know it, but I was averaging over a 1,000 mg a day.
I never noticed any overt signs that the caffeine was having any ill-effects on my health. My body had developed such a tolerance for it, that even after imbibing caffeine all day long, I could still fall sleep by 11PM, and I slept pretty well through the night. My blood pressure was a bit elevated, but not too much. I learned after getting my genome sequenced at 23andMe that I’m a fast caffeine metabolizer, meaning I can consume 100 mg of caffeine, and the effects will be gone within 30 minutes. This probably explains why I didn’t notice any obvious effects, as well as why I felt like I needed to consume greater and greater amounts of caffeine to feel any “buzz.”
But during my ten years of increasing consumption, a few subtle changes started popping up. I got moodier. Pissy would be the more accurate word. Now, as I’ve discussed in my series on depression, I’m kind of morose by nature, but I had always considered myself a pretty laid back, friendly guy. But little things started to annoy me and my resilience began to shrink. Even Kate noticed that something was different, but neither of us connected my increasing anger and irritability with caffeine. I just figured that increasing irritability came with increasing responsibility with work and fatherhood; I just needed to meditate, write in my journal more, or double-down on my study of stoicism.
My dandruff also started proliferating, and I even started getting these red scales on my scalp. I also started getting an irritating rash that would appear now and then on my cheeks and nose. I had never had the problem before, so I went to a dermatologist and was told it was seborrheic dermatitis. She prescribed me a really expensive cream and shampoo to treat it.
Then, about two months, ago, I felt impressed to give up caffeine. I’m not sure why; the idea just kind of came to me, and I figured I’d give it a 30-day trial simply to see what would happen. I slowly decreased my daily intake over a week and then my no caffeine experiment began, and I quit cold turkey.
I had a pretty bad headache my first day without any caffeine, but I got through it with some aspirin. After that it was pretty much smooth sailing. I thought I would be dragging throughout the day and that I would have little or no focus, but the complete opposite occurred. I actually felt like I had more energy and better, steadier attention. The monkey mind went away. I had a bit of a tired slump in the afternoon, but didn’t feel any more fatigued than when I would take an energy shot to supposedly thwart it. Even more interesting, when I was drinking boatloads of caffeine, I’d be super drowsy by 9PM and would be ready to hit the hay. Without caffeine, I didn’t fall into that evening crater of fatigue. Sure, I was tired, and could fall asleep easily, but I could still do some reading without feeling like I was about to pass out.
My dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis started clearing up too, and I found myself using the prescription shampoo and cream less and less.
The biggest change though was in my mood. The pissiness? Gone. Little things that would once cause me to fly off the handle no longer bothered me. I just felt more patient, steady, and calm. I even felt more genuinely happy, a feeling that, due to my morose nature, doesn’t usually come easily for me. Kate and the kids readily noticed the change, and I felt like I became a better husband and father.
When it came to irritability and the responsibilities of adulthood, I had mixed up correlation and causation. I thought my full plate was making me irritable, but instead it had just led me to think I needed more and more caffeine, and it was the caffeine that was actually making me feel perennially pissed off.
After my month-long break from caffeine, I figured that maybe I had reset my body and mind, and I could go back to drinking energy drinks or soda. In moderation, of course. But even just a couple scoops of pre-workout in the morning or a single 5-hour Energy would cause my cheeks to flare up with seborrheic dermatitis the next day. And my pissiness quickly returned. So after a week of moderate caffeine use, I decided to say goodbye to the drug indefinitely (with the exception of using it before doing an obstacle race or staying up all night for a GoRuck Challenge). For caffeine and I, it was a good 10-year run, but I’m tired of being a pissy, dandruff-covered crank.
Might quitting caffeine have the same kind of benefits for you that it had for me? Today we’ll take a look at America’s most popular drug: how it works, why you might consider giving it up, and methods you can use to kick your own caffeine habit.
How Caffeine Works
The popular conception of caffeine is that it gives you scot-free energy. But the reality is more complicated.
Throughout the day, your brain produces a neurotransmitter called adenosine. When it binds to adenosine receptors in your neurons, nerve activity in the brain slows down, and you start feeling drowsy. To a nerve cell, caffeine looks just like adenosine, which means caffeine can bind to a neuron’s adenosine receptor. When caffeine does this, actual adenosine can no longer bind to the neuron, which means the brain can’t get its “time to get drowsy” message. Because your brain isn’t getting adenosine, instead of slowing down, neural activity starts speeding up.
The pituitary gland observes the increased brain activity as a signal that some sort of an emergency is going on, so it releases hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone, and it has a number of effects on your body, including dilating your pupils, increasing your heartbeat, and releasing sugar from the liver into the bloodstream for extra energy. These reactions are why you feel a buzz after you consume caffeine.
Besides adrenaline, your body also releases cortisol when you consume caffeine. Cortisol stays in the bloodstream much longer than adrenaline and works with adrenaline to prepare your body to fight or flee. It constricts blood vessels, increases the amount of glucose and insulin in your blood (for quick energy), and increases and partially shuts down the immune system.
Basically, caffeine allows you to activate your physiological fight-or-flight reaction on demand. This stress response was designed to help humans deal with immediate challenges and threats, which is why occasional, short-term bouts of it can indeed be beneficial — making you feel more alert and focused. But dialing up the stress response, and elevating your cortisol all the time, even when you’re sedentary and relatively relaxed, can create problems and deleterious effects in the long-term.
And of course that exactly describes the average American’s daily consumption of caffeine.
Why You Might Consider Quitting Caffeine
Caffeine use is not without its advantages. Research has shown that the moderate, long-term use of caffeine may provide benefits such as: improving memory, boosting testosterone, warding off Alzheimer’s, reducing the risk of kidney stones, reducing weight (by suppressing appetite), and providing protection from type-2 diabetes. The key word here, though, is moderate consumption (300-400 mg a day). Most people don’t know how much caffeine they’re actually consuming; a big 12-ounce mug of coffee can contain as much as 300 mg of caffeine. So if you drink 4 “cups” of it a day, you’ll easily consume 4X the recommended amount.
Research has also shown that caffeine can ward off fatigue during workouts and improve focus. But keep in mind that these studies are based on occasional consumption; if you use caffeine every day, you will develop a tolerance for it that mitigates and even eliminates these benefits. In other words, you only get a buzz when your caffeine use is sporadic.
So caffeine does have benefits, but with important caveats. On the flip side of the coin, quitting caffeine, or at least dialing back your consumption of it, comes with its own set of potential advantages:
Decreased depression and anxiety. Research has shown that heavy caffeine consumption can exacerbate existing depression. This may be because the increased dopamine release that accompanies caffeine can eventually desensitize your dopamine receptors. One symptom of depression is the lack of motivation to do things that once brought you joy. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of motivation, so if your brain is desensitized to it, motivation decreases, and you sink deeper into a funk. Thus if you’re already susceptible to depressive moods, caffeine might increase your vulnerability to visits from the black dog.
Caffeine can also exacerbate anxiety. The stress hormones that are released in response to caffeine can create jitters, heighten stress, and trigger anxiety attacks. If you’ve ever taken a weight loss drug, like Hydroxycut, which is packed with caffeine, you know it can make you feel insane.
Less irritability. The research is split on whether caffeine increases anger and aggression. Some studies say it doesn’t; others have shown that the stress arousal caffeine triggers can cause irritability, and that eliminating its consumption can decrease feelings of hostility.
The mixed results are probably rooted in the fact that caffeine seems to affect each individual differently. Some may be more sensitive than others. Kate drinks a pre-workout before running on an empty stomach in the mornings, and it doesn’t seem to affect her irritability. But for me, removing caffeine from my diet caused a night and day change in my pissiness. I was much less angry off caffeine than I was when I was drinking it every day. Becoming less irritable made quitting caffeine completely worth it for me.
Clearer skin. The stress hormones released by caffeine cause inflammation which shows up for some folks in the form of acne breakouts and other skin problems like dandruff. If you’ve been a grown-ass man for some time but are still fighting zits like a fifteen-year-old, you might look into eliminating caffeine from your diet to see if it helps.
Lower blood pressure. Caffeine does two things to increase your blood pressure. First, it constricts blood vessels, and second, it increases your heart rate. Several studies have shown that individuals who regularly consume high amounts of caffeine have elevated blood pressure levels compared to non-caffeine users. Even when caffeine users abstain from the stimulant, it typically takes a few days for resting blood pressure levels to decrease to a normal amount. If cardiac problems run in your family, you might consider giving up caffeine to protect your heart health.
More money. While you could get your caffeine by popping cheap pills of No-Doz, most folks prefer a liquid caffeine-delivery system. And these drinks are often expensive. The website Caffeine Informer put together some back-of the-napkin estimates on the amount folks spend per year to get their buzz and came up with the following numbers:
- A Grande Starbucks Latte: $3.65 a day | $26 a week | $1,332 a year
- Monster Energy Drink: $3 a day | $21 a week | $1,095 a year
- Home brewed coffee: $.71 a day | $5 per week | $259 a year
- 5-hour Energy: $3 a day | $21 a week | $1,095 a year
Many people are using a combination of the above drinks, so there’s a chance they’re spending $2,000+ a year to get their fix. What would you do with an extra $1,000 or $2,000 a year if you quit caffeine?
Greater antifragility. Strengthening antifragility in all areas of my life is a goal of mine, but my caffeine consumption worked against this aim. If I were somewhere I couldn’t get my fix, I’d get a headache and feel like crap. I’d have to remember to pack a 5-hour Energy when I went camping or on a trip. It affected me psychologically too; if I didn’t get my pre-workout in the morning, then I just didn’t think I’d have that great of a workout. Or if I didn’t get my energy shot in the afternoon, I felt like I couldn’t be as productive or creative in my work. I hated feeling emotionally and physically dependent on a substance to be able to function normally.
Better sleep. If you’ve had trouble sleeping, caffeine may be the culprit. If you don’t want to give up caffeine completely, at least consider cutting yourself off before 3PM so you can get a more restful slumber.
Caffeine will actually work when you really need it. If you’ve been drinking caffeinated beverages regularly, you’ve likely developed a tolerance for it, meaning it really doesn’t affect you or give you any kind of boost, beyond warding off effects of withdrawal. You drink it not to feel great, but just to avoid feeling bad; you’re basically spending money merely to maintain the status quo.
Caffeine is best reserved for use as a secret weapon — something you’ve got in your backpocket when you really do need a buzz, like before a race or an all-night study session.
Ultimately everybody has to decide for themselves if the benefits of caffeine are worth the price of the downsides. It’s a balancing act for sure, and each person is going to be different.
How to Quit Caffeine
If you’ve decided you’d like to experiment with eliminating caffeine from you life, here are some tips on how to successfully break the habit:
Go Cold Turkey…
Some folks just decide to give up caffeine completely. The big benefit of going cold turkey is that you can kick the habit faster and enjoy the benefits of a caffeine-free life sooner than if you took a more gradual approach. The big downside is that you may experience severe withdrawal symptoms like a pounding headache (the headache comes from the blood vessels in your head opening back up to their normal size and normal blood flow returning). These withdrawal symptoms may lead some to prematurely throw in the towel.
If you decide to go cold turkey, consider starting on a Friday, so you have the weekend to deal with the severe withdrawal symptoms that happen early in the quitting process. Drink plenty of water and have aspirin at the ready. Don’t give up even if it seems unbearable.
… Or Wean Yourself Off
A less painful method is to wean yourself off caffeine gradually. The upside of this method is you can reduce or even eliminate withdrawal symptoms. The downsides are that it takes longer to become caffeine free, and it requires you to be much more mindful of the amount of caffeine you’re drinking.
To wean yourself off, gradually reduce the amount of caffeinated beverages you drink over time. So if you’re a coffee drinker, you can reduce the amount of cups you drink by ¼ each day. If you drink energy drinks, cut back by half a can each day. If you’re doing a pre-workout, reduce your scoops by one each week. You get the idea.
You can control the pace at which you cut back; you can reduce to zero in a matter of days or you can give yourself a few weeks to eliminate caffeine. Experiment with the pace and see what works for you.
Replace One Ritual With Another
The reason people generally get their caffeine from drinks rather than tablets, is that they’re after more than the drug itself. Drinking a hot cup of coffee or a cold, fizzy energy drink is an enjoyable ritual to start the day or make it through a boring afternoon.
So instead of just going cold turkey or weaning yourself from caffeine to nothing, it can be beneficial to replace your usual caffeinated fare with non-caffeinated alternatives. Replacing your old drinks with plain old water can be effective for some folks, but you may need something that feels a little “richer” to fill the gap. So, for example, as you reduce the amount of caffeinated coffee, you could replace it with decaf (this substitute is popular among folks quitting joe) or herbal tea. As you decrease the amount of caffeinated soda you drink, you could swap it for sparkling seltzer. I really like to drink something with a little flavor in the morning, so I replaced my pre-workout supplement for one with just branch chain amino acids (this has the added benefit of possibly helping with my post-workout recovery, since I exercise in a fasted state).
Of course these replacements cost money, which will reduce the cost-saving benefit of quitting caffeine, but if it helps you break the habit, it can be worth it. Remember that whenever you “hack the habit loop” you keep the same routine as before, but replace the reward you used to get from your old behavior, with a new reward.
Switch to a Milder Form of Caffeine
Another method I’ve come across to reduce the ill-effects of caffeine isn’t to completely eliminate it from your life, but rather to replace your caffeinated beverages with a milder form. Green tea and yerba mate are the most popular coffee and energy drink alternatives. There are also chocolate beverages out there that provide a mild energy boost in the form of theobromine. These alternative drinks have much less caffeine, but still provide a gentle stimulating effect. What’s more, they offer a myriad of health benefits.
If you’re working on something especially challenging, and need a boost in focus, without the physiological effects of caffeine, try a nootropic.
Like most things in life, caffeine has its pros and cons. But also like most things in life, we often give very little thought to the two sides of the issue. We mindlessly knock back our caffeinated beverages because that’s what we’ve always done, and that’s what we see seemingly everyone else doing. There’s so much money invested in the energy drink business, and thus so much pro-caffeine hype out there, that you rarely run into a discussion of the drug’s potential downsides. But those downsides are at least worth considering.
By doing my own experiment, I’ve personally learned that caffeine isn’t for me, and that my life is better off without it. How does caffeine affect you? Do its pros outweigh the cons in your life? If you’re not sure, and especially if you feel like something’s not right with your life, but you don’t know what’s wrong, try your own experiment. If you don’t notice much of a change, then keep on keeping on with your caffeinated life. No harm, no foul. If do you notice a significant improvement in some areas of your life, then you can decide if giving it up altogether, or using it just for special occasions, might be a decision that helps you become a better man.
Be sure to check out our podcast all about how caffeine both helps and hurts us:
Caffeine edited by Gene A. Spiller
Caffeine Blues by Stephen Cherniske