Tried And Tested: What Happens When You Quit Caffeine? (Hint: It's Not Great...)

07/11/2014 16:19 GMT | Updated 07/11/2014 16:59 GMT

Most of us wouldn’t have a slab of hash first thing in the morning, a toke of heroin before a work meeting or a line of cocaine to perk you up in the afternoon.

Yet that’s what millions of us do, day in and day out, with a rather different drug, but a drug nonetheless: caffeine.

But caffeine is legal, you say. Caffeine doesn’t do a person any harm in the same way that alcohol does. But the fact is, caffeine – whether it’s in coffee or tea – is addictive, and it has become such a normal part of our daily routine that we don’t even see it.

In fact, one could almost argue that we're part of a mass dependency.

enjoying coffee

Think I’m over-reacting?

First, let me assert that I don’t have anything against caffeine, or at least it didn’t start out that way. I started a caffeine ban purely by accident. I like my tea with a splash of milk and two sugars. There is no compromising on the sugar, and soon I was finding myself consuming about eight teaspoons of sugar a day.

I didn’t like the fact I was consuming this amount of sugar – I felt it made my skin itchy and it was also adding a needless 200 calories to my daily diet.

So I quit cold turkey. And boy, was I not prepared for the consequences. By the afternoon, I had a thumping headache that wouldn’t be shifted by Paracetamol and I felt an urgent need to shout at someone.

The second day was equally terrible, but by now, a horrible logic was propelling me on: if caffeine withdrawal was giving me such a terrible headache, what on earth was it doing to my body?

So I stuck with it. The first week was probably the hardest. I thought about tea every single hour of every single day, and at about 3pm I felt like someone had clubbed me over the head and encased my limbs in treacle. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move – it was like the world’s worst hangover with none of the fun.

Wanting answers as to why I felt so bad, I made some interesting discoveries.

Caffeine, especially first thing in the morning, messes with your hormone cortisol, that helps you keep awake and alert. The fact is that your body produces the most amount of cortisol first thing in the morning so put simply, you're over-caffeinating yourself.

It also interferes with the hormone serotonin - the one that controls your up and down moods, which explains that when you quit caffeine you want to commit violent acts against the printer or scream at commuters standing in your way.

The MailOnline quotes Peter Rogers, professor of biological psychology at Bristol University and a leading expert on caffeine as saying: "People who consume caffeine regularly will become dependent on it - if you take caffeine away from them, they will function below par,' says Peter Rogers, professor of biological psychology at Bristol University and a leading expert on caffeine.

"On balance, caffeine is not particularly helpful. It triggers withdrawal and increases your blood pressure, which is not a good thing."

cup of tea

Professor Roger's 20 years worth of caffeine prompted some of his team - including him - to quit caffeine. My headaches were explained by the fact that caffeine narrows blood vessels in the brain, and when you quit drinking it, there is an increase in blood flow. Hence the headaches.

But like any addiction, the brain doesn't always do what it should. After five days I decided to reward myself with a latte but it didn’t taste the same as it normally did. I felt furious with myself: it hadn’t been worth it.

The next 10 days were interesting. With the absence of the rituals that accompanied my tea making – getting my mug ready, picking out two teabags (yes, I’m a double bagger), ladling the sugar into the mug – there was lots of space to observe other people.

I stayed at a hotel with my family one weekend, and noticed how every single person had either tea or coffee. I had to carry my herbal teabag in my pocket and looked like a drug dealer as I furtively fished it out and popped it in a mug of hot water.

But the mornings were getting easier – I didn’t feel like I would die at my desk before 10am if I hadn’t had one.

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But just as it seemed to be getting easier, it was getting harder. “Tea?” my host kindly asked, when I went on s short break two weeks in. And as I saw them cozily huddled over their cups in the morning mist, it made my hot lemon and water seem positively pathetic.

By week three, I was livid. Alright, so I didn’t have terrible afternoon slumps but I couldn’t notice any difference – my skin wasn’t any better, I didn’t have a spring in my step and I’d noticed zero difference in quitting sugar. I was also back to thinking about tea every single hour of the day, which doesn’t help when you’re in an office and people are chirpily shouting: “Tea?” every five minutes.

You may be thinking: what is she on about? At least it’s not vodka or worse. And I've already bored the pants off my colleagues talking about it.

SEE ALSO:

How Does Coffee Affect Your Brain?

Are You Suffering From Caffeine Use Disorder?

But the truth is, with the absence of tea, I saw how addicted I was. In the same way that quitting isn’t the hardest for a heroin addict, the hardest thing was overcoming the habit which included drinking it to mark certain times of the day, having a cuppa when I was having a bad day and being around people that drank the damn stuff all the time.

And I didn’t like being addicted to anything.

By week four, my brain turned traitor. It kept whispering all the time: “What’s so bad about one cup? You don’t drink a lot, you don’t smoke, and you get so much enjoyment out of it!”

By week five, I had cracked, and I had one cup. Then two. It was the best damn thing I have ever tasted. The next day however, I chose not to have any, and I felt perfectly fine and at peace about that. This continued on and off for another couple of weeks, and until I made a massive mistake by having one every single day.

When I tried to quit again, the headaches returned with a vengeance. All it takes to get hooked is four or five days.

So now I'm off the stuff properly.

It doesn't mean I won't ever have a cup of tea, but as with all things - it's about moderation. I feel more in control and better off for not needing a cup of tea or coffee first thing in the morning or like clockwork at 3pm, however long it took to get here.

And if you're thinking 'Well, that's five minutes of my life I'm never going to get back after reading this article' - do one thing. Try one day without your daily tea or coffee, and tell me how it feels.

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