I gave up Caffeine

Last Spring I attended QCon London, during the course of the conference I attended Linda Rising’s talk entitled Agility: Possibilities at a Personal Level

It was suggested that in the same way agile teams rigorously apply a regime of inspect and adapt, the individual should do the same at a personal level. As an example, she asked why tea and coffee are so prevalent in the workplace and linked this back to the working practices of the industrial revolution. Specifically, that while caffeine was very useful in making sure unskilled workers arrived at the factory on time and alert, she questioned what penalties we incur force fitting these practices onto a skilled craft like software development?

Just to be clear, Linda Rising stood up in front of a room of computer people and said ‘Stop drinking coffee’ and at no point did anyone try and throw her out of the window. So it was a pretty good talk, so good in fact that immediately afterwards I decided to give up caffeine to see how I would react.

Firstly a bit of background. My company supplies free coffee beans and making coffee is a complex and communal ritual, verging on the sacrosanct. The etiquette has been built up over years, and even offers rival schools to subscribe to. We have Wiki pages detailing coffee brewing best practice and it’s no joke to say that my social standing and ability to make good coffee are linked. In short it’s a bigger part of my day than just a caffeine high.

I wasn’t a big coffee drinker by any stretch of the imagination, the coffee was definitely strong but I’d only have two or three cups a day. Nonetheless going fruit tea total came as a bit of a shock.

The first two weeks were pretty miserable, I found that I got very tired towards the end of the day, and where previously I might have stayed late if it meant finishing something off, I was pretty useless after 6pm. I also missed the ceremony and social interaction, sure I still went to the kitchen and brewed my cup of lemon and ginger (or whatever) but the whole process was deeply unsatisfying. I went through all manner of cravings which was strange since at weekends where coffee really isn’t part of my routine I hardly noticed the difference.

After having got through the hard part I started to notice some benefits, while the tiredness was still there, it was much more manageable, and crucially the knowledge that I couldn’t just stay late meant that I was more focussed during the day. I became more disciplined at trying to perform the tasks that required the most energy earlier leaving repetitive, less creative activities for the last few hours. Despite working less hours overall I think that I achieved a similar amount.

A second benefit that sounds silly in hindsight was that I started sleeping much better. As a student I wasn’t a big coffee drinker but I’d always been one to lay awake at night pondering some puzzle or other. So when this behaviour continued into my working life I didn’t consider it strange. Giving up caffeine meant that I had a fighting chance of falling asleep not long after I switched the lights out, which in turn meant I had less need for an early morning coffee.

As an Englishman, it was unlikely that I was ever going to last without tea in the long term. For a start my Nan would have struggled to comes to terms with the change. So after a few months I felt that I’d served my time and now allow myself tea and the odd coffee in the morning, interestingly though I can no longer run with my old coffee pals as the strength of their brew gives me headaches.

So the key points to take away are:-

  • Stopping completely after only a few cups a day led to notable and sustained withdrawal symptoms.
  • Not having the safety net of being able to stay late at work meant that I worked more effectively during the day.
  • Cutting out caffeine in the afternoon made a real improvement to my sleep patterns.

53 thoughts on “I gave up Caffeine

  1. This is just stupid.
    -Stopping completely after only a few cups a day led to notable and sustained withdrawal symptoms.
    This is just a general lie. You miss something, but withdrawal??
    -Cutting out caffeine in the afternoon made a real improvement to my sleep patterns.
    Good for you. Now cut out a ten times more potent sleep disturber: Late night pc usage. Jeez.
    -Not having the safety net of being able to stay late at work meant that I worked more effectively during the day.
    You just cant help yourself do you. You can work more effectively wo. caffeine and you blame caffeine, a mild stimulant? You were lazy during the day, that’s all, coffee is nothing to do with it.

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  2. “This is just a general lie. You miss something, but withdrawal??”
    Caffeine is a drug and there are literal withdrawal symptoms.

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  3. To z: If I am just one day without coffee (and there have been days I was just so busy I couldn’t take a coffee, not on purpose or consciously) I have very strong headaches, and a strong feeling of missing something. Also, there are a lot of people (maybe placebo effect, maybe real) when a coffee after lunch means they just can’t fall asleep at night).

    Maybe you are not a coffee taker (or maybe you drink that sh*t from Starbucks), but if you are into caffeine, you know what this article says.

    Ruben

    PS: If you ever get again into caffeine, gave a try to my ‘Nutcafecocktail’, a cold drink with Nutella and instant espresso coffee. Works wonders to keep you up asking for more 🙂

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  4. Caffeine withdrawal is well recognised by substance misuse specialists. I live with one. I’m a software developer, but once I was a medical student, and I’m ex-alcohol dependent (I’ve had 2 alcohol withdrawal fits and spent 2 months in hospital with alcoholic hepatitis). I’m now 10 years teetotal.

    I’ve experienced caffeine withdrawal and found it somewhat similar to alcohol withdrawal. I found that I was more clumsy, irritable, I had a foul headache for a few days and I craved caffeine. I have a fairly low tolerance for caffeine and avoid it after about 11 a.m. or else it disturbs my sleep.

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  5. Are you a shill for Starbucks z? I’m not sure why you are so negative against this post.

    As someone who drinks far too much soda/coffee, I definitely find that if I don’t drink a hearty amount of caffeine on saturday (don’t have access to the abundance of soda/coffee away from work), I will more than likely have a severe caffeine withdrawal headache on sundays.

    Caffeine is a bad one, but I find that it’s easier for me to keep drinking it than finding alternative drinks, as all the tasty beverages are laden with the stuff!

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  6. I disagree with the above comment. I recently gave up coffee/caffeine because I graduated college and my lifes pace slowed down a bit so I have not felt the need to pump myself full of coffee to stay awake and get everything done. During the first couple days I was very surprised how much it affected my energy levels. I could barely keep myself awake during early afternoon. I didn’t make any noteable changes to my sleep/work cycle other then the subtraction of caffeine. So while I didn’t have bugs crawling up my skin or severe headache type of withdrawl, there was certainly physical effects associated with not having caffeine after developing a fairly heavy habit.

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  7. I’m not sure why Z is so ornery. Maybe he needs to adjust his coffee habits as well. I, too, have worked to reduce the caffeine (and sugar) in my diet. I’ve noticed an improvement in my general life patterns as well (stimulants give you a short-term increase in energy, but a long-term reduction in focus). And, while your description of withdrawal does not compare with that of a former heroine addict, it is withdrawal nonetheless.

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  8. Wow, “z” seems a bit upset!

    I have a bit of an odd relationship to caffeine myself. I seem to go through a cycle where I am particularly tired one week, so have a few coffees to help me get through my day. It then turns into something of a reliance (by the way z, withdrawal symptoms are well-documented, and tolerance can develop in as little as a week – check Wikipedia). Eventually I realise that drinking coffee is resulting in lack of sleep at night, compounding the situation. I then wean myself off, suffering headaches and drowsiness for a few days. I feel great for a few weeks, until I have a rough night’s sleep – and the cycle repeats…

    Part of the problem is that a freshly pulled espresso just tastes so great…

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  9. I periodically go cold turkey on caffeine for a few weeks at a time, mainly so that I don’t seem like a hypocrite in front of my smoker friends when I say they should get their habit under control.

    I don’t really get withdrawal symptoms like headaches or even cravings, but for about the first week I find that my mind is sort of foggy – like how you feel when you’ve just woken up. I don’t notice a specific improvement in sleeping, but that’s probably because I really only drink coffee in the mornings anyway.

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  10. The above poster has obviously never quit caffiene after long periods of exposure. The immediate physical withdrawals are pretty unpleasant for the first few days, but then it also takes time for the body to begin producing it’s own adrenaline again in response to the drop in energy from the removal of caffeine. Caffiene withdrawel is well documented.

    There is also documented scientific evidence, based on brain scans, regarding the ability of the mind to sleep into REM sleep in correlation to the amount of coffee ingested daily.

    I don’t normally post, but the guy before me was just rude and ill-informed.

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  11. z, a heavy coffee drinker will get some serious withdrawal symptoms without caffeine. And not just being tired either. Worst headaches of my life.

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  12. Z,

    It sounds like you yourself are a regular caffeine user and are getting defensive over his findings. Caffeine is a drug, so why does it seems so impossible to you that by not taking it (after regular use) that there would be withdrawal symptoms?

    I was a regular pop drinker for 10 years (mountain dew and anything with high amounts of caffeine). A few years ago I stopped. The result? Pains in my arms, legs, and chest. I also got headaches. This lasted for about 2 weeks. I know it’s caffeine that does it because I’ve gone on and off of caffeine for the last couple of years and the results are the same every time.

    Caffeine also makes me feel hyper and if I have consumed too much in a short period of time, paranoid. I also noticed that it dulled many of my emotions. I don’t know how to explain it other than this, but I notice a big difference when I haven’t had any for a long time.

    My productivity during the day has gone up considerably. I am also in bed at a regular time during the week and get around 8 hours every night.

    I still drink coffee, tea, and pop once in a long while (and on weekends if I’m out partying and want to stay up late). But, I’m no longer a regular user.

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  13. Although I don’t share the sarcasm of the other poster I must admit that everyone is a bit different. For me, those equations that would pop up as I would try to sleep every night had nothing to do with the fact I was or wasn’t drinking coffee. It had everything to do with the fact I was working right before I went to bed. The best thing to do for the last 30min before you go to sleep is to do something repetitive, easy… something that doesn’t cause a lot of mind strain. Running before I went to bed, reading a book, watching tv… all those things seemed to help me a great deal.

    I think the word you were looking for when you said “and crucially the knowledge that I couldn’t just stay late meant that I was more focused during the day” is time management. Basically, you found a means of keeping yourself motivated and that differs from person to person. In fact, if you can keep yourself motivated for the sake of being disciplined then you have figured out what most people in the world struggle with every day.

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  14. @z
    Not stupid at all. I have given up coffee twice, and both times experienced similar withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, I experienced significant lower back pain about 5 days in. Bizarre, but apparently not unusual. We have a more complicated relationship with coffe than we might like to admit.

    By the way, from your rather irritable tone, I can’t help but think maybe you need a coffee.

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  15. @z That is no lie. Caffeine can be physically addictive. If I don’t have any within 5 or 6 hours after I wake up, I’m pretty miserable to be around. 8 and I have a splitting headache. After about 12 hours I can barely concentrate.

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  16. -Stopping completely after only a few cups a day led to notable and sustained withdrawal symptoms.
    This is just a general lie. You miss something, but withdrawal??

    Withdrawl after a month, probably not. Most likely he was simply living the life of a non cafine drinker, which sucks….

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  17. What the hell is your problem Z? You work for Folgers or something? I rarely comment but your just an asshole. Lay off the coffee as I think your ODing although I think its probably just that your a moron

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  18. I don’t know why you think it’s a lie. Caffeine is nasty. I went through a period of time where I drank water, sprite, fresca, milk, etc and avoided caffeine. Now if I drink root beer w/ caffeine for a few days, I’ll get headaches and feel like shit the day after I stop.

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  19. >This is just stupid.
    >-Stopping completely after only a few cups a day led to notable and sustained withdrawal symptoms.
    >This is just a general lie. You miss something, but withdrawal??

    Yes. Withdrawal. Caffeine is a drug, you moron, and has very real and well documented withdrawal effects, most notably irritability and headaches. It’s better to be informed before insulting somebody if you want to be taken seriously at all.

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  20. z said:
    “-Stopping completely after only a few cups a day led to notable and sustained withdrawal symptoms.
    This is just a general lie. You miss something, but withdrawal??”

    May I refer you to:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15448977

    The conclusions of which state:

    “The caffeine-withdrawal syndrome has been well characterized and there is sufficient empirical evidence to warrant inclusion of caffeine withdrawal as a disorder in the DSM and revision of diagnostic criteria in the ICD.”

    Caffeine withdrawal is a real, verified medical condition. Coffee is also a known “ergogenic aid,” which means that it enhances the ability of the body to do mental or physical work. For this reason it is on the watch list for Olympic athletes.

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  21. I laughed when i read the above comment, i love the ability of the internet to turn people into dicks.

    Interesting read! coffee/tea are basically both drugs, so it would make sense to have withdrawl symptons.
    I guess the moral of the story is , everything in moderation? and people on the internet are nasty.

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  22. Gave up caffeine myself for a period of time and noticed the same types of effects. I felt a lot better, but went back to it. Your article makes me want to try again.

    Z – You sound like an arsehole, but you’re most likely an ordinary guy who, behind the safe anonymity that internet blogging provides, likes to talk tough. Or possibly you are like that in your face to face life, and really just have no people skills whatsoever.

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  23. @Z

    >This is just a general lie. You miss something, but withdrawal??

    Caffeine is a drug, it is addictive, and stopping intake causes withdrawl.

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  24. Caffeine is water-soluble, and so you it takes about a week to entirely leave your body if you stop taking any. That means chocolate, coke etc.

    I try to do a week caffeine-free every 6 months, and usually notice a huge change. I might try two weeks next time and see what happens!

    Oh, and ‘z’ (the other commenter) is an idiot. The physical withdrawal symptoms are real. Not necessarily as intense as other substances, but quite real and best understood physiologically.

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  25. z you are a dummy. Caffeine is a drug, yes there are withdrawal symptoms after prolonged usage.

    ‘Good for you. Now cut out a ten times more potent sleep disturber: Late night pc usage. Jeez.’
    Weird, I thought this post was about caffeine but whatever.

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  26. Z: caffeine withdrawal effects are somewhat variable from person to person. Personally, if I have a single cup of tea one day, the next day will without fail have a headache, and feel terrible in general (unless I prevent it with a cup of tea in the morning). If I try to maintain that cycle for more than a couple days, the withdrawal effects get worse and more prolonged when I stop.

    So for me, caffeine is reserved only for times when the benefits substantially outweigh the costs, which generally means a couple times a year at most.

    As for PC usage being a sleep disturber, I’ve never heard of such a thing, and certainly never experienced it myself. I spend 10+ hours a day using a computer, and practically never have any trouble sleeping. I can turn off the computer, be in bed 10-15 minutes later, be asleep 5 minutes after that, and sleep a full and normal nights sleep… every day of the week.

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  27. Good for you. I don’t think I could ever give up caffeine.

    As for you, “z,” congratulations. You’re adept at needlessly commenting and saying rude things. A+ in being a dick.

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  28. I don’t know what’s up with the demented hater, but withdrawal symptoms are well-documented; check Wikipedia. When I stopped drinking coffee, I had headaches and aching bones. I thought I had caught some kind of really horrible and debilitating flu before I figured it out.

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  29. I don’t know why “z” feels the need to comment just to diminish everything you’ve posted. I want to let you know that I think this was a great little science experiment, to promote personal growth and mind-body awareness– regardless of the outcome.

    Z, even if the findings were null, it is interesting and healthy to question our daily actions and societal norms, and you shouldn’t be so quick to belittle someone else’s initiative.

    Anyways Neil, I find the part about how it impacted your social interaction to be very interesting. People tend to forget the social implications of a simple coffee break. Being American, this has always been a huge part of my life when I worked in an office. When I became an entrepreneur, I noticed a major change in my coffee-drinking habits.

    First, because I no longer had access to free office lounge coffee, I basically stopped drinking it cold turkey. I wasn’t used to having to make a pot every morning, so I never developed a habit. I really just drank coffee due to the convenience of a free beverage and the whole social aspect.

    The second and biggest finding was the caffeine withdrawal. I was never a soda drinker, so my caffeine intake after I left the office was very, very low. The first two weeks after I left the office were hell. My sleep schedule was messed up, I felt like I had a mild sickness (headaches, lethargy, etc.). At first I thought it was the stress of starting my own business, but I got to thinking about how my habits had changed since I quit, and the only major change to my day was the coffee!

    I made it through the ‘jonesing’ unscathed, but it’s kind of funny that I took for granted how addictive caffeine can be. I can’t help but wonder how many people feel sluggish on the weekends, not realizing that since they aren’t making coffee on their days off, that they are experiencing a mild withdrawal!

    Food for thought.

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  30. Thanks for the interesting post. I don’t drink coffee but many of my coworkers do. Sometimes in meetings I feel like I’m listening to addicts on speed. What have your coworkers noticed about you?

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  31. I am a daily coffee drinker, and I’ve noticed mild withdrawal symptoms (headache especially) on days when I miss my morning cup of joe.

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  32. I applaud your willingness to step out of your comfort zone and try something new. It is good to recognise a daily ritual for what it is. You don’t have to take the step of disrupting it – just the recognition is good.

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  33. Interesting post. Don’t let the above poster get you down. I definitely feel withdrawals if I go cold turkey, and I have 2-4 cups of strong plunger coffee a day. Coffee companies, while they might make a fine product, are also drug pushers.

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  34. How old are you? This also matters, no? If you drink multiple cups each day (more than 2, not just after major eating) it may indeed become a problem of sustainability for your body. By the way: do you mean a “cup” in the american way or a “tazzina” in the italian way?

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  35. z, I can confirm that giving up caffeine causes pretty miserable withdrawal symptoms. When I first gave up caffeine I had headaches for about a week and general tiredness for about three.

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  36. As an observant Jew I fast 6 times a year and while I don’t drink much coffee (2-3 cups a day) I found that I got headaches when stopping cold turkey. I now go down to one cup a day a week before fasts and the headaches are gone. So despite what “z” said my findings agree with Neil’s, even low levels of coffee are addictive and will cause withdrawal symptoms.

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  37. Ignore Z. Typical cranky caffeine addict.

    Agree with skipping caffeine for improved sleep. It’s amazing what a difference it can make. Something else to remember is that different people metabolize caffeine at different speeds. So it’s possible to be kept awake by a cup of coffee at 1pm if you’re a slow metabolizer.

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  38. My caffeine consumption varies quite significantly, ranging from nothing at all, to 6+ cups in a day. I’m always careful to reduce it gradually once it gets very high, since the withdrawal symptoms are very real and very unpleasant. Obviously they don’t even compare to something like heroin withdrawal, but headaches (or even migraines), extreme mental sluggishness, and general tiredness occur almost every time, sometimes accompanied by nausea. I’m pretty sure this is a standard withdrawal reaction for any similar kind of stimulant.

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  39. A lot of people usually claim a lot more positive effects when dropping caffeine– you seem to have surprisingly few. A little more focus during the day, and more ability to fall asleep when desired, but nothing life-changing.

    I’ve given up caffeine for lengthy periods of time before (8 months was the latest) and, as of recently, haven’t noticed any particular change. Maybe less groggy in the mornings, but overall I still feel a general lack of energy. Gonna chalk that up to work stress and child rearing instead!

    So to those quitting the stuff, not everyone gains as much of a benefit as others when quitting. The most benefit I got out of staying off for a long time was that, now, I no longer *require* it.

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  40. Just FYI, unless you’re trying to make some sort of pun it’s “teetotal” or “tee-total”.

    Also, I’ve found a nice balance by cutting out the multiple cups of coffee I used to drink each day and settling on 1 or 2 cups of tea.

    I get to keep a lot of the ritual, and tea is healthier for me because I tend to dump a lot of cream and sugar into my coffee.

    I keep a selection of different types of tea, with varying levels of caffeine.,.I try to stick to the lower end.

    When I need a coffee-like boost I get up and move around a bit, and drink some Yerba Mate, a popular drink in South America which contains a lot of theobromines (including caffeine). It’s a different sort of “high” though, it’s much more subtle and less buzzy.

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