Earlier this month I decided to go without coffee for 30 days. I’ve done a number of 30-day experiments over the last few years, including giving up booze, sugar, web-surfing, video games, and even artificial light. 30 days is a good amount of time to break old habits and establish new ones, or at least to reset your physiology and brain to a new set of stimuli. Coffee was the only substance I hadn’t tried to give up. In the interest of facing my fears, I decided to give up my favorite morning brew.
I also wanted to see if giving up coffee would alter my sleep cycle (sleeping deeper, and longer without waking), and/or affect my ability to concentrate and work on difficult tasks for long periods of time. Lately I had been feeling that my mental wheels were spinning without the gears being fully engaged.
I did a one-day taper (only 1 cup in the morning, as opposed to my usual two cups in the morning and a cup in the afternoon), and then switched to only tea and dark chocolate. At some point I may attempt a no-caffeine experiment, but that wasn’t the point of this experiment.
Physical withdrawal took about 5 days, with effects as follows:
Day 1: sleepy in the afternoon, went to sleep earlier than usual (around 10pm)
Day 2: drank three cups of tea in the morning, sleepy/slow feeling, took one aspirin in am to prevent headache (and didn’t experience any headaches), in bed by 10pm again
Day 3: two cups of tea in morning, sleepy/slow feeling lessened, mild headache even with one aspirin (back and sides of head), headache (and irritability) went away with 2nd aspirin, early bedtime again
Day 4: tea in am, no headache/no aspirin, felt achy and sore especially in legs
Days 5-11: one to two cups of tea, no physical withdrawal symptoms, felt alert and energetic (normal or slightly higher than normal energy levels), early bedtimes continued with a few exceptions
Except for going to bed earlier, the quality and pattern of my sleep remained the same. I usually sleep deeply for 4-6 hours, have a period of “quiet wakefulness” for 20-60 minutes, and then fall back asleep for 1-3 hours more. After learning about the “first sleep” and “second sleep” rest cycles of pre-industrial (and pre-artificial light) times, I no longer consider this kind of sleep pattern to be pathological (especially considering that I’m usually alert and energetic during the day). Still, I was curious if dramatically reducing my caffeine consumption would make me revert to the “solid 8 hours” of sleep that I experienced until about age 30 (I’m 42 now). It didn’t. I did experience one night of sleep with no wakefulness during the experiment, after an active day at the beach (which happened to include a large, high carbohydrate lunch). The longer sleep period could have been related to higher carbs, more outdoor light (I’m usually an indoor cat), more exercise (and thus more GH release), less caffeine, or a combination of factors.
In any case, giving up coffee had no major effect on the quantity or quality of my sleep. Giving up caffeine altogether might have a different effect.
Quality of Consciousness Effects
I did notice that I felt calmer during the no coffee trial, with fewer random anxious thoughts (worrying about things that actually have a low probability of happening). In general, I think coffee and/or moderate doses of caffeine makes me talk to myself in my head more; it increases mental chatter. With less mental noise, I was able to concentrate on projects for longer periods of time. I also felt more “mental fortitude” in terms of being able to take on difficult and annoying tasks without procrastinating or lapsing into despair/hopelessness/whining. I felt less sensitive in general, with a more matter-of-fact “just figure out what needs to be done and do it” attitude.
Strangely, I felt less desire to blog during the no-coffee trial. It could be that this entire blog is a side-effect of coffee. Mental chatter apparently translates into blog posts, at least for me.
I used this “less buzz/more fortitude” state of mind to zoom-out and think about the direction of my life, and what big projects I want to take on in the next decade or two. The less caffeine state of mind was more conducive to envisioning as opposed to strategizing or maneuvering.
During the trial, I wanted coffee whenever I smelled it or saw it. Otherwise I didn’t think about it much, even if I had a headache or was experiencing other withdrawal symptoms.
I especially wanted to drink coffee in the morning when Kia was drinking it. I drank tea instead. I used a decent brand of tea (PG Tips) and made sure to brew it correctly; it actually tasted pretty good. But it didn’t compare to coffee. Tea just didn’t get me excited to drink it in the same way.
The experiment came to an abrupt end during a shopping trip at Trader Joe’s. I noticed the complimentary pot of coffee, poured myself a cup, added cream, and was about to drink it when I remembered. The coffee, right under my nose, smelled delicious. Fuck it, I said to myself, and drank it. Experiment over. That night I was up until 1am. That was last night. Drank some more this morning. Today I feel great.
Health Effects of Coffee
Coffee contains dozens, if not hundreds, of bioactive and neuroactive compounds. The overall effect of moderate coffee intake seems to be protective, with regular coffee drinkers experiencing fewer cases of Type-2 diabetes, prostate cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, and dementia.
On the other hand, overuse of caffeine is linked to nervousness and anxiety, irritability, headaches, insomnia, twitchy muscles, rapid heartbeat, and GERD. Isolated caffeine in energy drinks seems to be more harmful than caffeine in coffee, presumably because it is not accompanied by healthful antioxidants found in the black brew.
In my own experience, it’s fairly easy to consume too much caffeine from coffee, but more difficult with tea. Tea starts to taste bitter to me after more than a cup or two — maybe it’s the tannins. I just don’t want to drink that much of it.
England vs. Italy
I’m interested in the subtle shift of consciousness I experienced while briefly switching from coffee to tea. As a tea drinker I felt less anxious, more stoic, and more oriented towards long-term planning. As a coffee drinker I feel more eager to express myself, have more ideas, but am more easily put off or discouraged by difficult or boring tasks. More mental fortitude vs. more mental activity.
The effects of tea drinking seem to be consistent with traditional British values like having a “stiff upper lip,” being emotionally reserved, and methodically colonizing half the planet and turning them into tea-drinkers. But does this apply to modern English youth as well? The kind that get into pub brawls and like to loot shops? When I googled “do chavs drink tea” I found this blog post, which I don’t totally understand but seems to link the decline of English social values to the decline of proper tea drinking (a strong cup of tea being replaced by alcoholic beverages, Snapple, instant coffee, and/or the aforementioned PG Tips, weakly brewed with too much milk).
The Italians, on the other hand, love their espresso. Can I make the generalization that Italians are less emotionally reserved than English tea drinkers? It would seem that way to me, at least in the south of Italy. I feel more Italian as a coffee drinker — I have more to say (or at least write), my mind races, I get less done, I’m easily distracted, I’m prone to dramatic interpretations of events, and my emotions are more up and down.
Apologies to the English and Italians — my comments are tongue-in-cheek (if that isn’t already clear). Making national/ethnic generalizations is a great way to get in trouble. But I do find the links between diet, culture, and neurophysiology to be fascinating. Why are we so different? Tea vs. coffee? Spicy vs. bland? Infection with toxoplasma gondii vs. no infection? These are interesting questions, though I would put them in the same category as politics and religion; think carefully before you bring them up at a dinner party.
What do Americans consume and how does it affect our national consciousness? Corn, corn, and corn (corn-fed beef, milk from corn-fed cows, corn-fed chickens, eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn oil, corn-syrup, corn chips, corn-on-the-cob, etc.). That can’t be good.
Too long; didn’t read
I decided to give up coffee for 30 days. After five days the physical symptoms of withdrawal were gone but I still wanted to drink coffee. After eleven days I kind of accidentally drank some coffee and gave up the experiment. Drinking tea instead of coffee made me calmer and more stoic. Chavs don’t drink proper tea.