13 years ago, I was researching knowledge graphs at the Fraunhofer Institute when my colleague, Frank, said something remarkable in response to my invitation for coffee in the morning:
"Coffee already at 8 a.m.? I'm not tired yet. I'll drink later in the afternoon."
At first, I found his statement strange because coffee was integral to my routine and mornings. However, eventually, I understood Frank's perspective on coffee.
He believed that coffee was a tool to smooth over a temporary slump and, thus, should only be used when needed, whereas, for me, it was just a habit in the morning.
As I mentioned in my last two Diligent Sunday issues, I am currently undergoing a caffeine detox to see what life is like without coffee. With this article, I want to report back to you so you don't have to do this experiment yourself.
I have completed two out of four weeks of the detox, and since most of the effects should have set in by now, I can share this preliminary conclusion.
My Motivation: More Evening Energy
I usually drank 8-12 (large) cups of (mild) coffee every day. In the morning, I drank it in quick succession, usually having four cups by 5-9 am, and then the rate slowed down throughout the day. The more prolonged and frequent my work meetings were, the more I drank. Additionally, I drank pre-workout drinks containing a lot of caffeine every two days.
I do not think coffee and caffeine are inherently harmful, but I suspected that a detox could provide specific benefits or that caffeine was causing structural problems for me:
- My skin is slightly reddened in the afternoon (due to increased blood flow to the skin?), and people often ask me about my red skin because they think I have an annoying sunburn.
- When I consume the upper limit of my caffeine consumption, I become irritable in the evening and feel detached.
- I noticeably lack concentration in the evening, and it feels like the coffee is consuming my daily mental capacity more towards the beginning of the day. I attribute this to dehydration, but the pure amount of caffeine may also affect me.
- Frequent toilet breaks. When I walk for 1.5 hours, I have to use the toilet half of the time because coffee is a diuretic and leads to more fluid intake.
- I feel dependent on always needing access to coffee. In Germany, this is not an issue since coffee is ubiquitous. However, it became apparent when I even brought a small water kettle and instant coffee for hotel and business trips to have my morning coffee.
Moreover, I hoped my resting and exercise heart rate would decrease, improving my sports performance.
My Detox Plan: Cold Turkey
I planned to quit caffeine entirely for two weeks after a week, during which I drank less coffee anyway (short vacation). Then, I would abstain from coffee for additional weeks. This means I will allow myself to drink caffeinated tea after two weeks.
Thanks to the new zero bottom line, I want to drink coffee again at the end of the detox, but only at a reduced level of 2-4 cups per day.
My wish is for the detox to change my perspective on coffee.
- I want it to be a booster tool I use when needed, not a routine, just like Frank's perspective in my introductory story.
- In the future, I also want to avoid drinking coffee while working in parallel. I wish to mono-task drinking it consciously in between breaks. This should prevent unconscious drinking of too high quantities over the day.
Detox Protocol: Some expected and some unexpected things happened.
I would have chosen a gentler withdrawal if I had known that cold turkey would be so difficult.
- Day 1: I had my last coffee at breakfast at 8 am. I missed it a bit, but there were no symptoms or changes.
- Day 2: I already wanted coffee in the morning, but it was limited, and I could still work on my Diligent Sunday newsletter from 5 am to noon. However, it became challenging for me to concentrate from 10 am onwards, and I had a headache by noon. In the afternoon, I was unable to work but could go for a walk or watch TV. In the evening, the symptoms were so severe that I felt really, really unwell. I couldn't even watch TV or read a book and felt nauseous. I could only fall asleep with the help of headache tablets (which only helped to a certain extent) and Vomex tablets. I still threw up despite it.
- Day 3: The withdrawal symptoms disappeared after the night, and I could think again. However, I had difficulty concentrating and finding words (not profound, but noticeable). The sentences came out a bit slowly from my brain.
- Day 4: I had significant slumps in the afternoon and struggled through my work meetings. I was not as focused as usual at this time. I had an important presentation the following day, so I hoped to return to my performance level quickly.
- Day 5: I felt good and fit. I could fully concentrate and think clearly. I felt more evenly distributed energy and was still as alert as usual around 5-6 pm.
- Day 7: I slept poorly and felt extremely tired in the morning. However, this cleared up during the day.
- Day 10: I did not experience any coffee cravings, but I did not notice as many significant positive effects as I had hoped. For instance, my sleep did not improve (apple watch data), and my mind sought alternatives, as I often thought about cigarettes, despite quitting in 2019.
- Day 10-12: My desire for "spikes" (when the pulse increases suddenly, and you have that moment of a perception boost) grew. For the first time since my sugar detox, I ate sweets that I found hidden in the apartment. My desire for cigarettes - preferably with beer - also increased.
- Day 13: I gave in and smoked a cigarette. I felt disgusting after smoking. Otherwise, I noticed that I had a better mood than usual. But this could also be due to other factors, as my workdays went well, calmly, and successfully.
- Day 14: Commenters on my social media posts recommended good coffee alternatives, such as Yerba Mate tea or mushroom coffee. From today on, and for the next two weeks, I will only abstain from coffee and allow myself to drink caffeinated alternatives. I hope that this will stop my cravings for even more unhealthy habits.
Well, what can I say? I did not expect the things that appeared with a little delay and other older addictions suddenly resurface. This showed that the coffee detox was a dopamine detox.
Who knows, maybe I have been jumping from addiction to addiction all these years. Alcohol was replaced by nicotine, and nicotine was replaced by coffee. But perhaps I am just imagining that; I have always consumed much coffee.
Effects: Which advantages did I gain, and which didn't?
In the motivation section, I described what I hoped for. Here is what happened:
- According to my Apple Watch's weekly average, my resting heart rate did not decrease but increased by five beats.
- My walking heart rate varied a little on average throughout the week, with a slight decrease.
- My HRV sunk by about 15%, indicating increased stress
- I did not need coffee to be alert and focused. Without coffee, I could work highly focused from around 5 am to 2 pm and moderately focused from 2-5 pm.
- In general, my energy levels did not increase significantly. I had hoped for this to happen, especially in the evening. I feel a bit more balanced, but the effects are subtle.
- My complexion is a bit less red, but coffee seems not to be the sole or primary cause.
- I have to go to the toilet less often because I drink less, but that is not a significant change.
- I am not easily irritated in the afternoon and generally have a slightly better mood.
I had hoped for a few more benefits from the detox, but, well. Maybe I need to observe this further.
Conclusion: Cold Turkey is not worth it; Conscious Reduction is better.
My coffee detox was very painful and, in my opinion, brought too few advantages. I believe that I am a person who tolerates coffee well and can drink it with a clear conscience. The main advantage of the detox, I think, is that I have now found a new zero line that allows me to drink less coffee in the future.
It also allows me to shift my mindset: I no longer reach for coffee "just like that" but wait for tiredness triggers and then use coffee as a targeted booster. Or as a booster for workout sessions. Or as a deliberate, mono-tasking break from work.
Anyway, I like to challenge myself and my habits, and I like the feeling of temporarily defeating this addiction. It gives me a sense of control.
My recommendation for you: If you are a heavy coffee drinker like me, you can also do a detox. In my opinion, one week is enough to find a new zero line. Also, I think a cold turkey is not the best path. A conscious reduction to 2-4 cups a day might be the better strategy to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms.
If you only drink a few cups, you do not need to do anything and can continue your habits.