God rest my father’s soul. He always told me he would disown me if I ever drank decaf coffee, had a fake Christmas tree, or drank Dr. Pepper. (He said it was for “liberal college weenies.”) He was totally kidding (except maybe not about the Christmas tree), but I have to admit I felt disloyal to my family when I decided to quit my caffeine habit a month ago. When my family gets together (on both father and mother’s side), there’s a steady stream of coffee to be found nearby (and beer if you’re with the right crowd). But my health has been dismal for the past six months, and I was desperate to try nearly…anything.
My anxiety was derailing my already upturned life. After losing a baby and then my father just weeks apart, this is fairly understandable. But this was an extremely unhealthy level. My body was knotted up and breaking down. At one point, I went 36 hours without sleep, only ending it all with a desperate visit to immediate care and an Rx for Valium. I had to get better. For my family, friends, marriage, and last, but not least, me.
I tried anti-anxiety medication, but I freaked out when the negative side effects started (all-day nausea, increased panic attacks, loss of sleep). I quit taking the pills, and after calling my doctor’s nurse to let her know, she told me, “Those are normal side effects that will taper off in TWO TO FOUR WEEKS.” My response? “I have a life to live. And young children to take care of. This is not acceptable.”
When I told my therapist, she wasn’t surprised. “You’re too wound up to take anti-anxiety medication.” Huh? Turns out people with extremely high levels of anxiety are likely to have…you guessed it…anxiety when it comes to mind-altering meds. Her suggestion? She helps get me to a more stable level and then see where I’m at. If I still wanted to take meds, she’d refer me to a psychiatrist. So now the ball was back in my court. There would be no magic pill. I would have to fight my way out of this inner battle. I talked to the therapist, talked to friends, talked to family, and talked to myself. What could I change? I started engaging in activities that brought me peace. Long showers, epsom salt baths and cardio workouts. And I started researching natural alternatives. What could I add, or eliminate, from my diet?
I came across this article on adrenal fatigue. “Adrenal fatigue is a collection of signs and symptoms, known as a syndrome, that results when the adrenal glands function below the necessary level. Most commonly associated with intense or prolonged stress, it can also arise during or after acute or chronic infections, especially respiratory infections such as influenza, bronchitis or pneumonia. As the name suggests, its paramount symptom is fatigue that is not relieved by sleep but it is not a readily identifiable entity like measles or a growth on the end of your finger. You may look and act relatively normal with adrenal fatigue and may not have any obvious signs of physical illness, yet you live with a general sense of unwellness, tiredness or “gray” feelings. People experiencing adrenal fatigue often have to use coffee, colas and other stimulants to get going in the morning and to prop themselves up during the day.”
I’d already been tested for low thyroid levels and anemia, and those didn’t seem to be the culprit. Maybe, just maybe…
So how to best address adrenal fatigue? First, eliminate caffeine. WHAT?! I almost just slammed my laptop shut at the thought. I just got a Keurig for Christmas! And a bunch of fancy new coffees to try. And what about my lifelong relationship to the hot, yummy beverage? At just five years old, I would wait for my dad’s cream and sugar coffee to cool down and drink up when he left it unattended. Was I really desperate enough to give up my day’s first vice? Yes. I was. Especially after reading articles like this, and this and this. I especially liked this advice:
In my opinion, caffeine tolerance varies from woman to woman and depends largely on how caffeine interacts with her individual physiology and how efficiently she detoxifies — but there’s the rub. In order for a woman to hear her body’s real signals, she’s got to remove caffeine long enough to tune in. And because it’s addictive, even this temporary caffeine withdrawal can be a real source of anxiety and discomfort for many women. - Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Basically, I wouldn’t know until I tried. I’d read that your body needs at least two weeks of strictly no caffeine (no decaf, no tea, nada) to come clean. And when I announced my grand plans on Facebook? Oh. My. I was quite shocked at the negative reaction I got from friends. “You’re doing WHAT?! Why? Surely you can’t drink that much. You’ll get headaches. You’ll go crazy!” And, there were a few positive comments as well. But you know what? I already was crazy, so what’s two more weeks?
So, I decided to take the rational, sane approach. Quit hot coffee cold turkey. And to my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. I had minor headaches, and strangely, pretty extreme leg aches. But the worst was over in about a week. I used herbal teas to get my warm liquid oral fix. Now, I am NOT guaranteeing you won’t lose your marbles if you do what I did. This is not advice, just my story.
After the first three weeks or so, I decided to re-introduce one cup of decaf coffee a day. I missed the smell, taste and ritual. Now, I know decaf has its own flaws, but I’m not quite ready to give that up yet. So, a month later, can I say it’s worth it? YES! A resounding yes. Let me tell you why:
My Own Personal Benefits of Kicking the Caffeine Habit
- I get to sleep more easily (both when I first lay down, and after my kiddos wake me up in the middle of the night).
- I have FAR less anxiety (less racing thoughts and worst-first thinking).
- I have less cravings for refined sweets, carbs and alcohol. (The sweets and carbs would come after the caffeine crash, and the alcohol was used to help me wind down after being so wound up all day.)
- I’ve lost weight. Probably both from adrenal restoration and the fact that I’m not eating as much sugar and drinking as much wine.
- I’m less irritable. But who wouldn’t be when they’re less anxious and sleeping better?
- I have whiter teeth. Duh
- I don’t experience an extreme afternoon energy crash.
- I have less interactions with medication. For example, I used to not be able to take Mucinex, but now it doesn’t bother me.
- I have less intake of sugar/sugar substitute because I’m not drinking sodas, diet sodas or sweet teas.
- I have a higher tolerance for water. I used to brew a pot of coffee in the morning and have it gone by the afternoon. Now? I drink twice that amount in pure water alone.
So there you have it. Despite my initial resignation, quitting my coffee habit really wasn’t a big deal. I FEEL so much better, and despite my dad’s wishes, I think he would enthusiastically approve of his daughter’s quest for better health.