Yet another examination of coffee and caffeine

Clean Energy

If the last time you thought about your caffeine consumption was [glances at watch] never, know that cutting back every now and then can rev your engine. This playbook will make a reset work for you.

If the perk-you-up promise of a cup of coffee is one of the only things getting you out of bed in the morning, you’re in very good company (*WH team waves hello*). Nearly 60 percent of American adults drink coffee, sipping three cups daily on average, according to a recent study in Nutrients. (One cup = 75 milligrams of caf, FYI.)

Even people who don’t drink coffee take in 72 milligrams of caffeine—just above the amount in an espresso shot—every day from sources like tea, wellness supps, or pre-workout mixes.

Thing is, over time, cells in your brain adapt and you need to consume more to get the same buzz—something called tolerance, says Lindsay Standeven, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. That’s when you may find your habit—one cup in the a.m.—turning into multiple mugs throughout the day.

There are very real health benefits to moderate amounts of coffee (four or five cups daily is deemed safe—but a cup is six ounces, not a venti), including a reduced risk for heart disease and cancer. Yet at a certain point of caffeine use—diff for everyone—the downsides emerge. You move out of enjoyment and experience side effects such as anxiety, jitters, GI discomfort, or trouble sleeping, says Dr. Standeven. Or perhaps you’re pregnant or breastfeeding or have health conditions that make overcaffeinating dangerous, like high BP.

All this to say, a break can do your brain and body good, with possible benefits like quieting anxious thoughts and improving slumber (which has a ton of downstream pros for your ability to think and focus, as well as for your mood, energy, and more).

Curious how you’d function without your fix? Do a little caffeine “reset,” if you will—even temporarily. Truth: Uncoupling from the cup is challenging, but experts have manageable ways to scale back, take a pause, or cut yourself off from the source. Try all or some of the tips ahead.

1. Track Your Intake

Because caffeine appears in more than just coffee (see “Play the Numbers Game,” right), you might not know exactly how much you’re consuming on the reg. Before you start to reduce, keep a caffeine diary and record the food and beverages contributing to your intake.

“Sipping on coffee during the day got me through life up to this point,” says Mount Sinai assistant professor of neuroscience Nicole Avena, PhD, who took a break for six months earlier in the year to see what she’d feel like without the lift. By keeping tabs during her trial period, Avena noticed she drank her afternoon one or two cups out of pure habit, not necessity. “I realized I actually didn’t need caffeine to focus and think clearly at work,” she says.

She’s since gone back to her cup, but with a much better understanding of the “why” behind her reformed habits—and without her mindless afternoon jolt.

2. Taper Off

Many people find cold turkey challenging, says Laura Juliano, PhD, a professor of psychology and caffeine researcher at American University. So she recommends decreasing your baseline dose by 25 percent a week. If you have 400 milligrams (five cups of coffee) per day, scale back to 300 milligrams (three to four cups) that first week, and so on until you hit your goal. This strategy will help soften the no-caf blow.

3. Fill Up on Fiber

Feel you need coffee to keep the plumbing running? Ensure your GI system hums by increasing water consumption and aiming for 25 grams of fiber per day, says Cleveland Clinic dietitian Gillian Culbertson. “A plain hot beverage in the morning—even hot water—can stimulate your system.”

4. Swap In a New Routine

A bonus of coffee is that it’s ritualistic, and this is one driver behind the craving, says Avena. (Think: You leave at 3 p.m. for a PSL, and now the afternoon feels special.) Irritability isn’t a good substitute—but a spicy decaf chai midday or buying a new, cute cup and silicone straw to fill with yummy sparkling water might be.

For those who find that their energy lags leading up to a workout (or if you drink caffeine as your pre!), sub in a small carbohydrate- and protein-containing snack.

5. Push Through the Withdrawal Period

Be prepared to experience side effects like headaches, fatigue, and flu-like symptoms even if you’ve been drinking only a morning cup or two, says Juliano. You’ll feel the worst within 12 to 24 hours of missing your normal dose, she says. (FWIW, caffeine dependence can start at as little as 100 milligrams per day, or about one cup of coffee, research shows.) Symptoms will peak the second to third day after stopping but should then resolve and go away within a week. Headaches tend to be throbbing (ugh, so very sorry); you can slash that misery with acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

6. Implement a Natural Afternoon Pick-Me-Up

To avoid the slump, try moving your workout to the middle of the day if you can arrange your sched accordingly. “Exercise can boost adrenaline, enhancing concentration and mood,” Dr. Standeven says. Meditation and yoga in particular are helpful midday when weaning off caffeine. Plus, hydrate: Drinking water and maintaining proper hydration have been linked to more zing and a better mood.

7. Plan Your Comeback

To use caffeine in a purely functional way, no need to do constant “resets,” Juliano says. Instead, use it sporadically and your bod won’t become tolerant or dependent. There’s no magic formula for doing so, but let’s say you have a project you need to be on for. Drink caffeine on Monday, then again on Wednesday when you have that deadline to hit.

Play the Numbers Game

The recommended 400-milligram caffeine limit has to factor in *all* caffeine sources in your wellness regimen, like the ones here.


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