How I broke up with caffeine (and why I desperately needed to)

by Andy van Bergen


I woke at 3am, sweating profusely and wracked with pain. Aside from feeling like I’d been run over by a bus, everything from my torso down was on fire. There was not a single position I could hold that didn’t feel like I was in the rigours of cramping. The ache was deep. In my bones deep. In my spine deep. It felt like the worst DOMS I’d ever experienced, but not just in my muscles – it felt like it was in every cell of my body.

I dragged myself out of bed and grabbed a glass of water, half-stooped over the sink. Breathing was making my ribs ache. Through bloodshot eyes I Google-doctored my symptoms. I’d been prepared for the headaches, but thanks to the depths of my addiction, the aches were part of the withdrawals. I considered drawing a bath, but in the end settled on a bunch of painkillers. It wasn’t enough to allow sleep, but it tempered the pain to a dull roar.

How did I get here? Let’s back up a few weeks.

***

Around once a year I’ll stop drinking alcohol for a month in the lead-in to a big ride (like this trip to Everest, or our bikepacking trip through Kyrgyzstan). I find it helps shave off a kilo or two and as a side-benefit I find it tends to promote healthier lifestyle choices during that time. Although I enjoy a beer, glass of wine, or a whisky to wind down, I never feel that stopping for a month is any more difficult than breaking the habit. It’s not easy for the first few days, but it’s a world away from what I imagine it would be like to break up with sugar.

After embalming myself through the Christmas period and January, when colleague Iain Treloar mentioned on our drive back from the Tour Down Under in Adelaide that he was going to abstain from drinking for the month of February in support of his family’s new pregnancy, I offered to join him in solidarity. Really it was an idea looking for an excuse anyway, so it seemed like a good-enough reason.

I hadn’t quite mentioned my plans to my wife, I guess because I wasn’t 100% sure if I wanted to commit to them yet. As the ‘opening’ weekend rolled around and my parents cracked open the first of our customary bottles of wine with lunch, I figured I may as well take the plunge.

Skipping a drink then and at dinner flew under the radar easily enough, but as we sat basking in the sun on the deck of a Yarra Valley winery the next day, my request for soda water had my parents and wife all spinning towards me and asking simultaneously “OK, what’s up?”. My simple explanation of joining Iain in solidarity would have had more impact if my wife hadn’t handily pointed out that I had never shown such support when she was pregnant with our two daughters. Err, yep. Fair point. Anyway, stammered reasoning aside, I was already through three tempting meal periods and felt well on my way.

Over lunch at work the next day I had a laugh with colleagues Iain and Matt de Neef about my awkward reasoning for committing to a month away from alcohol. As I explained that kicking it off had been a little easier than expected, as a throwaway line Matt piped up “Well a real challenge would be to quit coffee”. That was clearly never going to happen and I suggested as such, but as I headed back to my desk I made the decision to give it a go, cold turkey, there and then. My afternoon recharge was switched for a peppermint tea, and I was off.

Image: Alex Chernenko/Unsplash

Despite drinking coffee every day for more than 20 years, and at least five or six cups a day for the last 10 of that, I never considered myself addicted. Even though I knew from past experience that a day or two away from caffeine would result in headaches (easily fixed by having a coffee, right?) it still never entered my mind that I was dependant on it. After all, aside from the kick to productivity, the sharpening of the brain, and the de-fogging it gave me, I also adored the ritual, the smell, the taste, the social aspect, and the forced break it provided.

Between a wonderful assortment of coffee paraphernalia at home, dozens of excellent roasters on tap, renowned Melbourne cafes in abundance, and a Mocamaster in the office, I always had a coffee for every situation. I have plenty of friends whose orders I know off by heart, but personally I relished the variety – whether it be a New Zealand flat white, heart-starting cold drip, climate-appropriate strong iced latte, or an off-the-menu Magic.

My approach at home was the same. As warm weather arrived I’d start the ritual of preparing a cold drip as the last thing before bed; wet days were started with a proudly battered and dirty stovetop jug; my wonderfully stained, decade-old Aeropress was the workhorse of our kitchen; and the weekends were made for savouring pour-overs served from a beautiful walnut-handled glass jug.

Despite all this wonderful coffee in my life, I even had a place for instant coffee – which was reserved for days working in the garden or about the house. You can shrink me later, but this almost certainly comes from working weekends as a 10-year-old in my family’s leathergoods factory and making the coffee at morning break for all the workers. Despite my grandfather’s protests, I never burnt the water.

Given I would usually switch to drinking tea later in the afternoons and evenings I knew that breaking up with coffee should also include tea. Plenty of people tell me that it contains the same amount of caffeine but I had never personally experienced the satisfying buzz-whir that came with a coffee. That said, it seemed a somewhat pointless activity without including all forms of caffeine, so a total abstinence was in order.

Image: Burst at Stocksnap

By the end of the second day the headaches had commenced, and as I groggily made breakfast for my kids the next morning it had developed into a full-blown compression headache. I struggled to make any conversation with the other parents at the school drop-off, and as the day wore on it became apparent that I just couldn’t think straight. I was struggling to concentrate on my work, and on one phone call with a client I started to make a point and then awkwardly trailed off as I completely lost where I was headed.

While I felt rubbish at the time, the worst was still to come.

As the afternoon rolled around and the headache had become an all-consuming pounding, I relented. I’d wisely removed all coffee temptation, but hadn’t bothered removing the tea, so I quickly brewed one up. Instantly a billion nerve synapses sung my praises, my headache dissipated, and a sharpness returned. My productivity had returned, I was thinking straight again, and at the school pick-up I was once again able to converse as an adult.

My wife was out that night so I hastily shot her a message. I was out. I needed coffee. It had been a fun experiment, but if the trade-off was being mentally foggy then what was the point? “I need coffee beans. I’m back on it”. I was asleep before she was home.

Which brings me back to where we started this story: waking up at 3am the next morning, wracked with pain.

***

While I knew that I was suffering from caffeine withdrawals, I didn’t fully understand what that actually meant. Thankfully, Ben Desbrow, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Griffith University, was able to help.

“The cessation of daily caffeine consumption produces a well-established withdrawal syndrome comprised of subjective symptoms and functional impairment, including headache, tiredness/fatigue, decreased alertness, decreased energy and difficulty concentrating,” he said. “These effects are likely to be more severe depending on the habitual caffeine intake (i.e. a larger or longer addiction results in greater withdrawal effects).

“Caffeine is an adenosine receptor antagonist, so when caffeine is removed, the effects of adenosine are magnified. For example, cerebral blood flow is increased when caffeine is withdrawn (acute caffeine administration decreases cerebral blood flow velocity) resulting in headaches. Aside from vascular effects, we also know that caffeine withdrawal can alter central nervous system activity.

“Given the spread of adenosine receptors throughout the body, and the importance of adeonsine for the functioning of most cells, the consequence of withdrawal from large habitual doses of caffeine (i.e. >600mg/day!) will result in a broad array of symptoms.”

Morning coffee in Kyrgyzstan.

The aches continued throughout the day that followed my 3am wake-up, and the only way to keep on top of them was to take more painkillers. I texted my wife after limping into work: “The way I’m feeling currently, there is no way I can’t continue going caffeine-free. What. The. Hell.” Clearly if this was the way my body was responding then it was going to be important to continue on the journey.

That night after work my daughters asked to play in the park. I wasn’t even able to hobble after them I was so sore. Another of the dads from school joined me as I sprawled on the grass and we chatted about what I was going through. He’d had the same thing trying to kick a Diet-Coke addiction and tried his best to assure me to keep going.

As we were sitting there I took a call from a client who works at a renowned Melbourne cafe to see if we could meet in the morning for a coffee and chat through a collab we’d been spit-balling. Before I’d hung up the phone I was already playing the scenario out in my head. I would decline a brew and politely inform him that I was on a caffeine-free kick. In Melbourne. Yeah, that wasn’t going to be a good look.

I chatted to my wife about it that night, and she agreed that it would be beyond weird to show up to a coffee deal whilst visibly abstaining from it. In my mind cold brew was the weaker of the coffees, so the next morning I settled on that and we kick-started the meeting. I could almost trace the caffeine as it wound its way through my body, nourishing withering limbs, quickening my heart, and sharpening my mind.

Only half the brew in and I was becoming aware of my rapid-fire chatter. I made a conscious decision to attempt to slow up what I was saying. I’d caught my hands shaking, so I sat on them for the majority of the meeting – tricky for a ‘hand-talker’. To emphasise a point I gesticulated wildly, knocking my remaining coffee and a full bottle of water over my surprised host. “Get it together”, I thought to myself though grinding teeth as I hastily and ineffectively mopped the mess with another patron’s napkin.

As I left the meeting my heart felt as if it were about to beat out of my chest. Through years of drinking coffee I have a pretty good feel for my threshold, and generally know when the next cup is going to tip me over the edge. But this meagre half-brew made me feel like I was well beyond that point. Sure, I’d hit a bit of a speed bump by having a coffee, but if ever there was a giant glowing neon sign that the course I was taking was the correct one, this was it.

Image: Demi Deherrera at Unsplash

The rest of the week passed in a haze of full-body aches, blurry thoughts, and low attention span. The silver lining? Each day was slightly better, the crushing headaches had reduced, and I’d completely taken my mind off the fact I was also on an alcohol fast. As rubbish as I was feeling, I felt I could see the light, rather than feeling like I was heading toward it.

As Associate Professor Desbrow assured me: “The good news is that even in the most severely affected, symptoms typically subside within a week.” He was spot on. A week had now passed since Matt’s unintentional gauntlet-throw. I was waking up fresh (not drinking alcohol probably played a part there), I felt normal again, I’d discovered an excellent organic, caffeine-free tea that more than resembled my usual go-to, and most importantly I felt like I had my brain back again.

In fact, not only did I have it back, but I felt as if I was able to operate at a higher level than usual. Most notable was being able to stick to one task through completion, and my productivity (particularly at night – again, hello whisky) was remarkably better.

I’m still quite uncertain about whether I can recommend quitting caffeine. Without embellishing in the slightest, the withdrawal was one of the most rubbish experiences I’ve put my body through. I’ve experienced plenty of post-ride fatigue, but this happily took the worst of it and factored it by five. The very marrow of my bones hurt, and that’s without beginning on the crushing headaches.

But, I’m through it now and feeling fantastic. I’m closing in on a month past the original 30-day target, and don’t have any immediate plans to return. The biggest learning was that I was simply unaware of the grip that this drug had on me. So just take it easy on me next time you see me drinking a soda with lime …

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