Time to Quit Coffee for Good?

To all the caffeine lovers
Published: 29 May 2023

A growing chorus of concerned former “addicts” are trying to wake people up to caffeine's negative effects.

Petty Officer Second Class Marcus Bivens stood before a panel of US Navy officers, hands cuffed behind his back, facing charges of an unauthorised absence.

For his first 15 years of service, Bivens had been considered a “squared-away sailor”—orderly, competent, conscientious. A sailor officers could rely on. But he had been missing work lately, sometimes for weeks at a time, and now he was standing in front of an ad hoc disciplinary tribunal investigating his rapid and seemingly inexplicable decline in job performance. Bivens could no longer physically complete his work tasks, even though it was an administrative job.

Several weeks prior, Bivens was driving home on I-15 from the Coronado naval base in San Diego when his eyesight suddenly went double. “It was terrifying,” he recalls. “I literally drove home with one eye closed.” Bivens made it to his house safely but immediately collapsed into bed, clothes still on, and slept for eleven hours. When he woke up, the double vision was worse.

Sources: Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Food and Drug AdministrationPepsicoStarbucks

He went to the hospital, where he was subjected to a battery of tests. Doctors examined his eyes, his ear canal, his blood pressure. He was administered an EKG and had blood drawn. All the test results were normal, flummoxing a team of ophthalmologists and neurologists. “Every doctor took out their phone and Googled my symptoms, trying to figure out what was going on with me,” Bivens says. He was eventually diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a rare neuromuscular disorder that typically affects women between the ages of twenty and thirty.

Bivens’s condition worsened over the next four months. He suffered tremors, sensitivity to light, aches throughout his body, and twitchy eyes. He slept just three to five hours a night. A self-described gym rat, Bivens lost his strength; he couldn’t do a single push-up. Doctors performed MRIs and MRAs and conducted more blood work. They wondered if Bivens had lesions on his brain. They prescribed him Ambien, Zoloft, Xanax, and Cafergot, a caffeine stimulant used to treat headaches. He was given an eye patch to alleviate the double vision. None of the tests revealed any abnormalities, and none of the doctors he saw could give him a satisfactory explanation for his bizarre array of symptoms.

At his lowest point, Bivens suffered intrusive thoughts. A disembodied voice whispered to him, “You’re gonna die.” He would hide in his closet, away from any overwhelming stimuli, praying for God to spare him. “It was hell on earth,” he says.

In front of the disciplinary review board, Bivens admitted he was having suicidal ideations and was placed on psychiatric hold for a week. A year later, he was medically retired from the Navy. The condition would plague him past that.

Sources: Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health aFood and Drug AdministrationPepsicoStarbucks

Bivens now believes the source of his medical issues was neither a disease nor a mental illness. Rather, he attributes his health decline to caffeine, the most commonly used, socially acceptable psychoactive substance in the world. For years, Bivens had been consuming close to 1,000 milligrammes of caffeine per day, two and a half times the daily recommended limit and the equivalent of more than ten cups of coffee. The habit had wreaked havoc on his central nervous system and in turn caused myriad physical and psychological problems.

“People don’t understand that caffeine is an actual drug,” says Bivens. “It’s not Kool-Aid.”

There is perhaps no mind-altering substance as tightly woven into the fabric of daily life than caffeine. Nearly 80 percent of adults in the US consume caffeine, in some form, every day. Coffee is the primary caffeine-delivery mechanism for many people—two thirds of American adults drink it every day—and many consider it an indispensable part of daily life. T-shirts and, naturally, coffee mugs exclaim, “Not before I’ve had my coffee” or “But first, coffee,” as if the travails of everyday living are impossible without a morning cup of joe. For some, coffee even serves as a handy substitute for having a personality. Whether it’s new mothers who think they should have a priority line at Starbucks; snobs who traffic exclusively in organic, sustainably grown fair-trade beans; or Zoomers sharing their insane coffee concoctions on TikTok, conspicuous coffee consumption is a cultural signifier. Entire human interactions—the coffee date, the coffee break at work, the post-dinner mug—revolve around its ingestion.

(Coffee alone cannot quench our cultural thirst for caffeine. Energy drinks are a fraction the size of the coffee market, but Americans still spend almost USD14 billion a year on them, and the category is rapidly growing.)

So ubiquitous is caffeine in our culture that it doesn’t even register to people as a drug. Step out of the office for a midafternoon cigarette and people might look at you askance. Get caught doing a bump of coke in the office bathroom as a midday pick-me-up and it’s grounds for immediate termination. But slam a Monster or a quad-shot Americano at work and people will think you’re a go-getter.

Sources: Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health aFood and Drug AdministrationPepsicoStarbucks

That perception is increasingly being challenged by a small but growing choir of laypeople and experts making a concerted effort to raise awareness about the potential downsides of caffeine dependence. “Caffeine is wildly misunderstood, especially with primarily anxiety-prone people,” says Mark Johnson, a 34-year-old video producer in Greenville, South Carolina.

Johnson’s recovery from caffeine started three years ago, when he began to suspect coffee was the source of his personal and professional problems. A commercial videographer, he creates TV spots and YouTube videos for major brands. The hours are long and, at the time, Johnson was creatively unfulfilled and felt he was burning out. He used caffeine to power through his work, drinking multiple Bang energy drinks a day on top of his morning cup of coffee. “I felt terrible all the time,” he says. During particularly acute periods of anxiety, Johnson would experience derealization, a sense of detachment from one’s surroundings—or the dreadful feeling that the physical world, as you perceive it, is not in fact actually there. He investigated the causes of his anxiety and eventually discovered r/decaf, a Reddit forum for people struggling with caffeine.

Thus began cycles of quitting, withdrawal, and relapse whenever he needed to crank out a project at work. The first time he suffered withdrawal from caffeine, Johnson slept more than fourteen hours a day for a week and felt suicidal. “I’m not a naturally depressed person but I laid around all day,” he says. “You feel like there is no point to life.”

Many people quitting caffeine say the physical withdrawal symptoms are the biggest obstacle. Some report headaches so severe it’s impossible to function. (One of the strangest aspects of caffeine is that it is both a common cause of and, at other times, an effective treatment for headaches.) More than anything, they report feeling really fucking tired. After years of relying on caffeine to fuel them through school, work, and social life, people often don’t have energy for their everyday lives when they quit cold turkey, finding they’ve been under-rested for years. “Caffeine just masks fatigue,” says Johnson.

Members of r/decaf use the language of addiction (e.g., “sobriety,” “relapse”) to describe their relationships with caffeine, which is controversial because caffeine addiction is not a formally recognized diagnosis (perhaps not yet). The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the official reference guide for defining and diagnosing psychiatric disorders, lists caffeine withdrawal as a condition, but it doesn’t include caffeine use disorder. The American Psychiatric Association, the organization that oversees the manual, says it’s considering caffeine use disorder for inclusion in the next edition.

“Since non-problematic caffeine use is so common and widespread, it may be difficult for some health professionals to accept that caffeine use can result in the same types of pathological behaviors caused by alcohol, cocaine, opiates, or other drugs of abuse,” Merideth A. Addicott wrote in her 2014 study on the subject while she was a psychiatry researcher at the Duke-UNC Brain Imaging and Analysis Center. “Yet there is evidence that some individuals are psychologically and physiologically dependent on caffeine, although the prevalence and severity of these problems is unknown.”

Sources: Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health aFood and Drug AdministrationPepsicoStarbucks

Caffeine might not meet the strict medical definition of addictive, but it does meet more general criteria, according to self-professed caffeine addicts: 1) Addicts continue using caffeine despite its negative effect on their lives, and 2) they want to quit but they have trouble doing so. “It’s one of the only things it’s acceptable to be addicted to,” Johnson says.

Perhaps no one has done more to bring attention to the physical and psychological effects of caffeine than Michael Pollan, arguably the most respected food-science writer in the world—ironic given that Pollan both openly identifies as an addict and ardently defends the positive effects of caffeine. “Yeah, I’m addicted to caffeine,” he admits to me. “So what?”

Pollan investigated his relationship with caffeine in This Is Your Mind on Plants, his 2021 book about the psychoactive properties of various flora. A lifelong coffee and tea drinker, he quit caffeine for three months as research for his chapter on the substance. The effects were drastic. “I felt out of my body,” Pollan says about his caffeine withdrawal. “I felt like I had contracted ADD. I couldn’t wait to get back on it.” A YouTube clip of him recounting his caffeine withdrawal on The Joe Rogan Experience has been viewed nearly 10 million times.

The experiment left Pollan with a newfound appreciation for the powers of caffeine—that first cup of coffee after withdrawal was “psychedelic,” he says—but he quickly returned to his usual morning coffee habit after his months off.

Pollan points to studies showing that caffeine may have protective benefits against some types of cancerdementia, and Parkinson’s. Caffeine can boost athletic and work performance, and coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in the American diet, a troubling sign of just how few vegetables the average American eats. (This applies only to coffee specifically, not caffeine generally. Red Bull won’t neutralize free radicals in your body.) Pollan isn’t dismissive of the potential negative side effects of too much caffeine; he acknowledges that it can disrupt sleep and that it can make people jittery, especially if they’re already prone to anxiety. Generally speaking, he recommends no caffeine after noon.

But the benefits of caffeine far outweigh the risks, he says. Caffeine gave us the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution, Pollan writes in his book. Prior to the spread of coffee throughout Europe, people mostly drank beer, a beverage that isn’t conducive to intellectual exchange. Coffee, however, was the catalyst for all kinds of scientific, political, and artistic breakthroughs. Without caffeine, we might still be living in a perpetual drunken stupor, dirt poor, toiling the fields for the benefits of feudal lords. “On balance, the story is very much in favor of drinking coffee and tea,” Pollan says.

“People blanch at this word addiction because they assume that it means unhealthy. And I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to give up caffeine,” he adds. “People love this idea of complete control over their lives, and addiction fights against that. It suggests something else is running me. For people who crave autonomy, that’s difficult. But I like ritual behavior.”

Lisa Axelrad, a nutritionist in Los Angeles, has a more negative view of the substance. She advises her clients to drink no more than one cup of coffee a day and to cut out all other forms of caffeine. “Caffeine is addictive,” she says. “Coffee leads to an afternoon crash and stains our teeth, and that’s from just one cup a day. If you’re drinking more, you are likely to suffer from headaches, disrupted sleep, irritability, high blood pressure, jitters, insulin resistance, and hormone disruption.”

Recovering caffeine addicts and Pollan do agree on one thing: The prevalence of caffeine allows people to never question their relationship with it. (Part of the reason Johnson agreed to moderate r/decaf, an unpaid position, was to combat the widespread social acceptance of coffee and make more people aware of its potential ills.)

“I would lie down to sleep at night, and my brain would run at a mile a minute,” says Bianca Zaklikowski, a forty-one-year-old self-described recovering caffeine addict. “My heart was beating too fast. My blood pressure was too high.” Zaklikowski consulted her physician about her health problems, and it took one conversation about her diet for him to recommend she drink less caffeine. On a typical day, she would drink sixty-four ounces of Diet Coke in addition to as many as three double-shot skinny vanilla lattes from Starbucks. That this was, simply, too much had never occured to Zaklikowski. Her blood pressure and resting heart rate are at healthy levels since cutting it from her diet, and she finally feels rested when she wakes up.

“Caffeine,” she says now, six years since she last consumed the substance, “is a lifestyle.” For Zaklikowski, a single mother of two, that lifestyle included going on the occasional coffee date and bonding with other mothers over their shared love of the drink. Her infatuation with coffee culture began when she was a teenager and would visit the one hip coffee shop in her small Indiana town. “I felt like an adult,” she remembers, “like one of the characters on Friends.”

The sophistication we associate with drinking coffee is also what drew comedian Nikki Glaser to the substance. (With comedy specials on Netflix and HBO, a sold-out international comedy tour, and millions of social media followers, it’s fair to assume Glaser is, by far, the most famous member of r/decaf.) Glaser’s intake is remarkably similar to Zaklikowski’s—two to three Starbucks lattes a day, plus Diet Coke—but unlike Zaklikowski, she hasn’t fully kicked the habit.

“There’s something about drinking coffee that says, ‘I’m a part of the world. I have a big day ahead of me. I’m schlepping from meeting to meeting. I’m hitting deadlines.’ It’s a go-getter’s drink. It’s like carrying a briefcase,” Glaser says.

The seeds of caffeine addiction are planted in early childhood, she adds. Getting “hyper” on a Surge cola is the preadolescent version of getting twisted on booze. For her, acquiring a taste for coffee, a drink most children abhor, was a rite of passage akin to losing her virginity.

Stats on the number of people quitting caffeine are hard to come by, but there are signals that the anti-caffeine crowd is growing. “I hear from readers all the time that they stopped using caffeine, as if I recommended that,” Pollan says. R/decaf membership has increased 25 percent over the past year, to 34,000 subscribers, and there has been a boom the past several years in the number of low-caf or caffeine-free coffee alternatives on the market—Huel, MUD\WTR, Teeccino, matcha, as well as “coffees” made from mushroom, chaga, chicory, and dandelion.

Generationally, coffee consumption appears to be in decline. Less than a third (31 percent) of Zoomers say they can’t live without coffee, compared with half of Millennials and Gen Xers and nearly two thirds (61 percent) of Baby Boomers, according to a new study from the market-research firm NCSolutions. Zoomers are also less likely to keep coffee on hand at home. “Gen Z is more willing to go without coffee,” says NCSolutions CEO Alan Miles. “And while that might have something to do with age, there’s also a sense they may be gravitating towards healthier, more natural and environmentally sustainable foods and beverages.”

People love to debate the relative merits of different dietary philosophies (high carb, low carb, no carb, keto, carnivore, vegan, pescatarian, Mediterranean) and the health benefits of so-called “superfoods” (e.g., blueberries, chia seeds, kale, almonds, salmon), but suggesting that people should curb their caffeine intake might be the most contentious fight in all of food discourse—especially because it seems like every other week, a new study is published claiming that coffee is either the fountain of youth or certain to send you to an early grave.

If your response to this trend is “I’ll give up my coffee when you pry this mug from my cold dead hands,” you’ll be happy to know that Stephen Cherniske, the nutritionist who literally wrote the book on caffeine addiction, says that for most people, coffee in moderation is just fine. “Starting your day with a cup of coffee is not a problem,” he says. “But stringing yourself along with caffeine hit after caffeine hit as the day goes on is problematic. It’s like whipping a tired horse.”

Cherniske is a research biochemist and the author of Caffeine Blues, a book about the perils of caffeine overconsumption and a popular title among members of r/decaf. Years ago, during his clinical practice as a nutritionist, he realized that many of his patients were alarmingly overcaffeinated. Patients would report drinking just a few cups of coffee a day, only to reveal that their idea of one cup was a forty-ounce thermos. “At three of those a day, they were drinking more than 1,000 milligrams of caffeine,” Cherniske says. That amount of caffeine overstimulates a person’s nervous system, causing agitation, elevated heart rate, and high blood pressure.

Caffeine is water soluble, so its effects on the human body occur rapidly, Cherniske says. Almost all (99 percent) of a caffeine dose is absorbed in the bloodstream within forty-five minutes of ingestion. And because caffeine is also fat soluble, it easily passes through cell membranes, including the blood-brain barrier, providing a jolt of energy and alertness. In skeletal muscles, caffeine increases the mobilization of calcium ions, boosting strength and lowering reaction time. (Caffeine is a well-known performance-enhancing drug among athletes, albeit a legal and largely unregulated one.)

In high doses, however, the mental buzz from caffeine can tip from increased focus and mental energy to irritability and panic. “Stimulants, like caffeine, activate the same response humans had thousands of years ago face-to-face with a saber-tooth tiger,” Cherniske says. That fight-or-flight response was integral to our survival as a species in prehistoric times, but it’s unnecessary, and possibly counterproductive, for your nine-to-five desk job. People who consume too much caffeine are in that heightened state of awareness. Their bodies pump adrenaline for too long, and that causes anxiety, trouble sleeping, and extreme swings in energy level and mood.

Problems with caffeine are often genetic, Cherniske says. In 2006, nutrition scientists at the University of Toronto discovered an enzyme, CYP1A2, that accounts for at least 90 percent of caffeine metabolization. People with the CYP1A2-1F variant metabolize caffeine more slowly, which explains why some people can be wired from one cup of coffee while others can take a shot of espresso at 9PM and still have no trouble falling asleep.

Even so, Cherniske doesn’t want to take your coffee away. He drinks three cups a day himself. Others, though, advocate for drastic measures. “More people need to know that caffeine is a neurotoxin and it’s hurting you,” Bivens says. “I would like people to treat caffeine the way we treat cigarettes. There should be a warning.”

Bivens didn’t discover that caffeine was at the root of his problems until a year and a half after he left the Navy, when he was in the throes of another mental health crisis. Researching online, he found that caffeine can exacerbate anxiety, especially in large amounts. Bivens was drinking a pot of coffee a day at the time.

This launched a vicious cycle in which Bivens would quit caffeine, go through withdrawal, and see his health improve, only to inexplicably start drinking caffeine again and suffer another spell of panic attacks and intrusive thoughts. Caffeine had been a staple of Bivens’s diet since growing up in Mobile, Alabama, and giving it up proved hard. He drank at least two cans of soda a day as a kid. “That’s just what everybody did,” he recalls. “You go to McDonald’s, and your burger comes with a Coke.” (He now blames caffeine for the chronic headaches he’s suffered since childhood.) In the Navy, Bivens and his fellow sailors drank a sludgy, homemade energy-drink concoction called “Ricky Rockets,” equal parts coffee and sugar, to get through boot camp. “A typical day for me was a cup of coffee in the morning, two to three energy drinks at work, another energy drink or soda on the way home, and then another soda for dinner,” he says.

Bivens’s last relapse, his sixth, occurred three years ago and ended with him staying up until 3AM researching conspiracy theories about 9/11 and Prince’s death and getting into heated exchanges in YouTube comments sections. He hasn’t had a drop of the hard stuff since, and he says his health has improved dramatically. The headaches are gone, his vision is steady, his energy level is stable throughout the day, he sleeps through the night, and his anxiety and impulsiveness have ebbed. Bivens now counsels other people on the dangers of caffeine and how to kick their own habits.

“I’ve talked to many people who are a year off of caffeine and they’re still dealing with crazy symptoms, everything from neuropathy to psychosis,” Bivens says. These people have suffered a “caffeine injury,” as he calls it, and he’s certain there are untold numbers of others out there also suffering needlessly. If they only knew the reality of caffeine, he argues, their pain might ease. “Caffeine injures your central nervous system,” he says. “A lot of people are walking around being affected by caffeine and they don’t even know it.”

Originally published on Esquire US

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