If you're like most Americans, you need at least one cup of coffee every day, likely for the caffeine jolt. But when you cut back on that caffeine — for whatever reason — you'll feel the effects via headaches, irritability, lack of focus and even constipation.
Cutting back or eliminating caffeine entirely isn't an easy task. Sure, there are the obvious sources of caffeine — coffee, tea, energy drinks and a number of carbonated beverages — but it also occurs where you might not expect it, such as in chocolate and over-the-counter pain medication. It can also sneakily appear under alternate ingredient names, including 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, kola nut, green tea, cacao, guarana, yerba mate and caffeine anhydrous.
“I have multiple patients trying to reduce their caffeine consumption, and it can be tricky to reduce your intake.” says Navya Mysore, M.D., of One Medical Group in New York City. “You can start to have withdrawal symptoms within hours of not consuming caffeine, and if you have multiple cups per day, your withdrawal symptoms will be stronger than if you have one cup per day.”
And while withdrawal was once considered not much more than a pesky nuisance, it’s now a medical condition. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) introduced caffeine-related disorder and officially recognized caffeine withdrawal as a legitimate diagnosis.
Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal
So what can you expect when you skip your morning cup of joe? Here are six of the most common caffeine withdrawal symptoms and what you can do to get through the pain and discomfort.
1. An Aching Head
Ah yes, the dreaded caffeine withdrawal headache. No shock here! One of the most common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal is a throbbing headache. The reason? Withdrawal from caffeine causes a “crash-like effect,” says Dr. Mysore, and constricts the blood vessels in the brain. Those narrowing blood vessels are what causes your headache.
“Staying hydrated is going to help prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms. If you are having mild headaches, then an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be helpful,” Dr. Mysore says.
2. Decreased Energy
Caffeine works by mimicking the effects of adenosine, a compound produced when the neurons in your brain work during waking hours. When you're sipping on that cup of coffee, it essentially tricks your body into thinking you’re more awake than you actually are.
Naturally, that means when you cut back on caffeine, those adenosine receptors are going to drop at some point and caffeine won't be there to artificially boost them. So you’re going to feel much more lethargic until your body adjusts.
3. Depression, Irritability and Anxiety
In 2015, Chinese researchers published a review in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry and found that caffeine consumption was associated with a lower risk of depression, particularly when participants consumed between 68 and 509 milligrams of caffeine a day. In fact, they determined the risk of depression decreased by 8 percent for every cup a day a person drank.
So what does that mean when you cut out caffeine? Your risk of depression goes up, and it’s compounded by the fatigue you're also feeling. Not to mention the irritability caused by caffeine withdrawal. Given all those other symptoms, it's no surprise a person who's quit coffee or soda is a little cranky.
4. Brain Fog
Caffeine prompts the release of adrenaline, which boosts your alertness and concentration. With that release of adrenaline, your caffeine-deficient brain might find it a bit harder to concentrate.
5. Difficult Workout Sessions
Caffeine is known to boost exercise performance. Without it, your workouts might feel harder to get through and like you're not getting the results you want.
Research published in the Journal of Exercise in 2017 looked at the effect of caffeine withdrawal on vertical jump height of athletes. The study found that after four days of caffeine withdrawal, vertical jump height decreased from 17.49 inches to 17 inches, and there was a decrease in reaction time and power output.
You might also feel the effect in your muscles, too, says Dr. Mysore. "If you normally have an espresso or coffee before a workout, you might feel like your muscles feel heavier or achier after without that caffeine," she says.
A 2016 study published in the European Journal of Sports Science looked at the effect of caffeine on athletes, finding that it had a moderate effect increased with lower GI movement. In other words, it made the athletes poop.
The reason behind this isn't fully known, but it might be because caffeine stimulates movements of the colon's muscles. While decaf coffee has a similar effect, it's much stronger with caffeinated coffee.
“People underestimate how much of a trigger coffee can be to elicit a bowel movement,” says Dr. Mysore. “Once removed, your gut movements slow down and you can get constipated. Make sure you are hydrating and increasing your fiber intake with fruits & veggies.”
How to Survive Caffeine Withdrawal
So how long does caffeine withdrawal last? Anywhere between two to nine days, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And just how are you supposed to weather the storm for a week while your body normalizes?
For starters, rather than going cold turkey, cut back slowly, perhaps by first switching partially to decaf coffee (which still has a tiny bit of caffeine) or eliminating one caffeinated beverage a day over a period of days. When you quit cold turkey, you run the risk of returning to caffeine when you experience the brunt of withdrawal symptoms.
"I would recommend plenty of water," Dr. Mysore says. "Staying hydrated is going to help prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms. If you are having mild headaches, an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be helpful. Of course plenty of rest, exercise and eating healthy can always help with withdrawal symptoms."
She specifically recommends drinking turmeric tea and taking a vitamin B complex supplement until you have weaned off caffeine entirely.