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Giving up caffeine, Part 1

  • September 19, 2022

It’s been more than a decade since I gave up caffeine, and though some of you long-timers remember the story, many of you still ask, “Wait, why?” Let’s talk about my journey with caffeine, why I don’t drink it today, and how you can evaluate your own relationship with caffeine if you so choose.

2010: Burnout approacheth

In 2010, I quit my 9-5 job to take Whole30 full-time. I had been pulling double-duty for nearly three years, writing my CrossFit training blog and coaching nights and weekends while working my full-time corporate job during the week. When I quit my insurance gig, I threw myself into all things Whole30. As a new entrepreneur, I thought I had to hustle 24/7 to be successful. I had zero boundaries around work or my personal time, and I watched my stress levels ascend as fast as my health declined.

After a Whole30 seminar in Oregon one weekend, I was having dinner with friends and talking about my challenges with entrepreneurship and stress. Someone gently pointed out that perhaps my coffee habit wasn’t helping. I was drinking more and more to stay afloat, and though I’d taken week-long breaks before, they never stuck. A friend suggested maybe I should give it up for good—or at least for the foreseeable future.

I quit cold-turkey the very next day, because all of the things that made me an excellent drug addict make me throw myself into a potentially healthy habit change just as hard.

It was, in a word, awful. In hindsight, I was clearly stuck in a cycle of stress addiction, and my energy, mood, sleep quality, and focus plummeted. (Not to mention the cravings—going out for breakfast was torture.) I remember hating life and everyone around me, but looking back on my journal from that time, things started to improve pretty quickly.

  • After a month, I was sleeping so much better. This was a tough battle – at first, my sleep patterns were all over the charts. I had trouble falling asleep at first, and then I’d fall asleep okay but wake up at 1 AM, 2 AM, 3 AM as my hormonal balance continued to shift. After a solid month without caffeine, I started to fall asleep easily, sleep straight through the night and wake up refreshed without an alarm. I thought I was sleeping well before, but comparatively, my sleep quality sucked compared to where it now was without caffeine.
  • After two months, I started to wake up hungry. Not ravenous, but genuinely, normally, happily hungry. Good lord, I hadn’t woken up hungry since 1994, and I didn’t realize how messed up my hunger patterns had been thanks to the appetite-suppressing effects of caffeine. Eating a healthy meal within an hour of waking is very helpful in recovering from stress and adrenal issues, so my morning hunger was a great sign.
  • After three months, I noticed my emotional volatility during PMS was…. gone. This was the most surprising change – I had no idea my caffeine consumption was connected to my formerly terrible PMS symptoms. It was. The end.
  • After four months, I noticed my general awareness of stress and its negative effects had dramatically improved. I had always thrived on being in a constant state of stress, moving as fast as I could and multi-tasking within an inch of my life not because it was necessary, but because I thought I liked it that way. Now, I could feel that anxious stress-state creeping on… and I no longer liked it. I became much better at recognizing it early and taking measures to ensure my periods of stress were less frequent and shorter in duration. In essence, I had finally gotten myself off the stress addiction loop, and never wanted back on.

This longer-term experiment made me realize how much caffeine didn’t agree with my system. Normal amounts—just a cup or two—had been making me super agitated, combative, jittery, and anxious, and that spilled over into my work, relationships, self-confidence, and health. That had become my new normal, and I didn’t realize it until I gave it up.

Within just a few weeks, this experiment also gave me the confidence to begin setting boundaries, mostly around work. I stopped looking at my phone in the morning before the gym. I didn’t schedule any calls before 10 AM, so I could always finish my morning routine. I quit working into the night, and got off screens early enough to facilitate good sleep. I started eating breakfast, instead of staying fasted until noon.

Giving up coffee was the first domino to trigger a cascade of new, healthy habits that ultimately helped me restore my health and reclaim my energy and vitality. Here’s the part where I might add, “And I never looked back,” but I did. Spoiler: It didn’t go well.

2012: Genetic testing

As an aside, I happened to do some genetic testing just for fun a few years later, and realized my body really didn’t like caffeine. It turns out I’m only half as good at metabolizing caffeine as the average person. Picture it like a clogged drain; when you pour it into my system, levels just build up instead of being metabolized and drained at the usual rate. No wonder “normal” amounts of coffee made me feel like crap. This was a motivating factor in continuing my no-caffeine habit—and gave me confidence to continue listening to my body and trusting my gut. (I’ll talk more about this in Part 2.)

2019: Like texting your ex

In 2019, after a few months of navigating post-concussion symptoms, I was desperate for a boost of energy. One day, I bought a cold brew coffee at Sprouts, and took just a small sip the next morning before my workout. It was like the clouds parted and the angels sang! I had energy! It felt great! I wasn’t jittery or anxious at all! I allowed myself to believe that my body had become better adapted to caffeine given my long break.

I began taking a sip every morning before the gym. But, bigger sips, because one tiny sip no longer felt like it was doing anything. Then two sips, maybe three. Before I knew it, I had a legitimate cold brew habit and was 100% back on the caffeine train…. and sure enough, I was back to feeling awful—cranky, out of breath, jittery, and anxious. My heart raced, my workouts suffered, and I spent the work day grinding my teeth and feeling (again) like I was always behind.

So I quit cold-turkey for the last time. The first day wasn’t bad, but when I woke up the next morning, I felt like I had the worst flu imaginable. Hit-by-a-bus bad. I couldn’t get out of bed, I was cold and clammy, and had the worst headache. I spent the entire day half-asleep, knowing this was the true test of how dependent I had become on caffeine. It took about three days for me to get through the withdrawal, but happily my energy, focus, and sleep returned to normal quickly after that. I decided that was the last time I’d ever mess with caffeine.

2022: Me + caffeine today

At this point, I’ve raised a child and published eight books (nine, if you count The Book of Boundaries!) without the aid of caffeine—if I can manage that, I’m confident I’ll never need it again. I do have tricks for boosting productivity, staying focused, and keeping my energy high, but none of those include taking a stimulant.

The fact that there’s a Part 2 also gives you a whole week to let the idea of a 30-day caffeine elimination bounce around in your head. Spoiler: if you’re violently, vehemently, aggressively opposed to the idea… you could probably benefit. Just sayin’.

In next week’s Part 2, I’ll share what my relationship with caffeine looks like today; the beverages I do drink in the morning; other ways I boost productivity, focus and energy; and the best way for you to start your own caffeine experiment.

XO MU

Pre-Order The Book of Boundaries now. Coming October 2022.