Once, on a hot summer day, I opened up the trunk of my car and found two-dozen exploded cans of diet soda. The heat destroyed my reserved supply of caffeine and I was crushed.
Googling "mini fridge for car trunk" instead of cleaning up the mess should have been some kind of sign, but, like so many of us, I swore I absolutely could not function without caffeine, and lots of it. I guzzled four to six diet sodas a day, plus two lattes for good measure.
So many of us think of caffeine the same way, says Judy Caplan, RDN (and admitted coffee lover). Caffeine is a natural stimulant. We get the energy we need without any immediate consequences. If we're drinking diet soda and taking our coffee black, then we're getting it with minimal calories too.
Too much caffeine does have long-term consequences. It can cause acid indigestion, rapid heart rate, insomnia and a constant jittery, nervous feeling. "I sort of get almost like tipsy if I have too much," Caplan says. "It really has a drug effect on me."
So how much is too much? Exceeding four cups of coffee a day can be considered caffeine abuse, especially if your body's sensitive to caffeine's effects. "Most health professionals say don't drink more than two to three cups of coffee a day, but I even think that's a lot," Caplan says.
Caffeine addiction is a funny thing. The addiction is mostly mental, but when you don't get any caffeine the pain is very real, the biggest symptoms being headaches and irritability. Caplan says we're mostly addicted to the ritual of getting our coffee and soda. "You wake up and stumble into the kitchen and start the coffeemaker, and there's something about smelling the coffee," she says. "It's a sign the morning has begun, it's a normal day." Practically everyone we see has either a cell phone or a to go cup from a coffee shop in hand, too. We accept constant caffeinating as a necessary part of life.
The good news is that you can break yourself of your addiction. The even better news? Like lots of things we love, caffeine in moderation can be fine, so you don't have to cut it completely out of your life. "I think it's really a contextual kind of substance," Caplan says. "In the right way it can be healthy and good, but abused, it's not going to be good."
Quitting cold turkey can mean weeks of painful withdrawal symptoms, which I myself did. The morning would start out OK, but by lunch I had a pounding headache. By 1 p.m. I wanted to pass out and take a nap under my desk. Since I could neither nap nor get caffeine, I became edgy and tense. I just didn't feel like myself, but instead a moody, pained version of myself.
Instead, cut back gradually in phases. Swap one of your regular caffeinated drinks for a decaf version. After a few weeks, swap a second drink for its decaf counterpart. "Do it slowly over weeks, not one week," Caplan says. Eventually, you'll be down to one caffeinated drink a day. You can keep going by making that drink a half caffeinated and half decaffeinated combo.
The other trick to letting go of caffeine is to change how you handle feeling tired or low energy during the day and can't get sleep. "You want to think refreshing," Caplan says. Cold water and cold, crunchy fruits and vegetables can send a wake up call to your brain. Taking a short walk or doing a couple jumping jacks can also act like a bucket of cold water on your face.
Nowadays, my day includes a cup of coffee in the morning and the occasional hot chocolate or iced tea as a treat. Diet soda doesn't taste as good as it used to either. That feeling of give-me-caffeine-or-give-me-death, that's gone and I can't say I miss it one bit.