How to Give Up Coffee

Caffeine is the modern drug of choice in the work world, easily accessible, socially acceptable, readily affordable, and of course perfectly legal. As for the health effects, I’ve read evidence both for good and ill, so right now I don’t fall strongly on either side. One thing is clear though — caffeine is addictive. And this addictive nature is what leans me towards the negative side.

As a teenager I often drank sodas; cola was my favorite. I never drank coffee as a teenager, and I rarely drank it in college. But when I got into programming PC games, I’d sometimes drink coffee every day for months at a time. But I’d always eventually break the habit and have no caffeine for months at a time too. It was sort of cyclical.

Then I read the book Pour Your Heart Into It by Howard Schultz, which is the story of Starbucks (Schultz is the CEO). Schultz made gourmet coffee sound so good, that I embarked on a Starbucks kick for a while and tried all different kinds of gourmet coffees, espressos, soy lattes, etc. I know not all coffee drinkers like Starbucks (my mom surely doesn’t), but I still think their coffee is among the best. Another favorite of mine was Lion Coffee from Hawaii. I bought a nice espresso maker and used it to make my own soy cappuccinos (I avoid all dairy products).

I really grew to like the taste of different gourmet coffees, which were much better than the swill I used to drink in college. But it was so easy to fall into a pattern of addiction, drinking coffee out of habit instead of only when I actually wanted some. Today I still drink coffee on occasion, but that’s the exception. Most of the time I don’t consume any caffeine for weeks or months at a time. I found it fairly easy to break the habit. Here are a couple ways to do it:

Method 1: Coffee to Herbal Tea

First, switch from coffee to tea. You still get the caffeine from tea, but not as much. Enjoy some good quality tea — not Lipton! I particularly like Earl Grey and Green Tea. I found this easy to do right away. But if you find it too hard to switch so abruptly, then make the transition over a period of weeks equal to the number of cups of coffee you drink each day. For example, if you drink 4 cups of coffee a day, then switch to 3c coffee / 1c tea for the first week, then go 2c/2c for the second week, then 1c/3c, and finally 0c/4c for the fourth week.

Next, make the transition from regular tea to caffeine-free (not decaffeinated) herbal tea. Herbal tea isn’t really tea, but it’s close. Celestial Seasonings offers a wide variety of flavors. I recommend getting a variety pack to see which kinds you like. You can do the switch abruptly, or use the gradual method above. Now you’re caffeine free.

Method 2: Coffee to Grain Coffee

Switch from coffee to grain coffee. Grain coffee is to coffee as herbal tea is to tea, and grain coffee is naturally caffeine-free. Grain coffee isn’t real coffee, but it’s a ground mixture of things like grains, nuts, dried fruit, and natural flavors that you can put into a regular drip coffee maker and make something that looks and tastes similar to coffee. Some grain coffees I tried were very bitter and well… disgusting. After trying a few different types, I found one I really liked: Teeccino. I buy it at Whole Foods. This has the best taste of all the ones I’ve tried, and it comes in a variety of flavors: vanilla nut, java, hazelnut, chocolate mint, almond amaretto, etc. Sometimes I mix different flavors together to make interesting concoctions. While I still usually prefer the rich taste of a good cup of Sumatra coffee, this stuff isn’t too bad. It tastes similar to coffee, but it has a unique flavor of its own, and it’s not acidic like coffee is. I typically mix a little Rice Dream (rice milk) into each cup to make it creamier.

A great way to transition to grain coffee is to mix it with regular coffee as you scoop the dry grounds into your coffee filter. So if you use 4 scoops of ground coffee normally, then try 3 scoops of coffee with 1 scoop of grain coffee for the first week, and continue to transition gradually as in the first method above.

Part of the addiction of coffee drinking is having a warm beverage, so the two methods above focus on that. I really like having something warm to drink, especially during the winter. I even have a small mug warmer on my desk. I usually alternate for weeks at a time between Teeccino and herbal tea. Today I’ve already had two cups of Vanilla Nut Teeccino.

I suppose you could try a similar process if you’re addicted to soda by transitioning to something else like water or juice, but I’ve never found it hard to give up soda.

I don’t recommend decaffeinated coffee or tea because known carcinogens are used in the decaffeination process, and decaffeinated drinks are still highly acidic. From what I’ve read on this, I’d say you’re better off with caffeine.

When you give up caffeine, you’re likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. If I’m doing 4c coffee a day and then go cold turkey, I get headaches and backaches, and generally my emotions are out of whack for several days. But I still personally prefer to transition quickly rather than gradually. I’d rather just get the withdrawal over with.

Why Give Up Coffee at All?

I can’t ignore the energy boost and mental acceleration that comes from caffeine. But I do notice negative side effects when I drink coffee. Caffeine seems to make part of my brain overactive and another part underactive. I become really good at doing things, but very bad at prioritizing what needs to be done. If I drink a lot of coffee, I’ll often spend hours doing a bunch of low priority tasks, and I find that other unproductive habits are more likely to be done excessively. I become like a rat in a treadmill, doing more and more but not accomplishing what really matters. I find it very hard to focus on the big picture from a holistic whole-brain standpoint if I’ve consumed caffeine.

I also feel that caffeine blocks too much of my intuition and creativity. I miss subtle sensory input, and my thinking becomes too linear. Sometimes linear thinking is OK though. If I have a lot of menial tasks to complete, and I already have a clear to-do list to follow, drinking a cup of coffee can get me through them quickly. But if I have to sit down and do high-level work like developing my next quarterly plan, caffeine will make a mess of my thought process and dramatically reduce my ability to concentrate. My mind races too much on caffeine; it’s hard to stay focused on just one thing.

Additionally, caffeine definitely disrupts my sleep habits. Even if I have a cup of coffee in the morning and none for the rest of the day, I don’t sleep as well. I wake up in the middle of the night, or it’s hard for me to get out of bed in the morning. When I consume no caffeine, I sleep more restfully and wake up easily. I also don’t experience so much midday sleepiness.

And lastly caffeine makes me feel hotter than usual, including while I sleep. I need to turn the air conditioner up to feel comfortable, so that’s another hidden cost.

I’m not saying you need to give up coffee entirely, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to remain addicted to it throughout the year, especially if you experience a drop in intuition, creativity, and holistic thinking as I do. If you find it becoming an addiction, try one of the methods above to transition to a coffee substitute like herbal tea or grain coffee. Then you still get to enjoy a warm beverage without the negative side effects. I think it’s easier when you have a substitute for coffee instead of having to do completely without, but this won’t be necessary for everyone.