Regular caffeine consumption reduces sensitivity to caffeine. When caffeine intake is reduced, the body becomes oversensitive to adenosine. In response to this oversensitiveness, blood pressure drops dramatically, causing an excess of blood in the head (though not necessarily on the brain), leading to a headache.
This headache, well known among coffee drinkers, usually lasts from one to five days, and can be alleviated with analgesics such as aspirin. It is also alleviated with caffeine intake (in fact several analgesics contain caffeine dosages). Even small amounts of caffeine (such as a green tea, compared to a full coffee) can do wonders to alleviate a withdrawal-induced headache.
Among the top 10 reported symptoms of caffeine withdrawal:
- Fatigue, lethargy
- Muscle stiffness, cramping
- Brain fog, Inability to focus
- Cold-like symptoms
Caffeine withdrawal is a recognized disorder and is listed in the DSM-5.
Often, people who are reducing caffeine intake report being irritable, unable to work, nervous, restless, and feeling sleepy, as well as having a headache. In extreme cases, nausea and vomiting has also been reported. These are very real experiences, and despite recurring jokes, can cause problems with normal functioning.
Dealing with Caffeine Withdrawal
The severity of caffeine withdrawal symptoms vary with how extreme the restriction, and a gradual reduction can do wonders in avoiding symptoms. Simply starting by replacing one cup of coffee with a decaf coffee or tea will provide a much smaller dose of caffeine, allowing your receptors to re-acclimate to lower levels. Drinking coffee (decaf) or other warm beverage (tea) instead of regular coffee helps psychologically with the well established habit.
Timing large reductions in caffeine consumption is also a useful tool. Picking a time of rest and relaxation such as a weekend or vacation can lessen the burden of symptoms like brain fog and a lack of motivation.
Hydration is also key – while coffee is a diuretic it’s also mostly water, and cutting back on coffee may also inadvertently cut back on your fluid intake. Many symptoms of dehydration overlap with caffeine withdrawal including headaches, cramping, irritability and lethargy.
Without caffeine blocking your adenoseine receptors, your body’s built up levels of adenosine will lead to a lot of sleepiness. Get lots of rest! Scientists are still puzzled by why humans need sleep, aside from getting tired. According to some research from the NIH (National Institutes of Health) has indicated that sleep enables your brain to drain built-up chemical by products of working so hard (you little genious), which is good for you!
The best solution may not be totally ceasing caffeine consumption though. Coffee does have some health benefits, as it contains over 1000 known compounds, with many associated with lowering blood pressure and improving cardiac function. Generally, the best coffees are grown at higher elevations will develop more healthy chlorogenic acids that are present in higher concentrations in light roasts than dark roasts. If you’re a dark roast lover however, darker roasts cause less stomach acid production. A decaffeinated coffee with just 5-25 mg of caffeine will still retain a lot of its healthy chemicals and will provide health benefits in medium and dark roasts.
Caffeine and Health. J. E. James, Academic Press, 1991. Progress in Clinical and Biological Research Volume 158. G. A. Spiller, Ed. Alan R. Liss Inc, 1984.
Xie et al “Sleep initiated fluid flux drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain.” Science, October 18, 2013. DOI: 10.1126/science.1241224