I have been drinking a strong cup of coffee every morning since I turned sixteen. Coffee was a ritual in my home growing up, to the point where my parents often used the phrase “I’m only on my first cup” to indicate whether or not they were ready to socialize in the morning. When Ricky and I got married, I quickly converted him from a tea-drinker to a coffee aficionado and total snob. Not only would we have a pot of freshly ground coffee every morning, but we also spent our weekends seeking out the best coffee shops in Vancouver. I had dabbled with trying to give it up in the interests of being “healthy,” but was never really been able to make it stick.
Given all of this, you can imagine just how devistated I was when I visited my doctor recently and, in light of some ongoing adrenal problems, she recommended that I give up caffeine, including my beloved morning beverage. As someone who used to regularly preach the health benefits of coffee, I felt a little obligated to do some homework. It seems like there are always news articles coming out that talk about how coffee is good for you – but is it true? The honest answer seems to be… not really.
As I understand it, the way that caffeine wakes us up is by tricking our brains. Caffeine looks a whole lot like one of our neurotransmitters, adenosine. Adenosine triggers brain activity to slow down, making us feel sleepy and it dilates blood vessels to get us ready to sleep. When it enters the brain, caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors but doesn’t slow down the cell’s activity as adenosine would. Basically, the brain cannot sense adenosine anymore because caffeine is blocking up all its the adenosine receptors. Ultimately, this can mess up our natural sleep signals.
Caffeine also causes the release hormones that tell the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is the “fight or flight” hormone, and it has a number of effects on the body. It causes our pupils to dilate, increases our heartbeat and releases sugar from the liver into the bloodstream for extra energy. These are what give that buzzed feeling immediately after drinking some caffeine.
After consuming coffee or other caffeinated beverages, our body also releases cortisol (otherwise known as the stress hormone). Cortisol works with adrenaline to prepare your body for fight or flight, the difference being that it stays in our bloodstreams much longer than adrenaline does. It constricts blood vessels, increases the amount of glucose and insulin in our blood (for quick energy), and increases and partially shuts down the immune system.
The ongoing release of these stress hormones can cause blood sugar problems, exacerbate existing depression and is inflammatory to the body, causing a decreased immune system response, acne breakouts and other skin problems like dandruff.
Now look, I’m not saying any of this with scare tactics in mind. I was drinking tons of coffee, not sleeping enough, and genuinely thought that this was healthy for me. The daily recommended intake of caffeine to keep some of these nasty symptoms at bay is 100 milligrams. Most people don’t really realize how much caffeine they’re actually consuming, too. A small 12 ounce brewed coffee generally contains anywhere from 140-175 milligrams of caffeine. That means if you’re drinking 2-3 small cups, or one 16 ounce ‘grande’ coffee, a day you might be consuming anywhere from 3-4 times the daily recommended intake.
I had no idea the implications of having too much coffee / caffeine until my doctor told me to stop and you know what? Finally being able to quit that habit felt really rewarding. Here are some of my top tips for finally being able to break (or reduce) your coffee habit:
Tough it out
Everyone knows that there is a detox phase of coming off of caffeine. This process includes headaches, irritability, lethargy, lack of concentration, muscle pain and stiffness etc. That said, it shouldn’t take you more than a week to get over the hump. Take some ibuprofen for the headaches, drink a ton of water, and try to get your tush to a sweaty exercise class or hot yoga session to help clear out your system. When I was struggling, I found that it was really helpful to focus on my ultimate goal: my health.
Get your circadian rhythm in check
This one is frustratingly obvious. If you have made it through the detox phase and you are still feeling exhausted, you are probably running a sleep deficit and you need to get more sleep.
Try to get to bed early. Our most regenerative phase of sleep occurs between 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. If you are chronically deprived of the regenerative sleep between those hours, then you may still feel fatigued when you wake up in the morning. Aim to get a minimum of 7-8 hours per night, but listen to your body. Some of us need more sleep than others to feel truly refreshed. I know that my ideal window is between 8-8 1/2 hours a night. Anything less and I get cranky and haggard.
Set firm deadlines for yourself to go to bed early and follow them. I actually found this to be really difficult, because Ricky needs way less sleep than me so he is always running around late at night. I found it helpful to set a couple of bedtime alarms – one to give me a heads up of the time, one to tell me when to go wash my face and brush my teeth, and one for “if you’re not in bed by now, you’re in real trouble, missy.” It made a huge difference, and forced me to stop making excuses as to why I wasn’t sleeping enough.
Supplement with Magnesium
This tip is a bit rogue. I found it online while doing research and thought that I would give it a try, and you know what? It actually really helped! Taking a Magnesium supplement makes me sleep more deeply, feel more rested the following morning and it reduces the number of times I woke up in the night to pee (overshare? hahaha).
Magnesium is well known for its ability to relieve insomnia. One study found that it helps decrease cortisol, that “stress hormone” I mentioned earlier, which can keep you up at night. It also helps your muscles relax, and gives you that calm “sleepy” feeling and help you unwind before bed. On top of that, Magnesium has shown potential as a therapy for depression and other mood disorders.
Getting your blood flowing early in the morning can be a really helpful way to jumpstart your day and leave you feeling energized and ready to go. I actually wasn’t able to do this while getting off of caffeine, because of the length of my morning commute, but have found it really helpful in the past for getting my energy level up and preventing me from having a slow start at work. Avoid exercises that elevate your cortisol levels, though. Endurance cardio is the worst for this, so if you are dealing with other adrenal problems like I was, try switching to lower stress workouts like weight lifting, yoga, dance, etc.
Replace your ritual
If all else fails and you can’t do without some caffeine in the morning, you can always try reducing your consumption. I actually made my transition slowly. Because I’ve been drinking a morning coffee for so long, I found it really helpful to have a some other warm beverage everyday. I started out with black tea and then slowly implemented herbal tea, ultimately eliminating my caffeine intake. I found this to be a really helpful way to kick caffeine without feeling deprived or frustrated.
So that’s it! Those are my top tips for cutting caffeine and restoring your body’s natural energy levels. Since cutting caffeine, my energy levels have stabilized (no more peaks and valleys throughout the day), I sleep more soundly and I can happily say that my adrenals are back to normal!
If you decide to finally kick your habit, let me know in the comments below!
Lots of love,