I am at about 3 weeks without caffeine and am still feeling withdrawal effects:

Caffeine withdrawal can affect anyone who regularly consumes caffeine. Here are 8 common signs of caffeine withdrawal, as well as ways to minimize symptoms.

Source: 8 Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal

During the past six months I experienced unexplained and extraordinarily high blood pressure spikes (measured by medical professionals in the range of 160/99 up to 200/120 – but then 116/80 the next day). Many medical tests found no cause for these spikes. I also experienced a dramatic increase in visual migraines – which I have had since I was a teen, but infrequently. A visual migraine is an aura or light pattern or other visual disruption, often associated with bright lights that initiate the aura. These produce, for me, a crescent shaped, slightly flashing zigzag line that start usually in the central vision area and then gradually moves outwards and out of the vision field in about 30 minutes. Only occasionally was the aura followed by a traditional migraine headache. A migraine headache is not “just a headache” but for more painful and disruptive. Unfortunately, having had multiple traumatic brain injuries including a 5″ long skull fracture, I am a bit of an expert on headaches.

In December I began experiencing migraines, with visual aura, roughly every other day, and multiple, minor visual auras 1 to 3 times per day.

I had not thought to take my blood pressure until 12/31, when I had 3 major visual auras and 3 minor visual auras. My BP had skyrocketed to 181/110. I went to a local Urgent Care center where they measured 181/116. Within a few hours, the BP came down on its own and by the next day, was 116/80.

Over the next days I re-analyzed my 2 years of data logging of my BP and migraines. When I charted the last year’s history by start time an obvious association appeared: Nearly all of my migraines started between 8 am and 2 pm. Coffee was an obvious possible trigger and is a known trigger for migraines.

I discontinued all caffeine consumption (not even having decaf coffee which has some caffeine).

Many things have occurred since then.

  • During the first few days of withdrawal, the horrible withdrawal headaches gradually gave way to occasional headaches, slowly becoming milder, shorter and less frequent. The worst of the headache phase was about the first 5 days but continued, albeit milder, over two weeks.
  • Within about 3 days my blood pressure began gradually dropping. By week 2, I had a 5 day stretch where my BP averaged 115/73. But then at the end of week 2, I had a day where, for several hours, my BP again rose higher than it should be, albeit 140/85 – which is high but not scary high. By evening it was back down near 120/73. I suspect this will continue during the withdrawal phase as my body gradually recovers from caffeine dosing. But at this point, I do not know where this will end up until it can be measured over perhaps a month or two – my BP this morning was 118/73 this morning at 2 1/2+ weeks post caffeine.
  • My resting pulse rate fell – on coffee, it was often upper 70s to 80 to 82, which seemed weird. Off coffee, it is typically 60-65 bpm.
  • My heart recovery rate – how fast the pulse drops after exercise – is now normal. That is, within about 5 minutes of exercise, the peak measured heart rate has fallen by 20% – say, from 100 to 80, and continues to drop steadily back to the 70s and then the mid 60s.
  • Fatigue – during the first week I found myself sleeping 9-11 hours a day! I fell right to sleep when I went to bed!
  • But then in week 2, while I continued to fall asleep right away, I would wake up wide alert at, say, 3:30 am, possibly getting back to sleep in 3 hours and then sleeping very soundly. As I begin week 3, I now have middle of the night insomnia – where I wake up, wide awake and cannot sleep. Insomnia is, oddly enough, one of the most common effects of caffeine withdrawal.
  • The visual auras have almost disappeared. Since stopping coffee, I have had 3 minor visual auras, two lasting a few minutes (compared to 30 minutes, each, on coffee) and the last one lasting about 5 seconds. I have had no major auras since then. The frequency of the auras went from daily to one very minor episode about once every 5 days, with the period between auras becoming longer. Obviously, I need more time to confirm this pattern. But it is promising that I found the trigger for what had become almost daily migraines (usually visual only, but sometimes also with headache pain and/or nausea, intense fatigue, etc).
  • There are other health benefits too – feelings of anxiety have diminished, for example.
  • Every morning when I combed my hair, my comb had a bunch of loose hairs collected on it. I assumed this was due to aging. However, within about 10 days of discontinuing caffeine, my comb no longer has any loose hair on it in the morning.

How long does withdrawal take?

The Experts say “2-9 days”. They are also wrong. How long it takes depends on many factors, many of which are probably unknown. There are numerous stories online from those who say it took 2-4 weeks to come off caffeine, and a few outliers describing symptoms (usually headaches and fatigue) out to 3-7 months.

At 3 weeks, I continue to experience periodic, albeit very mild, migraine-like headaches – becoming far less frequent and lasting for short periods of time. I also continue to have periods of fatigue.

My guess is withdrawal is a two-phase process – the first is clearing caffeine out of your system and the initial reset of the body, and the second phase might be termed “recovery” as your body restores to a pre-caffeine balance state.

How much coffee did I drink?

Not much compared to many people. I generally had one homemade double latte each morning, and occasionally two. In the past year or so, I sometimes substituted a filtered “cup” of coffee or a French Press “cup” of coffee.

But the amount of caffeine we consume is not easy to determine. The caffeine in coffee varies depending on the type of beans used (up to about a 3:1 ratio between least and most), and how the coffee is brewed (up to about a 4:1 ratio in how much caffeine is extracted).

My guess is my caffeine consumption may have varied between about 150 mg with the double latte, but up to 400-500 mg on days I may have had two French Press “cups”.

90% of American adults may consume caffeine each day, mostly in the form of coffee, but also in the form of teas, energy drinks and various sodas to which caffeine has been added. Many people have a combination of these drinks each day! 75% of all adults are estimated to drink coffee and nearly 40% of American adults consume 3 or more cups of coffee each day!

The reason I put “cups” in quotes is because, what is a “cup”?

I have my parents’ old “coffee cups”. They contained 5 1/2 to 6 ounces of traditional brewed coffee. Most research studies on coffee and caffeine health effects was done using 5 to 6 ounce “coffee cups”.

Today, no one drinks from a 5 to 6 oz coffee cup! Coffee comes in 12, 16 or 21 oz “cups” – and at Starbucks you can get a cold brewed coffee in a 30 oz size, or a bottled iced coffee in a 48 oz size! Even when we make coffee at home, we tend to serve it in giant cups and mugs holding 14-18 ounces!

Many food products have caffeine added, and its presence is not revealed in ingredient labels.

Consequently, most of us have no idea how much caffeine we are consuming.

Caffeine’s Health Effects

Caffeine is well known to block adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine acts to relax our bodies – by blocking the receptors, our brain feels more alert – and hence, many of us cannot sleep if we’ve had coffee within hours to half a day of consumption.

Caffeine has other effects too – and how it affects each individual can vary greatly. Some of us are ighly sensitive to caffeine. Indeed, a genetic test finds I have many of the markers for high caffeine sensitivity – in fact, the test rated me as “high evidence for high caffeine sensitivity“.

Some studies suggest up to half the U.S. population may be caffeine sensitive. What this means is that our bodies metabolize caffeine much more slowly than others. Rather than half of the caffeine we’ve consumed being cleared from our body in 4-6 hours, for us it may take 10 hours or much longer, such as 18 hours. That means caffeine remains in our body for longer, having its impact on us for much longer. Plus, if we then add a 2nd caffeinated drink six hours later, that new spurt of caffeine piles on top of the caffeine still circulating in our bodies.

You probably know friends who say they have only 1 cup of coffee in the morning, but if they have any after lunch, it will keep them up at night. They are probaby caffeine sensitive.

You probably know someone who says they can drink 4 cups of coffee at dinner and readily fall asleep that night.

That illustrates the differences in caffeine’s effects on people depending upon how caffeine is processed within their bodies. We are not all the same – but most coffee studies have assumed that everyone is alike.

Unfortunately, there are not government guidelines on how to determine if you are caffeine sensitive. The FDA’s web page on caffeine says its safe for most people to have up to 400 mg per day. They mention that some people may be sensitive to caffeine but provide no guidelines for people to know if they are sensitive!

Caffeine’s effects hit multiple areas of your body. Caffeine not only affects the brain but also impacts your adrenal glands, which make numerous hormones to signal your body to take different actions. This includes cortisol, which may lead to weight gain, but also hormones that affect your blood pressure and your heart rate. I think this was happening to me and why I had random BP spikes, and random elevated heart rates. Adrenal gland issues can also lead to hair loss, brain fog and other difficulties.

What little I could learn is that it may take some time for the adrenal glands to recover after years of consuming caffeine.

Moderation?

For many of us, just 100 mg of caffeine per day may lead to health problems. We probably should not be consuming any coffee. Some say the effects are not due to the amount of coffee consumed, but the frequency. That is, you need the same level of caffeine each day, around the same time because you start to go into withdrawal about 24 hours after your last cup of caffeine. Within 12 to 24 hours of your missed caffeine dose, the headache starts to hit, you begin to experience brain fog and lethargy. You fix it by having a cup of coffee. In this way, coffee becomes an addiction. And this can occur with even small amounts of daily caffeine.

I have read of others who discontinued coffee drinking and felt that they could still have 1 to 2 cups per week, provided they were at least 2-3 days apart. But others say this soon leads to drinking more than that. As someone put it, she had one cup on Saturday morning as a treat. But then during the week, she had a critical work project and succumbed to a cup on Wednesday, and then another on Thursday – and soon, was back on the caffeine addiction cycle.

You must also be careful of what you substitute for coffee – a 16 oz double decaf mocha latte might have 25-30 mg of caffeine (chocolate also contains caffeine and decaf coffee may contain 2-15 mg per cup). Many substitutions have caffeine too. Many popular soft drinks, such as colas, have around 55 to 65 mg of caffeine added – its added because the manufacturers know that even at that level, this can get you hooked on a “diet soda” addiction.

How much caffeine is too much? Who knows! That soft drink makers can add up to 68 mg/12 oz soft drink at first suggests that this level must be okay. But on the flip side, they lobbied for that limit – perhaps because they know that addiction effects begin at much lower levels, which improves the longer sales growth of their products.

Withdrawing from Caffeine

Public health Experts says caffeine is not an “addiction” although it has all of the attributes of an addiction. Instead, they use the term “caffeine dependency” which is a softer term that enables them to say coffee is okay for everyone (it’s not!).

For most people, the best way to withdraw from caffeine is to do so gradually. Start be drinking less coffee or other caffeinated beverages, or gradually substitute an non-caffeinated alternative. Many coffee drinkers might cut from 4 cups per day to 3 cups per day over a week, then down to two cups on week 2. Then begin substituting part decaf with regular coffee until down to decaf only (reminder that decaf contains some caffeine too). Do this over a period 4-6 weeks.

Because of my daily visual migraines, and evidence pointing towards coffee as the culprit, I did not have the option to taper off caffeine. I just stopped drinking coffee immediately. That makes the withdrawal phase harder, of course.

By EdwardM

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