A cup of coffee is the only thing that gets most of us out of bed in the morning – so why would you want to give it up? Well, one writer ditched her daily caffeine habit for a month and believes that it had a massive impact on her fitness and wellbeing.
There’s nothing like waking up on the weekend and being able to enjoy a relaxed cup of coffee in bed or over breakfast. Coffee is just about the only thing that gets most of us up for work, and after a late night, an Americano or latte at home is the ultimate luxury.
That might explain why I’m now sitting across from my boyfriend at the dining table, picking at my cold breakfast. It’s Saturday morning and my mouth is watering. It’s not the breakfast or my boyfriend that’s making me salivate – I’m in the throes of caffeine withdrawal, and my partner’s coffee smells incredible.
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I am in love with coffee. I love the warmth of a coffee cup between my hands, the friendship ritual of “shall we go and grab a coffee?”, the smell of my local coffee shop and the feeling when I leave of total revival.
Why give up coffee now?
But, like many others, I’ve become too reliant on caffeine, so I decided to cut coffee out of my life for a month to see what would happen. November is a great time of year to try these little tweaks as there’s no external pressure to carry on (unlike new year when it all just seems… a lot). It’s worth mentioning that drinks such as tea and Coke also contain caffeine, but as I don’t drink either, this has been a caffeine-free month.
Caffeine is the world’s most commonly used psychoactive drug; it’s a stimulant that alters neural activity in the brain, improving alertness and reducing fatigue, and if you’re a devotee of the jitter juice, then the withdrawal symptoms will quickly follow giving it up.
“You may notice the effects of giving it up within just one or two days,” Dr Folusha Oluwajana tells Stylist. “Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include headaches, tiredness, difficulty concentrating, irritability and tremors.”
Usually these will last just a few days, and the only way through these symptoms is, well, through them. But there are also more positive long-term effects that come from breaking up with coffee.
The benefits of going caffeine-free
The most notable impact of cutting out caffeine has been my improved sleep. As a hardened coffee drinker, I was caught in a never-ending loop of drinking the stuff because I was tired, and then feeling tired because I hadn’t gone to sleep early enough. After a month of cold turkey, I’m able to enter the land of nod far quicker.
“Caffeine works by blocking a sleep-promoting chemical in the brain called adenosine,” says Dr Oluwajana. Adenosine builds up in the brain the longer we’re awake; the more it builds up, the sleepier we become. But caffeine blocks this process, meaning we remain more awake and alert.
“The effects of caffeine usually peak within one hour and your body metabolises half of the caffeine consumed in six hours, but for some people, this process may be even longer. Therefore, even drinking coffee early in the morning could have an impact on sleep at night.”
For some, that makes the argument of only drinking caffeine in the mornings seem rather redundant; perhaps even sticking to the mornings for my coffee-fix had been harming my sleep.
How giving up coffee has improved my fitness
I’ve definitely found that ditching coffee has improved my energy levels, which has been great for my workouts. I tend to stick to weight-training, slotting in the odd cardio session when, to put it bluntly, I can be bothered. But with the extra pep in my step, I’ve walked more steps and challenged myself to do more cardio exercise in the gym.
And it’s not just that I have more energy: improved sleep also equals improved recovery – which is key to getting stronger. Giving your body ample time to recuperate during sleep prevents injury and boosts stamina.
But giving up coffee does have its disadvantages
Coffee can be a great pre-workout
Dr Oluwajana points out that drinking caffeine (be that in an energy drink, tea or coffee) does have real-world benefits when it comes to fitness: “Caffeine increases mental alertness and focus, which may be useful in activities that require tactics and decision making, like team sports, and it also increases your body’s ability to burn fat for energy when exercising.”
That means that coffee can make your body more efficient at fueling itself through those workouts (if you’re not working on endurance, which would require an immediate source of carbs).
Giving it up can cause sugar cravings
A side effect of giving up coffee that I hadn’t anticipated was developing overwhelming sugar cravings. The drop in my energy levels meant that I needed to get a hit from somewhere else… usually hot chocolate.
A lack of coffee made my digestive issues worse
I struggle with my digestion, and lots of things impact this: my diet, my stress levels, the times at which I eat, and so it’s difficult to assess the effect giving up caffeine had on it. However, after speaking to Dr Oluwajana, it’s clear that an absence of caffeine may have not helped this issue in the last month.
“Caffeine is a laxative,” she explains. “It stimulates movement of the muscles in your digestive tract, and is often associated with frequent or looser stools – so cutting caffeine can reduce this. On the other hand, if you suffer from constipation, you may find caffeine actually helps your symptoms.”
But she also cautions about the diuretic effect of coffee, which can lead to dehydration, and its acidity, which can cause indigestion acid reflux, and exacerbate gastritis, reflux and stomach ulcers.
Is coffee worth giving up for good?
It turns out my previous propensity to drink a couple of cups of Joe in the evening was a bad idea for my sleep –who would have guessed?
My anxiety is reduced when I’m not running on Nescafé, four hours sleep and a to-do list I’m too tired to consider – again, hardly a revelation. And, sadly, my personality in the mornings relies heavily on me having had a coffee.
So, am I going to continue being caffeine-free? Purely for the sake of my nerves, yes.
For anyone considering cutting out coffee themselves, I’d advise your friends and family to steer clear of you in the mornings for the first week or so, and to use exercise to boost your energy. You’ll sleep sounder and feel more alert if you get up and at it.
And finally, go full Khloe Kardashian and keep jars full of healthy and sweet snacks in your kitchen, whether that’s a pack of dates or KitKat. You’ll need that sugar rush at some point!
Caffeine alternatives for boosting energy
Try chicory coffee or herbal tea
Hot drinks such as chicory or guarana coffee, rooibos and carob teas are caffeine free and high in vitamins and antioxidants, and can aid digestion. For those not yet ready to part with caffeine altogether, green tea, cacao tea and chai are great options.
Get a vitamin boost
Adding more B vitamins and iron, either via food or supplements, will boost your energy levels and concentration. Leafy greens, oily fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes are all high in B vitamins, while iron can also be found in spinach, quinoa, dried fruit and fortified breakfast cereals.
Decaffeinated coffee contains a lot less caffeine than regular coffee but can still have the same great taste.
Simple things such as drinking water, exercising and getting sunlight early in the day can also improve energy levels, as well as bringing a host of other benefits with them.
For more first-person experiences, healthy recipes and nutritional articles, check out the Strong Women Training Club library.