Is Caffeine Withdrawal Real?

Many people think of caffeine as harmless. But some people need to reduce or eliminate their coffee, tea, energy drink, and soft drink habits. (Caffeine is also found in chocolate, but usually in small enough amounts that it doesn’t pose a problem.)

People might need to cut back on caffeine because it’s interfering with their sleep or increasing their blood pressure or anxiety. Others may find caffeine contributes to their migraines.

Pregnant women might also need to cut back. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends women limit their total caffeine to 200mg per day (including coffee and other caffeinated drinks). That’s about the amount in a 12-ounce cup of coffee.

Unfortunately, quitting coffee (or your caffeinated beverage of choice) isn’t so easy. That’s because many of us are dependent on coffee. Research shows that people who have caffeine daily will show signs of withdrawal if they stop caffeine.

Caffeine withdrawal is real, even for those who stop caffeine after short-term habitual drinking, such as just a week.

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What Are the Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal?

The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal vary, depending on how much caffeine you’re used to and how rapidly you cut back. For example, someone who has four caffeinated drinks a day and goes down to zero will likely have severe symptoms of withdrawal. Someone who has only a cup of coffee a day and skips this daily routine will likely have mild symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms typically begin 12 to 24 hours after your last caffeine intake. In other words, if you skip your daily coffee, you’re likely to feel withdrawal symptoms that day.

These symptoms typically last two to nine days, with those who were heavy consumers generally feeling the withdrawal symptoms for longer.

Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include:

  • Headache – the most commonly reported symptom.
  • Irritability.
  • Tiredness.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Nausea.
  • Decreased alertness.
  • Brain fog.

How Can I Reduce Withdrawal Symptoms When Cutting Back on Caffeine?

The best way to reduce withdrawal symptoms, and possibly avoid them altogether, is to cut back slowly. If you have a cup of coffee a day, you could cut down to a half cup for a week and then no coffee after that.

If you are a heavy caffeine drinker (four or more cups a day), researchers recommend cutting down like so to avoid withdrawal symptoms:

  • Consume 75% of your typical intake on the first week.
  • Aim for 50% on the second week.
  • Cut down to 25% on the third week.
  • Reduce to 12.5% on the fourth week.
  • Avoid caffeine starting on the fifth week.

Another way to reduce caffeine gradually is to switch up your beverages. For example, most black teas contain less than half the caffeine of coffee. Most green teas contain about half the caffeine of black tea.

Ways to Treat Caffeine Withdrawal

Are you experiencing symptoms of caffeine withdrawal? Reaching for a coffee or tea will resolve them, but if you’re intentionally cutting back, you may not want to do that. You can treat headache and muscle aches with an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

Exercise is another great way to give you a natural boost of energy. Exercise also releases dopamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals that improve mood.

Finally, getting enough sleep is really important when you’re cutting back on caffeine. Your improved mood and energy from sleep can help counteract the withdrawal effects.

Once the withdrawal effects have passed, you may notice you have improved overall energy and sleep better. With these benefits, you might not miss your morning cup of Joe after all!

Lisa Drayer. The caffeine 'detox': How and why to cut back on your daily fix. CNN. Link

Drs. D. P. Evatt, L. M. Juliano and R. R. Griffiths. A brief manualized treatment for problematic caffeine use. A randomized control trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Link

Drs. Anisa Morava, Matthew Fagan and Harry Prapavessis. Effects of Caffeine and Acute Aerobic Exercise on Working Memory and Caffeine Withdrawal. Scientific Reports. Link

Lauren Wellbank. What Are the Signs of Caffeine Withdrawal? 9 Symptoms and How to Treat Them. Prevention. Link

Dr. Sajadi-Ernazarova et al. Caffeine withdrawal. StatPearls. Link

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