Going caffeine free

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that enables you to mask your body’s natural signals of fatigue. Could this be a bad thing?

Look, I love coffee as much as the next person. Americano, macchiato, cappucino – love them all. So let me assure you that I’m coming at this from the point of view of an insider. With that said, let me make the case against caffeine.

How caffeine works

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. You know that already – it’s part of the reason you consume it. It works, not by perking you up, per se, but by stopping you from… err, perking down.

As you go about your day, a chemical called adenosine starts to build up in the brain. Adenosine attaches to receptor sites in the brain, and when this happens enough, the brain goes “OK, I’ve been working hard. Time to slow down a bit.” You then start to feel groggy, tired, like you need to sleep.

Caffeine attaches to those same receptor sites – so adenosine can’t get in. Because that fatigue signal isn’t getting through, the brain doesn’t “know” that it’s been over-working. So it let’s you just keep going.

But that fatigue system exists for a reason – the brain uses downtime to consolidate memories, do repair work, and generally clean things up around the place. By using caffeine to push through, you’re ignoring an important signal that your body is giving you.

Adaptation

If you consume caffeine regularly, the brain sort of gets wise to your tricks. It adapts by creating more adenosine receptors. Then, with more receptor sites available, the fatigue signal can get through again, even when caffeine is blocking some of them.

That’s called tolerance. It’s the reason that regular drinkers need stronger coffee to get the same effect.

So, now that you have all those extra adenosine receptors, what happens if you don’t get your fix? Well, the fatigue signal gets through very easily.

This is why you feel like a zombie before your first coffee on a morning – your brain thinks you’re tired, even though you’ve just woken up.

Now, I’m not denying that the first coffee of the day is a wonderful experience. You feel crappy, and then get to feel yourself lifted into a better state. On balance though, I’d rather just wake up feeling refreshed and happy.

Is caffeine really that useful anyway?

There is no doubt that caffeine is beneficial for physical performance. Sports scientists know this very well, and most competitive athletes use it. But what about mental performance? Well, that picture is a little murkier.

According to a review in 2010, caffeine has some positive and some negative effects on mental performance. It may help learning in passive situations (such as listening to a lecture), it improves reaction time, and it definitely improves alertness.

But according to this review, there are downsides too. It may hinder performance in tasks that heavily involve working memory – that is, tasks where you need to hold and manipulate information in your mind – tasks that are common in the modern knowledge economy.

In my own experience, I feel like I prioritise better when caffeine free. Caffeine seems to make me focus more on “busy work,” little jobs that need doing but aren’t super important right now. When caffeine free, I find it easier to see what needs doing the most, and get stuck into that.

Impact on sleep

As we’ve seen, caffeine blocks the signals of fatigue. This can make it harder to sleep at night, which has a range of consequences all of its own.

If you do want to consume caffeine, it’s best to do so only in the mornings – skip your afternoon and evening hits. You’ll probably sleep better for it.

An alternative

A better alternative is a power nap. A nap gives similar benefits to caffeine in terms of reducing fatigue and increasing alertness – in fact some studies found a greater improvements from a power nap than from caffeine. But you get a host of other physical and mental benefits too (see this post for more details).

Also, it just feels more natural. Your body is telling you to slow down and rest for a moment. Is it not better to listen to that message, rather than use a drug to mask it?

Tapering off

If you do want to quit, don’t just stop cold turkey. Caffeine withdrawal can trigger headaches for several days after you stop. And caffeine headaches are no joke.

Instead, taper off gradually. If you drink 3 cups of coffee a day, drop to two for 4-5 days, and then one for 4-5 days after that, and then stop.

While tapering off, you may still experience some minor headaches, and you’ll probably find yourself less alert than usual. So it’s best to do this when you have some free time ahead – if you’re on a deadline or have a busy period at work ahead of you, maybe wait until things are calmer.

A trial run

Maybe you love coffee, and nothing will take you away from it. I can’t say that I blame you. But if any of this is speaking to you, try going caffeine free for a month, and see if you prefer it.

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