Graphic: Libby McGuire

Unlike my carefully planned break from drinking, I gave up caffeine practically accidentally. I traditionally stop at Starbucks or a local coffee shop on my way into the office, blowing $3 a day (so, $15 a week, $60 a month) to get my addictive liquid fuel. I was one of those people who should have had a “Don’t Talk To Me Until I’ve Had My Coffee” T-shirt, and considered it as necessary to my morning ritual as brushing my teeth. I wasn’t a coffee gourmet who roasted my own beans or anything: a cup of Starbucks dark or Eight O’ Clock beans suited me just fine, as long as it was strong, with a dash of cream. I felt both my brain power and energy levels straight-up surge once my daily 16–ounce cup was empty (usually before noon).

One day I was running late, so I skipped my usual morning purchase. The next day, same thing; and the in-office coffee didn’t appeal to me as much as my typical pricy brew. Suddenly I realized I’d had no coffee for about three days—and surprisingly, I’d survived.

My survival is even more impressive when I consider the nightmarish headaches that plagued me for about a week, along with a considerable case of foggy-headedness. Just ask my Takeout colleagues about the time I failed to copy a simple link into the correct Slack channel several times during a morning meeting. My tongue felt fuzzy, and my brain ached like an angry, helpless sponge. Why then, you probably are asking, didn’t I just cave and go back on the coffee wagon?

Morbid curiosity, I guess? Frankly, I was determined to kick those headaches. Once I had quit coffee for about a week, I was reluctant to reenter into an addiction that apparently affected my head so strongly. I also didn’t miss forking over three dollars every morning that could have better been put toward my kids’ college education.

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The intensity of my addiction really hit me that first Saturday—five days caffeine-less—when my son ran down to the corner to get himself a baked good and to pick me up a coffee, as had been our little ritual. Out of politeness, when he brought me my cup, I took a sip, and it was like my whole nervous system exploded. I felt like Wile E. Coyote getting zapped by the Road Runner with battery acid. I was horrified: I had been doing that to my body every single day? At what cost?

The research on caffeine is confusing, after all: Is it good or bad for you? Or neither? A judge just ruled that coffee has to have a warning label on it as a carcinogen. Meanwhile, other studies say that coffee makes you more productive at work and helps combat certain diseases. So is coffee a good witch or a bad witch? Pick a side already, coffee.

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Besides saving three dollars a day, I really wanted to know how tons of caffeine or no caffeine was affecting my body. So I asked Holly Herrington, a dietitian at Northwestern Medical Group, who sympathized: “In the past, caffeine has been demonized like the bad girl in high school.” However, “more and more information is coming to light that it may actually provide health benefits in certain populations. Moderate amounts of caffeine appear not to be harmful, and a moderate intake of caffeine may bring health benefits.”

She then offered a list of those benefits that I had been missing out on in my coffee abstinence. Holly explained, “Not only is caffeine a brain stimulant, it affects adenosine receptors in the brain (adenosine helps you sleep). This gives you a surge of energy and may potentially improve mental performance.” She said that while a 75-mg dose of caffeine can increase attention and alertness, a 160 to 600-mg dose may improve “mental alertness, speed reasoning, and memory.” She explained that the blood and body tissues absorb caffeine after about 45 minutes, so it reaches peak level in the blood within one hour and remains there for four to six hours. That explains why my coffee-fueled morning seemed so much more productive.

As we age, caffeine has even more long-term benefits, improving thinking skills and possibly helping to slow mental decline. Holly pointed out that research finds “lifelong caffeine consumption may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have also reported that people with a higher coffee consumption have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.” It can even help the quality of your workouts, “improving physical performance and endurance performance as well as endurance capacity.”

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You don’t even have to limit your intake, as Holly says that the recommended caffeine intake is 400 mg of caffeine a day—about four 6-ounce cups of brewed coffee total. Granted, that limit isn’t safe for everyone, like adolescents, whose high caffeine intake “is linked to higher weight, lower academic achievement, and a higher risk of severe depression.” Women who are or are trying to become pregnant should also stay coffee-free. And if your caffeine level has reached the point where you have “the jitters, sleeplessness, or irritability,” you may need to pull back a bit. But she advises doing so gradually, as “abruptly stopping caffeine may cause withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty focusing on tasks. These symptoms usually resolve after a few days, but who wants to go through that?” Who indeed.

So now, I’m really torn. After about a month or so, I’m now headache-free but honestly still pretty sluggish in the morning. I miss my morning ritual; on chilly or rainy days, a cup of my favorite brew was my prize for getting myself out of the house in an eventual upright position. I thought it was a bit of a placebo effect, but Holly’s comments assure me that I really was sharper in morning meetings with coffee by my side. And unlike the giving up of alcohol, leaving coffee didn’t really affect my social life, just my job performance.

Is the occasional headache worth getting my brain to recharge again? Right now, I’m leaning toward “probably.” After all, the kids will probably get scholarships or student loans or something for college, right?

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