Like many Americans, I used to be an avid coffee drinker, both thoroughly addicted to the kick I got from my first cup of the morning and in love with the whole sensory experience of brewing and sipping it. To get me to quit caffeine, I thought you’d basically have to pry the mug from my cold, dead hands.
Then I had my daughter. An abominable sleeper, she reduced me to a quivering zombie with sleep deprivation within a matter of weeks. As she was breastfed, in my desperation I thought giving up caffeine might help stretch out her hilariously brief periods of sleep, so I did the unthinkable: I gave up caffeine.
Lucky for me, I was so exhausted already that I didn’t notice any symptoms of withdrawal like headaches and tiredness. I just continued to stumble around in a mental haze, but a week or so into my experiment a strange thing happened. My baby still would not sleep for more than an hour or two at a time, but I felt markedly better–less fuzzy and miserable when I woke, just as tired all day but less irritable. To my complete shock I found I never had the urge to get back together with my old beloved: caffeine. To this day, six years on, I stick to the occasional cup of decaf.
My espresso-guzzling husband regards me (affectionately, I hope) as a freak for this, and I had come to accept that he’s probably right, at least until I read an excerpt from celebrated food writer Michael Pollan’s new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants, in the U.K. Guardian. The book focuses on three psychoactive drugs derived from plants–opium, caffeine, and mescaline–with The Guardian section zooming in on the most common, caffeine.
In it, Pollan shares his own story of reluctantly giving up coffee after speaking to a parade of sleep researchers who had all sworn off caffeine, and insists our collective coffee addiction is messing with our sleep. His experience, while complicated, suggests that maybe I’m not a complete weirdo after all. Perhaps a lot more of us should give quitting caffeine a try.
This is your brain, and your sleep, on caffeine.
Without newborn fogginess to numb him, Pollan finds the whole experience of quitting coffee deeply unpleasant.
“At the coffee shop, instead of my usual ‘half caff,’ I ordered a cup of mint tea. And on this morning, that lovely dispersal of the mental fog that the first hit of caffeine ushers into consciousness never arrived,” he recalls. “The fog settled over me and would not budge. It’s not that I felt terrible–I never got a serious headache–but all day long I felt a certain muzziness, as if a veil had descended in the space between me and reality, a kind of filter that absorbed certain wavelengths of light and sound.”
The veil lingered for days, but Pollan soldiered on, struggling to wake up in the morning and focus on his work. Eventually he was able to concentrate again but even after weeks had passed, “the world seemed duller to me. I seemed duller,” he observes.
Which doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for skipping your morning brew. Why then is it worth considering giving up caffeine? If the pleasures of caffeine are real, so are its downsides. Pollan speaks to sleep researcher and author Matthew Walker who explains that even small amounts of caffeine interfere with reaching restorative “deep sleep” states.
That disruption, research suggests, has nasty consequences, increasing our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, heart failure, depression, anxiety, suicide, and obesity. “The shorter you sleep,” Walker warns Pollan, “the shorter your lifespan.” And indeed, Pollan notices he sleeps much more soundly without his daily coffee habit.
Is it time to renegotiate your relationship with caffeine?
One reason to at least try a caffeine hiatus is to see exactly how much impact it really has on your sleep. Caffeine, Pollan reminds readers, may be incredibly common, but it’s still a mind-altering drug. We just forget that because nearly everyone uses it (85 percent of American adults, according to the stats). Cutting out caffeine, at least for a while, is a way to remind yourself just how powerful caffeine really is.
When Pollan finally orders a full-strength flat white after his three-month break from caffeine, he reflects: “Everything in my visual field seemed pleasantly italicised, filmic, and I wondered if all these people with their cardboard-sleeve-swaddled cups had any idea what a powerful drug they were sipping.”
Chances are excellent that the answer to that question is no. And chances are equally good that you’re among those who stroll about profoundly altered by caffeine without appreciating the fact. Pollan didn’t feel like the volume knob on experience was turned up to 11 when he was drinking coffee daily–he was too habituated to the chemical to notice anything except not experiencing withdrawal. It took quitting coffee to fully feel the effects of coffee.
Which might just be the best reason to take a caffeine holiday, Pollan concludes. Getting off caffeine reveals exactly how caffeine dependent you are, and just how much caffeine affects your perception and energy level. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be better placed to thoughtfully renegotiate your relationship with the world’s most widely used drug, whether that means joining me in quitting for good, treating a full strength brew as a special treat, or just dialing down the number of cups you drink in a day.