I recently carried out an experiment involving my decades-long caffeine consumption. I have been ingesting caffeine, mostly in the form of coffee, since my mid-twenties. My average daily intake of six or seven cups of strong brewed coffee was causing problems. My experiment began last May when I consumed the psychedelic tea ayahuasca, for which you are supposed be caffeine-free, and it continued throughout the summer. In this column I’ll describe the results of my experiment and offer observations on caffeine.
First, some background information, culled from “Caffeine Use Disorder: A Comprehensive Review and Research Agenda,” an excellent article by behavioral scientist Roland Griffiths and others. Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world. Nine out of ten adult Americans consume it on a regular basis. (In contrast, about half the adult U.S. population consumes alcohol at least once a month.) The average daily dose of caffeine is 200 milligrams, roughly what you get from two cups of coffee or five caffeinated soft drinks.
Some medical authorities, notably the World Health Organization, list caffeine as an addictive substance. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which provides guidelines for American psychiatrists, states that “caffeine use disorder” merits “further study.” Regular consumption leads to tolerance, meaning that larger doses are required to achieve positive effects. Cessation leads to withdrawal symptoms, including “headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and dysphoric mood.”
Many people, over time, consume caffeine simply to avoid withdrawal symptoms, and they find it hard to quit even when it compromises their physical and mental health, according to Griffiths et al. They state that “caffeine dependence is a clinically meaningful disorder that affects a nontrivial proportion of caffeine users.” They suggest that "caffeine use disorder" has not received the scientific attention it deserves. Could researchers be reluctant to investigate a substance on which they depend?
Reddit has numerous disturbing discussions about caffeine addiction (just Google “caffeine addiction reddit”). Some Redditers claim that withdrawal lasts much longer than the 2-9 day estimate of medical authorities. Thehealthygamer says he still feels depressed in the morning more than two months after quitting. “The ubiquitous nature of caffeine in our culture has given us the false impression that it's a harmless drug,” he writes. “It is not. It is powerful and potent and can wreak havoc in our lives if it's not respected, understood, and used responsibly.”
I started drinking coffee relatively late, in my mid-20s, when I was a housepainter in Denver. I was painting a house on blazing-hot day when my client, an elderly woman, gave me iced coffee with a dollop of chocolate ice cream. For the rest of the afternoon, I felt like Superman. I was taking classes at a local college, and I discovered that coffee helped me finish boring assignments. That nice old lady hooked me.
Until my recent experiment, I have had caffeine pretty much every day for 40 years, and my intake has gradually increased. On a typical day, I have a 4-5 cup pot right after waking and another cup or two in the afternoon. I occasionally have tea, caffeinated soft drinks and coffee-flavored lozenges called “Wake Up!”, but brewed coffee is my main medium. I try to avoid caffeine after 2 p.m., because it keeps me up at night.
Coffee gives me a surge of energy that jump-starts my day. I get a lot of writing done while drinking those first few cups. Coffee boosts my mood, too. It fills me with can-do euphoria. But it’s a dirty high. The excess energy often jams my mind, making thinking and writing harder, and as the day goes on I get anxious, jittery, glum, impatient, irritable. Over the past couple of years, these negative effects have increased, which is why I wanted to cut back or quit.
Short-Term Benefit, Long-Term Harm
Hypothesis: Many people get short-term benefits from caffeine but pay an increasing price over the long term. This trend is true over the course of a day and of years. That is, your baseline mood is lower—more glum and anxious--than it would have been if you’d never become a java junkie.
A graph tracking my caffeinated mood on time scales short and long would be jagged, with a gradual downward trend. The peaks wouldn’t be as high over time, and the gullies would be deeper. If I had never gotten hooked, the graph would be smoother, and it wouldn’t show that gradual descent over time. So I conjecture.
The pattern of short-term benefit versus long-term harm is probably true of all mood-altering drugs, legal and illegal. Antidepressants and other psychiatric medications help many people, especially initially. But their net effects over the long term are negative, and quitting the drugs may make you feel worse than you did to begin with. The major difference between, say, caffeine and methamphetamine is the rapidity and steepness of the downward trend.
Caffeinated versus “True” Self
I hoped that if I quit caffeine, my overall mood and energy level would rise, more than compensating for the loss of morning energy spikes. I fantasized that I would discover my “true self,” unaltered by any substance, and my true self would be better than my caffeinated self. I would be a happier, nicer person, maybe even a better writer, although that could be asking too much.
Of course, my true self might not be that great. Some of the personality flaws that I blame on caffeine might be all mine. Moreover, long-term, heavy caffeine consumption might have permanently degraded my baseline mood and energy levels. When I quit drinking alcohol in 2009, my baseline mood immediately improved, but maybe that wouldn’t happen if I quit caffeine. These were my concerns.
Alcohol versus Caffeine
I started drinking alcohol in my late teens and drank pretty heavily into my 50s. I rarely drank during the day, but every evening I consumed beer, wine, cocktails or all the above, an average of four or five drinks. For the most part, I enjoyed drinking, but as I aged alcohol started making me feel depressed and anxious. It wasn’t even working as a social lubricant any more. It made me feel dull-witted. I don’t have wits to spare.
I quit drinking alcohol for good January 1, 2009, the same day I separated from my wife (now ex-wife). For a few months I craved a drink in the evening and in certain settings, like fancy restaurants. But quitting wasn’t as hard as I expected because I immediately felt much better, especially in the morning. I slept better, too. I don’t mind hanging out with drinkers. In fact I enjoy remaining sober and smart as people around me get tipsy and dumb.
Also--and this is crucial—the quantity and, I believe, quality of my writing improved after I quit drinking. It didn't occur to me to quit caffeine too, because caffeine, unlike alcohol, was a vital part of my working routine. I suspect that many caffeine consumers feel this way about their habit. They consume caffeine because they think it makes them better workers.
Caffeine and Capitalism
That brings me to my ideological qualms about caffeine. What distinguishes caffeine from cocaine and methamphetamine is that billions of people consume caffeine daily while remaining productive members of society. But productive in what sense? Caffeine transforms us into machines that perform tasks mechanically without reflecting much on their value. It makes us automatons, instruments for carrying out to-do lists.
Caffeine is the ideal drug for our hyper-capitalist culture, which venerates productivity, especially of wealth, over all other values. Paul Erdos liked to call mathematicians machines for turning coffee into theorems, a joke with a hard truth embedded in it. Caffeine is antithetical to mindfulness, that is, rose-smelling, cloud-watching, paying attention to things and people for their own sake. Caffeine fosters an impatience that erodes enjoyment of the best things in life, such as love, friendship, eating, exercise and work itself.
My primary work for the past 35 years has been writing. It’s my spiritual path, my way of paying attention to the world. But when I am hyper-caffeinated, my writing feels compulsive rather than reflective. I am a machine for turning coffee into blog posts.
Caffeine and Digital-Technology Addiction
We are addicted to information technologies as well as to caffeine, and the addictions are unhealthily symbiotic. Ideally, coffee gives me the energy and focus to get writing done. But my mental state often degrades into a distracted twitchiness that is bad for writing but ideal for Internet surfing.
Many times during the day I check email (I have three accounts), Twitter, Facebook, The New York Times, blog traffic, my 401K account. And I self-Google. I have resisted buying a smart phone, because I fear my IT-addiction will get worse. It is surely no coincidence that caffeine consumption and information-technology addiction are both endemic in our culture. The archetypal urban citizen hustles down a sidewalk staring at an iPhone in one hand and gripping a Starbucks coffee in the other.
My Experiment, Part 1
I began my experiment last May by switching abruptly from 6-7 cups of strong brewed coffee to two mugs of tea made from two teabags (Twining Irish Breakfast). After four days I reduced my intake to a single mug of tea, then I had no caffeine at all for eight days. Two days into this period I took ayahuasca, which didn’t have a discernable effect on my caffeine experiment, other than distracting me from my withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal began as soon as I switched from 6-7 cups of coffee to 2 cups of tea. The tea produced a pitiful simulacrum of the java buzz. I didn't get the headaches that many people report, but I felt depressed, lethargic, anxious, fuzzy-headed. Teaching and writing were tough.
Withdrawal intensified after I stopped drinking tea, too. My microbursts of anxiety declined, but my mind felt passive, “soft and squishy,” as I described it to amused colleagues. I lacked the energy to get things done and even to decide what to do. Writing and reading were hard, because I couldn’t concentrate. I watched a lot of television (I mean, even more than usual, I’m a TV junkie too). By this time, my semester was over, so I wasn’t teaching, but I still had writing to do. I craved coffee, the smell and taste, the morning rush.
These withdrawal effects gave me more motivation to kick my caffeine habit. I saw caffeine, and especially coffee, as a malevolent force, the Java Demon, which had possessed me and was punishing me for trying to exorcise it. This sounds over-dramatic, but to my mind this love-hate feeling is the essence of addiction.
When I flew to Rome with my girlfriend for a week-long vacation in late May, I nonetheless started drinking coffee again. One obstacle to kicking the caffeine habit is that, if you abstain for just a little while, you get a fantastic buzz when you backslide. And Italian coffee is so good! After I returned to the U.S., I also felt that I needed coffee to put a final polish on my book Mind-Body Problems (which I just published online for free). My habit rose back to 2-3 cups a day.
My Experiment, Part 2: The Buddhist Retreat
The turning point in my caffeine experiment was my decision to go on a silent Buddhist meditation retreat (this was a summer for mind-body experimentation). A week before the retreat, which lasted from July 14 to 21, I scaled back my daily caffeine intake to 1-2 teabags. I went cold turkey during the retreat (although tea and coffee were available).
I felt no withdrawal this time. Quite the contrary. I fell into a state of euphoric, relaxed attentiveness that I called “The Laziness.” Being caffeine-free, as well as disconnected from digital distractions, surely contributed to this state. For the first time in my life, meditation really worked.
An episode during the silent retreat made me suspect that many meditators worry about their caffeine consumption. During a teaching session, when students could ask questions, I asked whether the teacher thought caffeine makes meditation harder. She replied with a wry smile that she loved coffee, so she probably wasn’t qualified to answer. She asked if other students had thoughts on my question.
Hands shot up. No other question during the retreat provoked this response. The first responder said he recently quit caffeine entirely at the urging of his girlfriend (who was sitting beside him, beaming). He felt crappy for a week or so, but then he felt fantastic. This student, a musician who operated the sound system in the teaching hall and occasionally sang and played guitar for us, exuded vivacity and cheer. The next four responders argued for responsible caffeine consumption, but all struck me as rationalizing their habits (although I could have been projecting).
I have now been caffeine-free (except for occasional dark-chocolate snacks) for more than two months, and I feel great. Less anxious, glum, moody, irritable, impatient. More calm and clear-headed. My sleep hasn’t improved as much as I’d hoped. I rarely sleep for seven hours straight. But during the day, even when I feel tired, I can summon the energy I need to get things done, like grading papers or writing blog posts (like this one and the ones I wrote about my Buddhist retreat). I feel as though I have become a more attentive teacher, colleague, friend and father.
Caveats: I might be attributing to my altered chemistry what is actually an effect of greater self-scrutiny and wishful thinking. Moreover, since quitting caffeine, I have meditated pretty regularly, which is another important confounding factor. (My mantra, inspired by my retreat, is D’oh.) But as I suggested before, meditation works for me now because I’m caffeine-free.
Another data point: My girlfriend, asked if I had changed since I kicked caffeine, responded in an email: Are you kidding?! Definite improvement!! You act more like an emotional, responsive human being and less like a squeaky Tin Man or an ADD kid. You used to be more like a bee buzzing around and I had to catch you and focus your attention. The change was especially noticeable when you came back from the retreat and it has worn off to some degree. For example, you were not as quick to medicate with TV for a while and I’d say you’ve stepped back into that. However, I think you’re still adjusting and I’m hoping things will balance out.
My girlfriend, who rarely consumes caffeine (and never alcohol), had urged me to carry out my experiment, so she wanted it to succeed. But she is painfully blunt. If I were the same old jerk, she would have told me. She would have sadly informed me that my flaws were more deep-rooted than she suspected.
At this point, I consider my caffeine experiment to be a success.