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Transformations

Quitting a 5 Coffee a Day Habit Sucks as Much as You Think

By day one at 3 pm, the first excruciating headache set in.

Moira Lawler

Bill Diodato / Getty Images

I've never understood people who don't drink coffee. Even more unfathomable to me: people who drink decaf. I love me a robust cup brewed with beans from some family-run farm in Colombia as much as the next coffee addict, but if I'm being honest, I'm mostly concerned with the caffeine fix.

Up until December 28, when I quit for a week, I'd started every day by making as much coffee as my eight-cup Chemex would allow. (Which turns out to be only 40 ounces. How's that for false advertising?) This brew was all for me. I've been known to slap my boyfriend's hand away when he tried helping himself to a cup. You know, real addict shit. 

I've relied on coffee to function, and I've used every ailment as a reason to pour another cup. Mild headache? Concentration troubles? Coffee is always the fix. But as far as addictions go, I'd convinced myself this one wasn't bad. It's coffee! Not heroin. And there are loads of studies saying the stuff is good for you. It lowers your risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, according to researchers in Japan. And one study found that people who down three to five cups a day live longer than those who drink none. And then the granddaddy of them all: A 2016 review of 1,277 studies found that coffee's cumulative health benefits outweigh the risks, no question. 

Thankfully I didn't experience the beverage's downsides—the insomnia or twitching or continuous urge to pee that signals "caffeine intoxication," according to the American Psychiatric Association. But maybe that was the problem: By consuming nearly five cups a day, I'd made myself immune to the jolts that a healthy body might use signal that I was overdoing it. It was time for me to reset my tolerance. If nothing else, to prove that I was still in charge of my own urges. 

So I quit the stuff for seven full days starting that fateful December morning. And I upped the stakes, cutting not just coffee, but caffeine entirely. As you may have guessed, it sucked. The withdrawal symptoms are no joke. That's something else the American Psychiatric Association understands: It named caffeine withdrawal a mental disorder in 2013.

By day one at 3 pm, the first excruciating headache sets in. I plow through, shamefully drinking caffeine-free tea like those prude decaf-drinkers I loathe.

On day two, I'm bogged down by low energy, high irritability, and an overwhelming desire to shut my eyelids. 

Day three: Ow, my head. Christ, my head.

On day four, something miraculous happens. The headaches were milder. Not gone, but definitely less skull-crushing.

Another weird thing I notice: I'm hungrier during those first few days. Like a bottomless pit, damn near starving for lunch by 11 am. Which I begrudgingly decide makes sense since coffee can help you eat less. I try to distract my taste buds with carbonation. And it works! I graduate from my one daily La Croix to two or three (hey, that pamplemousse is some kind of powerful). Downing numerous cans of designer sparkling water is not an inexpensive habit, but it keeps me from wiping out the entire contents of my refrigerator. 

By the end of day seven, I don't exactly feel good, but I've clearly made some important strides. I consider keeping the experiment going until my tolerance gets back to rock bottom and I wake up without a headache. But, well, no. 

When I wake up on day eight, free from the chains of this noble experiment, and laugh at the thought of yet another day without coffee. I do some googling and find it'd be ill advised to jump right back into my old allowance. Experts say 400 milligrams of caffeine—or about 2.5 cups of brewed coffee—a day is fine, but I decide to start smaller. Specifically, with a mug about three quarters full. 

The first sip was like fireworks going off in the sky and all that, but the more impressive thing was that one sorry, not-even-full cup of coffee did the trick. I felt a caffeine buzz, was instantly more productive, didn't feel like someone was stabbing my temples with a ballpoint pen, and didn't find myself elbow deep in a Costco-sized bag of pistachios by 10 am. 

Success! 

Though, as I'm writing this, I'm getting sleepy and it's only 5 pm So on second thought, pouring myself another cup wouldn't be so bad, right? I mean, science says I'll live longer. And that has to count for something.