3 easy ways to cut down on caffeine (without going into withdrawal)

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Tuesday, 08 January 2013.
Tagged: caffeine, coffee, concentration, cravings, hydration, milk, sugary drinks, tea

3 easy ways to cut down on caffeine (without going into withdrawal)

Are you overdoing the caffeine? Do you live from coffee to coffee? Do you find it difficult to get going in the morning without your java fix? Sipping a cappuccino or a short black is a common way for busy people to recharge their batteries or even wake up in the morn. But what do you do when it gets too much? And what is too much? Read on for my answers.

The Caffeine Trap

Like you, I too enjoy a coffee when I'm out and about. That aroma is so enticing and the adrenaline hit is just wonderful. Plus it's a great way to catch up with friends or colleagues, especially when you're pressed for time.

However, the caffeine trap is a slow, insidious one. You start out sipping a short black in the morning. Then one day, you realise you need four of them just to get through your day (or eight instant coffees), as one of my friends discovered. May as well put in a coffee drip!

How much caffeine is safe?

Caffeine acts on the central nervous system, speeding up the heartbeat and rate of breathing, dilating blood vessels and relaxing smooth muscles. It boosts alertness and concentration and overcomes the perception of fatigue – key reasons for its enduring popularity in our fast-paced world.

Most of us can handle around 300mg of caffeine a day without problems. This translates to 4 or 5 cups of instant coffee or 3 shots of espresso (a latte, short black or cappuccino all start with a shot) although it's all very variable. See here for my list of how much caffeine is in drinks and foods.

Caffeine and weight loss

Caffeine either in coffee or in caffeine tablets has often been touted as an aid to weight loss but is it really? There is no rigorous scientific evidence to show that it is. The Mayo Clinic says that it may suppress your appetite and it may stimulate fat-burning but that neither of these effects is large enough to make a real difference to your weight. In some people, caffeine can act as a diuretic, meaning they have increased urination and so lose fluid and thus weight but it's not the sort of weight loss you want and it's only temporary. If you're drinking coffee for weight loss then your wasting your time.

Kick the habit in 3 gradual steps

If you figure you're a caffeine junkie for whatever reason, or you just cut want to cut back, here's how to do it.

Don't go 'cold turkey' as you'll trigger the caffeine withdrawal syndrome – throbbing headaches, tiredness, yawning and lethargy which lasts for a couple of days but is bad enough to send you screaming back to caffeine. The headache is a killer, believe me. The trick is to cut back gradually to allow your body to adapt. Here's how:

 

1. Cut out one cup of coffee or one can of energy drink each day. Start on a weekend or on holidays when you won't be under pressure. Begin by dropping an afternoon or evening caffeine. Plan to have your last by 4pm so the caffeine can work itself through your system before bedtime. Do this for a week to get your body used to less, for example:

Week 1: cut out your afternoon coffee i.e. no caffeine after 4pm

Week 2: cut out any coffee with, or after, lunch i.e. no caffeine after 12 noon

2. Aim to cut your overall intake by half long term, or until you have reached a level you're comfortable with and don't have sleepless nights or shaky hands. You don't have to give up coffee entirely (thank goodness), just enough to reduce the side effects, depending on your sensitivity.

3. A common goal is to keep cutting back until you drink no more than 3 cups of instant coffee or one or two café espressos a day. Switch to no or lower caffeine options when you can for example:

  • Caffeine-free alternatives
  • Decaf coffee
  • Decaf tea
  • Herbal infusion, especially after dinner when you're looking for a good night's sleep. I like to sip a big mug of ginger or peppermint tea or one of the sleep blends
  • How about a rooibus (red tea) instead? It tastes almost like tea but has no caffeine.
  • Try a coffee substitute (made from roasted barley, chicory or dandelion root) e.g. Caro, Ecco, Dandelion tea. They look pretty much like fine instant coffee but with a milder flavour. Not bad with milk.
  • Lemon squash, ginger beer, lemonade, or other non-cola soft drink

Lower caffeine alternatives

  • Regular tea or green tea which have one-half to one-third the caffeine of coffee
  • A hot chocolate makes an easy and socially acceptable alternative
  • A can of cola soft drink has around half the caffeine of an energy drink (not a healthy choice but keeps your caffeine intake down)

Note:

Don't be fooled by guarana. It's just another plant that's a source of caffeine. Yes, it's natural but then so are coffee beans and tea leaves. Yerba maté is another drink high in caffeine.