I first started drinking coffee as a means of combating migraine headaches. the caffeine in coffee is a vasoconstrictor - it shrinks the swollen blood vessels that are a symptom of migraine (and cause of pain). I have suffered from frequent and severe headaches since I was five, the coffee was an effort by my mother to get me well again so we could keep moving while on a trip. I can actually remember my first cup - in Kalispell, Montana. It tasted as good as it had always smelled. I was soon drinking it every day as a matter of course (not just in context of the headaches). I was 15 years old, and caffeine had joined the arsenal of treatments for what would develop into a chronic condition.

Caffeine is an acknowledged improvement to pain killers taken for headaches and migraine, one that I would turn to regularly. It also monkeys with a wide array of chemicals that our body produces or requires to function, including heart beat rhythm and those pesky blood vessels in our brain. It weakens our bones and can cause reduced fertility in women. And while it can make you substantially less suicidal its use makes your more irritable. It is not to be taken lightly.

when I tried to quit

It was a habit that would last without break for well over a decade. As a matter of some allergy testing, I eventually only tried to quit when I was living in Australia and pushing thirty. I failed to quit. I made it about three days before I was overwhelmed by the many symptoms that soon developed. In ascending order of severity, they were:

The last was actually even worse than the headache. The reason for my distraction was that I actually couldn't stop thinking about how much I wanted a f*cking cup of coffee! I had no idea how it had gotten this bad, but when I thought about it, I couldn't remember the last time I'd tried to kick the stuff. I imagine I've had coffee nearly every day for the previous fifteen years. I had quit all alcohol for a month, once, about four years before that, and that was a piece of cake. Just had to remind myself that no, it wasn't time to pour myself a drink, or join my friends in a round or two. It certainly didn't plague me the way the coffee did. It turns out that coffee has a variety of neurological impacts and psychological meanings.

Struggling to get through the work day, I went and ordered an espresso, and followed that with a soy latte. The headache cleared, and I could work. So I tried easing into it. It took me another two weeks before I was regularly going more than three days without a cup.

beyond quitting

That was more than twenty years ago. So where does it stand? I'm now a 2-3 cup per day drinker, but it's decaf. I use a migraine drug with caffeine when I have to, it's usually about 2-3 times a week. That's 50mg a pill. And about five days a week, I'll drink a diet Pepsi (they're much better here in Japan) because I find it helps with the odd milder weather headaches and stress headaches that I get routinely. I often use the Pepsi to down a 500mg aspirin pill, or something with 100mg of acetaminophen. I can easily go a week without any caffeine if it happens, but between the stress of my job (I have sixty staff) and home etc that's rarely the case.

I have had two relapses into caffeine addiction over the years. The first was around 2003 -- only two years after the first time I went off it. I somehow fell back into the habit and was plagued by constant migraines as a result. I smartened up and more-or-less stopped going to cafes. I then fell back into it once more in 2018 when the coffee joint next to my workplace didn't have decaf. It took me a couple of months to realize what was going on, stupidly. I know now that I'm "caffeine sensitive" and must stay away forever.

For me, the worst single outcome from caffeine use is the migraines. When caffeine constricts the blood vessels in your head, it must eventually relax that constriction as well. This sets up a cycle where you are dependent on caffeine to fight the cycle that it helped start. It's not chemical dependency as much it is a physical one. Your brain hurts because the veins are applying pressure as they accommodate the increased flow.

To supplement the pain killers, I use a variety of supplements daily, including:

  • Vitamin B-2
  • Magnesium citrate or a similar form of magnesium supplement.
  • Co-ensume Q10
  • an iron supplement

nic-fits for everybody

I've often wondered what would happen if some airliner fell out of the sky on some remote 'desert isle', and the survivors all fell ill to their various withdrawal symptoms. If my first experience with kicking a long-term coffee habit was any indication, I can only imagine that the coffee addicts would be bad company. To my knowledge, I don't know anyone suffering from a serious drug habit, but I do know plenty of smokers. In the plane crash scenario, I believe the cigarette junkies (never mind those on some flavor of 'recreational substance') would be utterly miserable.

I have nothing but respect for those who can successfully kick cigarettes. Chemically, it's supposed to be worse than heroin, so I imagine it's about a million times worse than caffeine. And yet, caffeine is bad enough on its own. I was once seated next to a judge on a flight across Canada. She told me that she had at one point developed a strong caffeine habit in the form of espresso. Her doctor told her that the quantity of caffeine she was getting was more than 50 cups of straight 'filter' coffee a day! On the day of the flight, she had been off of coffee for over a dozen years, but eats more chocolate than before.

In the plane crash scenario, would there be anyone free of some sort of withdrawal symptom?

it's a trivial addiction, after all

Coffee may seem like an odd, trivial thing to get addicted to, because we're all using it. Coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate are all standard fare, and we think nothing of their consumption (our Mormon friends aside). And in the greater context of all the addictions out there, I doubt many people would give it any thought let alone be sympathetic for someone in their life who is dealing with it. But there is a fair body of research that indicates that caffeine addiction is directly linked to many health problems, ranging from gimmes like insomnia all the way up to heart disease, digestive problems, and chronic fatigue (see the links below). It's now the most prevalent psychoactive addiction.

And it's certainly not the most surprising. I once was crossing the city in a cab at about two AM. The cab driver pointed to a 'homeless' man that we were passing, and told me that he knew the fellow. The cabbie had been driving for thirty years, he said, and had watched the fellow on the street succumb to an addiction to video gambling. He said he'd seen the fellow lose everything, and wind up living on the street, scraping up enough for the inevitable chemical addictions that followed. It's scary, how many addictions our society offers. Video gambling! Sex addicts, Internet addicts, compulsive shoppers. As I was saying, list of addictions goes on and on.

won't someone think of the spiders

We've all seen the results of the experiment with feeding spiders aerosolized drugs. The poor caffeine spider would starve to death. Even the spider on sleeping pills would eat better. And having been down the sleeping pills rabbit hole myself I empathize.

life after caffeine

My first long run without caffeine (roughly 2004 through 2018) was great, initially. My health and well-being improved in several happy ways. The first thing that I noticed when I stopped drinking caffeinated coffee was that my ability to focus improved dramatically. I found that was better able to do things like writing code and putting my thoughts together while writing. I could stick with a single task for longer periods, and I found myself better at "thinking-on-my-feet". I've read that coffee actually worsens one's ability to deal with stress, and in my case I think it might also have proven true.

While living in Australia I was diagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by a dietician. For those unfamiliar with the joy of IBS, that joy is this: you are subjected to unpredictable bouts of cramping and... how should I put this... extremely urgent and sudden need of a toilet. With IBS, you find yourself learning where all of the public washrooms are in your area because you've had to locate them in a hurry. With IBS, you have to make sudden and often very unpleasant unplanned detours while traveling. With IBS, you often have to hit the can just after eating.

So that's what IBS was for me. But no more. As soon as I reduced my caffeinated coffee intake from two cups a day to one, the "IBS moments" (those special cramping, scurrying moments) fell in occurrence from roughly 4-7 times a week to once a week. When I stopped drinking caffeinated coffee altogether, the IBS moments just stopped happening.

So in short, my mind felt better and my health improved. I'm certainly free of the IBS moments, and overall feel less nervous and tense. If recording this can convince anyone to cut their caffeine intake, this essay has served its purpose.

This article was originally written in mid 2002 and I've added some notes in the many years since.

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rand()m quote

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—Alice Kahn