Every so often I perform little experiments on myself. In the popular blogosphere this practice is sometimes referred to as “biohacking”. I’ll read something that sounds intriguing or that might be helpful and begin to wonder how that new practice or approach might work for me or with my body. Most of these “experiments” involve short time horizons, like a week or a month. Typically, I commit to a predetermined amount of time to test out the new approach or theory and then make a decision whether it works for me or not.

One that I recently attempted was to give up coffee for the month of October.

Here’s why and what I discovered from the experience.

Most mornings I am up pretty early, at 4 AM. On one such drizzling and dreary morning in mid-September I was out with our dogs in the backyard sipping on a very welcome cup of Joe when I recognized that my appreciation of that cup went a bit beyond the simple enjoyment of it. It felt more like I needed it than I simply enjoyed it.

I despise any feeling of dependency.

Our dependencies are our weaknesses.

All my life, I have been in a quixotic quest to stamp out my weaknesses. I recognize this might not be entirely healthy. But it’s my neurosis and I deal with it.

I also like to test the strength of my will power. As I was standing in the mist and drizzle of that dark September morning I questioned the power of my will to get by without that morning coffee.

So, I decided to see if I could do without it for a month, extending the prohibition to include all sources of caffeine.

These are some questions that I had and what I hoped to discover from the experiment:

  • How would the lack of caffeine impact my physical and cognitive performance?
  • How would this effect my sleep? We all know that caffeine can disrupt our sleep. Would I sleep better with no caffeine onboard?
  • I wondered whether it would effect my body composition. Would I put on a bit more belly fat without the stimulant? Or would I paradoxically get leaner?
  • How bad would the cravings be? Would my willpower hold up? How long would it take before I didn’t really notice its absence?
  • How would I feel, and be able to perform, after the inevitable nights when I wouldn’t sleep well? Could I get through my day or would I be a mumbling, bumbling, absent minded dotard?
  • Would the experience and outcomes of this non-scientific experiment be compelling enough that I might give up coffee forever? If I could prove to myself, that I didn’t need it, would I even want it any longer?

Here’s what I discovered:

  • Coffee (caffeine) is indisputably a performance enhancer. It’s well established that moderate doses of caffeine improve physical performance and endurance, can sharpen our focus, provide clarity of thought, even improve our memory and recall. Operating without its beneficial qualities, whether that was going about my day to day or tackling more challenging projects, felt like I was unnecessarily handicapping myself.
  • I was very conscious of and deliberate about getting a good night’s sleep. Without that crutch to get me through those dark early mornings and long days of training, I knew that I NEEDED adequate rest to perform at my best. Curiously, however, I did NOT find that I slept any better. I am already rather disciplined about getting to bed early and never take on any caffeine within 7-8 hours of my bedtime. So, doing without it made no difference in my sleep quality.
  • I saw no measurable change in my body fat, neither gaining weight nor burning off any noticeable fat.
  • I was relieved to discover that the “cravings”, such as they were, were not too bad. Like most temptations, by simply waiting a short spell without acting on them and by directing my attention elsewhere, they passed.
  • That’s not to say that I didn’t miss the coffee. There is something really comforting about a hot cup of Joe, especially at zero-dark-thirty. And I just love the taste. The richer the better. So, yes, I did miss that, but not to the point that I felt overpowering temptation.
  • What cravings I did experience mostly passed after a week or so. My habits adjusted and I didn’t really notice any cravings after the first week of abstinence.
  • Sadly, in spite of the absence of caffeine in my system, I still had a handful of nights when I didn’t sleep well. Most nights like this, I wake up in the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep. Sure, I would have really welcomed a big-ole-cuppa-mud on those mornings. But, thankfully my will power held out and I weathered the temptation. Probably because I feel so busy all the time, those days just zoomed by like all the others and I felt fine.
  • I would say that the most compelling positive finding that I drew from this experience was relief that I did not feel dependent on the stimulant. The cravings were manageable and passed almost entirely after a week or so.

In spite of that positive finding, I felt a noticeable decline in my cognitive abilities, particularly my ability to concentrate and filter out distraction. Without the stimulant onboard I experienced more brain fog and found it challenging to focus during cognitively challenging tasks. I could still function and get the job done. It just took longer and felt harder. Since I reintroduced coffee into my daily routine, I’ve noticed a measurable improvement in mental clarity, recall, and concentration.

After a few weeks of this experience, I was confident that I could exist just fine without habitual reliance on the stimulant. I felt like I could at any time, once again stop cold turkey and go without it. But, I began to wonder why I would want to. While I was pleased by the realization that I didn’t feel dependent on it, it seemed that I was giving up more than I was gaining.

We know that coffee, more specifically caffeine, has numerous well established benefits. Taken in small to moderate doses, at appropriate times, it has few drawbacks.

For me, it just doesn’t make sense to sacrifice the upside when there appears to be very little downside.

What has your experience been? Have you ever gone an extended period abstaining from caffeine?

Be strong, have fun!

6 comments

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  • Yes. My doctor gave me a prohibition re: caffeine (after two bouts of rapid irregular heartbeat) and I’ve stuck to it. Yeah, I miss coffee. I really like it. But I’ve kept to the prohibition and I haven’t had any more bouts of rapid irregular heartbeat, except once very briefly. What helps me is drinking hot water. I miss coffee less in the morning because I drink hot water. Crazy, but true.

    I enjoy your emails. Thanks.

    • Hi Mary Jo, so nice to hear from you! Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m impressed that you’ve been able to stick with it. I found it was toughest on the weekends. On weekday mornings I’m always so busy that I didn’t seem to notice missing it so much. Glad to know that you’ve been able to control the rapid heartbeats. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season! Thanks very much for the kind words!

  • Congratulations on this “bio-hack” not easy. I used to give up coffee and caffeine for lent every year. Same reason, didn’t want to be dependent.
    I concluded the same thing as you. A cool bike ride or run in the am did the same to kick start my day as the coffee. However, I did miss the taste and hated the headache that replaced the time spent nursing the warm cup in my hand and starting the day.
    I have given up any coffee after 10am, and feel like that has had great benefits. I sleep better and hydrate better without any afternoon or evening coffee.

    • Hey JD, I’m impressed! Giving up coffee for 40 days is no small feat. I’m in the same experience with caffeine after the late morning. So, I stay away from it after noon. Great to hear from you and thanks very much for sharing your experience!

  • While I am addicted to hot tea in my retirement, I am unwilling to give up the energy kick every morning. Inertia has taken over to some extent in these sedentary days of life.

    Since the upside is worth it, at this moment I am unwilling to try ‘abstinence’ from caffeine! I read the article and will read it again for inspiration!

    Thanks for sharing. Regards, Nick

    • Hi Nick, always great to hear from you! Hope that life in Texas is still treating you well. Yeah, my conclusion was the same as yours. Abstinence didn’t really help me much and probably cost me some necessary focus. Wish you and the Misra’s a peaceful holiday season!

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.