Written by Jamie Friedlander
I tried it so that you don’t have to.
Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
“But first, coffee.”
This phrase is essentially my guiding philosophy in life. Since my first cup of coffee 12 years ago at age 16, I’ve been completely dependent on multiple steaming cups a day.
I’m a naturally tired person. I also struggle to get restful sleep because I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
I used to drink a respectable one or two cups of coffee each morning, but since I began working from home in January, my coffee intake has skyrocketed. When a blissful, full pot of coffee is just within reach, it’s challenging not to drink three or four cups before noon.
Although I relish the benefits that coffee provides — the primary one being increased energy — I know it’s a habit that potentially has its downsides.
Experts believe high caffeine intake can make anxiety and sleep problems worse. Despite therapy and other mindfulness strategies, I consistently struggle to keep the worrying and overthinking at bay.
It can also be a trigger for gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) — which I have. My gastroenterologist has previously told me to stop drinking coffee to improve my acid reflux.
I also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I’ve always thought coffee helps with my gut issues, but I know caffeine can be a trigger for people with IBS.
I decided to try giving up coffee for one week, not only to see if my anxiety would improve, but to see if my GERD and IBS would, too.
All the things I thought during one week without coffee:
Day one involved me chiding myself for thinking I could ever take on this challenge without some serious struggles.
Here are my internal thoughts and observations about my health over my agonizing week without coffee.
‘I absolutely cannot do this’
It took me three days to actually begin my one-week challenge. On Day 1, my mind felt foggy and I struggled to focus on my work. I guiltily traipsed into the kitchen to allow myself half a cup of coffee.
On Day 2, I did the exact same thing, overcome by my inability to simply wake up without coffee.
Finally, on Day 3, I battened down the hatches and went coffee-free.
I was driving to visit my grandmother in another state, and therefore didn’t have any mentally taxing work to do. This ended up being the perfect day to start the challenge, as I primarily consume as much coffee as I do to focus on my work as a writer.
‘I knew I would get a migraine’
Several hours into the drive on my first day without coffee, I felt an all-too-familiar dull pulsing behind my right eye.
I was getting a migraine. I thought this might happen, as I knew that some migraine sufferers can get headaches from caffeine withdrawal.
As my head pounded and my stomach began to turn, I popped an Excedrin Migraine (which has caffeine). But the migraine just wouldn’t go away. I took some ibuprofen before finally admitting it was time to take one of my prescription migraine medications.
The following day, I got a mild migraine, though I was able to nip it in the bud with medication before it grew too unbearable. On my third day without coffee, I had a dull tension headache.
It wasn’t until my fourth day without coffee that I didn’t get a headache.
‘I haven’t taken my GERD medication in days, but I don’t even need it’
I’ve been on a daily GERD medication, omeprazole (Prilosec), since last July when my acid reflux could no longer be controlled by the occasional Tums. I typically take omeprazole in two-week treatment doses, meaning two weeks with medication, then one week without.
When visiting my grandma, I packed my GERD medication, as I was in the middle of a two-week dose. Several days after I got home, I realized I hadn’t taken the medicine on my trip or unpacked it yet, meaning I hadn’t taken it in nearly a week.
Although I had a bit of reflux over the week, it was nowhere near as severe as it usually is without medication, which is likely why I forgot to take it.
I eat a fairly healthy diet low in foods that exacerbate GERD, like garlic, alcohol, and fried foods.
Coffee is one of the only GERD triggers that’s part of my diet, and I’ve always wondered if it was the culprit.
‘I can’t poop’
I have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It’s secondary to celiac disease, which can wreak havoc on my gut health.
I’m constipation-prone, so I often have long bouts of constipation several times a year.
Around my third day without coffee, I realized I hadn’t pooped since before the challenge.
Caffeinated drinks are known to have laxative-like effects for many people, myself being one of them.
I decided to take MiraLAX, an over-the-counter stool softener, to help my constipation.
I ended up needing to take the stool softener several times during the challenge, but I was never fully regular.
‘The afternoon energy slump is real’
Although it wasn’t easy, I managed to get through most mornings without coffee.
The brain fog eased up each day, and although the start to my morning was slower, I eventually got work done.
The real struggle happened around 3 or 4 p.m., when I felt myself beginning to wane.
I’ve always enjoyed several cups of matcha green tea at night, as the caffeine content is minimal, and I find it settles my stomach.
I came to long for this small burst of caffeine each night, and began brewing matcha earlier and earlier in the day.
One night during my challenge, I had plans to see Journey at Wrigley Field, a long-awaited family outing. Right before we left, I joked with everyone that I needed a nap.
My twin brother — also a major caffeine addict — tossed me a 5-hour Energy Shot. I’d never tried one. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
I drank the shot and felt relief wash over me as my body filled with energy just 20 minutes later.
Maybe I’m not meant to live a life without caffeine, I thought.
‘I don’t think my anxiety has improved’
Unfortunately, my anxiety didn’t noticeably improve during this one-week challenge.
Everyone with anxiety finds solutions that work for them. For me, coffee isn’t it. I also didn’t feel any significant improvements to my sleep. I still tossed and turned like I always do.
I’m self-employed as a writer and often find my most productive time is from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., when I’m full of caffeine and can plow through my work.
And the more work I get done, the less anxious I often feel. Without coffee, my morning productivity slowed. I didn’t write as quickly. My deadlines inched closer with less work than usual to show for my hours at the computer.
It’s almost as though coffee lessens my anxiety, as it gives me the energy I need to meet all of my deadlines.
If copious coffee intake is one bad habit of mine, I can live with that
Maybe it’s because my experiment was only for one week, but I never reached a place of comfort without coffee.
I still felt foggy most mornings, and unable to fully focus on my work. The headaches went away after just a few days, but my yearning for coffee did not.
I counted down the days until my challenge was over and I could once again enjoy several heavenly cups of coffee each morning.
I woke up on the first day after my challenge and excitedly brewed a pot of coffee, only to find myself stopping after one cup. My GERD had returned.
Although life without coffee didn’t improve my anxiety or IBS, it did improve my GERD.
I’ve been weighing whether the benefits I reap from coffee outweigh the need to take a daily medication for acid reflux.
The only way to know will be giving up coffee for longer than one week, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that quite yet.