In 1996 I gave up smoking with scarcely a glance back; and when I became interested in nutrition about 8 years ago, I systematically removed foods from my diet with ruthless, almost mechanical ease. Sugar, salt, cereal, tomato ketchup, cheese – I just kept going until everything bad was eliminated from my diet. It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed them – I just stopped eating them.
My friends regarded me with amused suspicion. Was this guy human?
At some point during by diet clampdown, caffeine came under the hammer. I think at one stage I went at least 2 years without any caffeine from any source. I drank a lot of herbal tea.
So it came as quite a surprise in the last two months when I developed a caffeine problem I seemed unable to kick.
Regular readers will know that I tend to binge (for example.) I am pretty strict most of the time, but occasionally lapse in spectacular style. Granted, the gaps between binges last year were rather close together, but even at 6 weeks apart, I like to think the net health outcome was better than the steady drip-drip of a moderately unhealthy life.
It started at Christmas, during one of my ‘lapses’. I’d had coffee before during lapses, but for some reason, this time was different – this time I came to truly appreciate the ritual of making real coffee, its taste, sharing it with others and filling the house with that rich aroma.
Back at work in the New Year, a colleague offered to buy me a coffee. Christmas binge over, I should have said no – but I didn’t. As it happened, it was a particularly strong coffee, so bam – I was wired. I got more stuff done in three hours than ever before; and it felt great.
A few days later, I discovered how easy fasting can be with the help of coffee. A strategic cup at 11am more or less obliterated the appetite for the bulk of a 24-hour fast; it also gave me something to look forward to during the first few hours of the day when the long day ahead without food seemed a little daunting.
For a while I alternate-day fasted with ease, when normally I would struggle after a few days.
I started to enjoy the coffee-drinking rituals I’d established with my colleague, and the caffeine-fuelled meetings at which we’d seemingly cover way more ground than normal. When I felt tired at work, either because of a particularly savage gym session or because I had not slept well, I would have a coffee. Brilliant! I must have upped my productivity by 25%.
You get the picture.
It didn’t take long for the honeymoon to end. First, I quickly re-learned the 12pm rule – drink much coffee after that and my sleep was affected. I would sometimes drink two cups instead of one, and the energy and focus would metamorphose into a fidgety anxiety which, paradoxically, affected my concentration.
My response to coffee began to vary and it became a lottery how I would feel. If I drank coffee every day, the caffeine hit diminished so that even throwing back a large one didn’t have the same effect. Sometimes I’d get the nervous adrenaline and mild muscular tension but none of the benefits. Once or twice I found myself thinking “I wish I’d skipped that coffee. I just want to feel normal.”
The fasting benefit also diminished. The coffee still helped, but not as much. Hunger started to slice through the superficial caffeine lift, reminding me that I was fasting more often than is normally comfortable.
Curious to understand what I was doing to myself, I read this article on Fitness Spotlight. Apparently, caffeine stimulates our adrenal glands. It manufactures a physiological stress response. Done regularly, that cannot possibly be good. Everything I read told me it was a bad idea to drink coffee every day. So I decided to stop.
Four weeks later, I was still on the merry-go-round. Several times, I had given up for a few days, then re-started. I’d invented rules, re-written rules, made and broken promises to myself and explored just about every self-motivation approach I knew; but it hadn’t worked. My weaving, dodging and self-deceptive chicanery had inexplicably sabotaged my normally iron resolve.
First, I rationalised that I should moderate rather than give up, clinging onto the idea that I would be able to simply have coffee occasionally. “I’ll treat myself to a coffee on a Friday” and “I’ll only have coffee on fasting days” were two of my favourites.
Ever present was the phrase “Life’s too short”, an irritating mantra that had been plaguing me since last year, regularly whispered in my ear by that the little horned fella at all the wrong moments. This single, corrosive idea led to defeat after defeat in these inner skirmishes, and I would find myself once again over-caffeinated mid-afternoon, less than 24 hours after I’d sworn blind I’d never drink another cup.
Then, a couple of days ago, something suddenly when "pop". I’d had a terrible night’s sleep and was fasting. I’d also done some sprints in the morning, which as the day progressed added to my fatigue. Everything cried out for a double espresso.
The night before I had decided that enough was enough. Nothing unusual about that – I’d given up coffee at least a dozen times already, so no reason to think it would work this time. Except that on this day, when I went through the all my usual rationalisations, excuses, rule re-inventions and psychological self-trickery, none of them seemed to work.
The fact was, I’d got sick of bitching to myself about it. I’d worn myself down. The message had finally got through.
There were particular buttons I’d been pushing which I think had the most powerful effect. I had been saying to myself:
- “This is what makes you who you are – you can just top things,” – so failure threatened to strike at the very heart of my identity
- “You don’t have a right to get what you want all the time” – something patronising I often say to other people so it resonates strongly when directed at myself: I don't like being a hypocrite
- “Hyping up your system on a daily basis like this is chipping away at your health,” – this threatened to sabotage the supposed health advantage of my ‘strict then binge’ approach.