Saturday, 27 February 2010

Battling the Coffee Demon

I’ve always been good at stopping things others appear hopelessly addicted to.

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:
  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.
Finally – I started writing this blog post. Let’s face it, I will look like a tool if I trumpet my success then mess it up.


Drs. Cynthia and David said...

I too have a coffee habit- one large cup every AM. I used to drink it much stronger, but as you say, it can be a bit much. To counter the overcaffeination, I drink all or only half of it, depending on how I feel. Also, I decreased the amount of grounds and stick with dark roast (some of the caffeine is destroyed in the long roasting process) to decrease the caffeine load. I just love the flavor, and would drink decaf if I had to. Alternatively, you could switch to tea- it has much the same ritual about it, but is much milder usually.

Good luck conquering that demon!


Methuselah said...

Thanks for your thoughts Cynthia. One of the scenarios I didn't mention in the post, is long runs, which you will know all about. My running partner had recently taken to slamming a double espresso before a race, or even stopping at a pub on long runs for a quick one. Have you ever done that sort of thing?

For me, it's all or nothing, so although the decaf is tempting, the trouble is that a strong decaf is like a weak coffee and I would abuse that by making VERY strong cups of decaf. And it would keep me interested in coffee. Even tea is a bad idea because of the caffeine. I guess I have a junky mentality, which of course is best addressed with total abstinence rather than moderation.

Dave, RN said...

Interesting. Is it a double edged sword? Coffee consumption has been related to a decrease in type ll diabetes, among things.

Lucky said...

I'm giving up coffee tomorrow, as part of a "live off the land" challenge I'm taking on. I have the same kind of love/hate relationship with The Bean. It's amazing how wonderful I can feel after drinking a good cup of coffee, how productive I am. But it always becomes a slippery slope, with me drinking in the afternoon, waking up thinking about that dang magic elixir. So tomorrow, I am giving it up, once again. I hope it sticks.

Meeses said...

Good luck! As someone who downs 3 double shots of decaf espresso a day, I feel your pain! On the other hand, isn't there circumstantial evidence that more coffee correlates with less Alzheimer's? Of course, maybe that's because the unfortunately afflicted can no longer brew a lot of coffee...?

Methuselah said...

Dave - yes, admittedly there is loads of conflicting evidence on coffee. With so many variables to look at it feels like an impossible task to know whether it's doing me good and if so at what dose and with what frequency and in combination with what other kind of lifestyle. I'm going to have to go on instinct, hearsay and basic Paleo principles... which tell me that this is not something we consumed until relatively recently on the evolutionary timeline, it sometimes makes me feel unwell and it raises cortisol which I read bad things about.

Lucky - hope it goes well. You are only a few days behind me. Good blog. 'Caving in to Nature' - nice :-)

Meeses - as I said to Dave, it can be confusising to see these supposed benefits being reported. I guess my question in each case is whether there is some other way of achieving the same health benefit. I hear coconut oil can show profound benefits to Alzheimer patients because it encourages ketone production and these can be better utilised by the brain than glucose. Maybe caffeine does some neurological stimulation of its own... so I wonder whether the combined benefits of coconut oil and caffeine are additive, or whether in fact including coffee on top of coconut oil would make no difference. Then again, perhaps never eating grains or sugar eliminates the need for either. It's a tangled web indeed.

The Letter J said...

Methuselah, great post as usual. Your honesty blended with your skills in writing are a real pleasure. Thank you.

I have been a slave to caffeine for large portions of my life but have dropped it from my diet for everything except the worst headaches.

I share your junky mentality and have fallen prey to that pseudo primal problem you highlighted in your last post. I have the same steely resolve when shunning non-primal food, until something pseudo weasels its way through like almond butter, then I overindulge.

I try to think of it as an ancestral advantage, if by some stroke of luck I were able to find an almond tree, I'd want to eat as many as I could possibly crack and also horde them for later as winter makes game scarce. Of course, with almonds available at the local market year round, I have to remember they aren't scarce and neither is meat so I really have no business eating several spoons of almond butter or a big container of nuts.

Methuselah said...

Thanks letter j - glad you enjoyed. I have started creating my own nut scarcity by not hording tubs full in the house. That way the post dinner nut binge is only posible with a trip out of the house which I am fortunately too lazy or tired to do...

Asclepius said...

I too have sold my taste buds to 'Mephis-coffee-lees'. I try to limit myself to two a day, but it is tough. I am glad there are other sharing the pain.

Reckon I might have to nail my colours to the mast and state right here that I will cut down to one a day. If I can stick to that then I might try to go that one step further....

Nice image in the coffee cup. Isn't that 'Captain Howdy' from The Exorcist?

Methuselah said...

Asclepius - yes, I think it is Captain Howdy, now you mention it, although I had not realised at the time. I just grabbed the first Demon Google Images threw up!

Good to know I am not the only die hard paleo dude struggling with this one. I found the difference between 1 and 2 cups a day was significant, so I reckon getting to 1 will be a good step in its own right. Do you have coffee on fast days?

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

Yes, coffee before or during runs is quite nice. Caffeine is considered an ergogenic aid- performance enhancing. But if it's too strong, it will definitely make me feel worse- too jittery.

The other thing is that I don't go out to coffee shops for my coffee often, so I have to make it for myself- a deterrent since I'm lazy (confession, David makes my one cup of the day!- if I wanted a second, I'd have to make it). So that limits how much I drink too.

Have you ever tried whole coffee beans? You can chew them, much like the South American Indians chewed coca leaves. You could even bring them along with you as trail uppers- useful for race day! I do have some chocolate covered espresso beans, but have never gotten the nerve to use them during a race- you can get very buzzed on them too.

Sounds like all my suggestions are encouraging you in the wrong direction though!

Hey, if you're ever in northern California, I'll show you some fun trails if you like.


Asclepius said...

Yep - coffee on fasting days. I have had two today already.

Ron Kelley said...

You have described me perfectly with this post. Like you, I can ruthless avoid eating foods that are bad for me, but coffee, that's my one weakness. I even gave up chocolate in an effort to reduce oxalate due to a kidney stone problem.

I gave up coffee about a year ago due to what I believe was adrenal gland issues. Here I am a year later drinking coffee twice a week and trying so very hard not increase the interval.

Your post and now my comment acknowledging my "issue" will hopefully get me back to a no java life. Hanging in there with you Methuselah. . .

Methuselah said...

Thanks Cynthia - I've never tried whole coffee beans, but the idea of chewing them on a long run sounds very Primal indeed. I am still in two minds about whether race day constitutes a legitimate cheat on the caffeine front. I think I am better confining it to my rare, unscheduled binges, but we shall see. Would be great to be shown some good trails - might be stateside sometime this year so will be sure to mention it if I'll be heading your way.

RLK - interesting to hear that you may have actually experienced adrenal gland issues - how much coffee were you drinking? Glad to have been instrumental in a new push for abstinence. I am still on track so far...

Ron Kelley said...

I was drinking about 24 ounces (.7 liters) a day before about 11:00AM, day after day for over a year. My doctor expressed concern about adrenal gland issues based on a blood test panel I had done at the time (1 year ago). I don’t recall what specific items concerned him. Some indicators were pointing to mild dehydration and high stress even though there was very little stress in my life. During this time I had been testing my blood glucose levels periodically and they seemed rather high for someone about 98% paleo. Plus my HBA1c was 5.9, again high for someone strictly paleo.

Then I read some interesting stuff about potential adrenal issues and high blood glucose being associated with caffeine. I stopped the coffee right away. I have not retested my HBA1c or anything else since except blood glucose which is down.

Paraphrasing Homer Simpson: Stupid coffee

Methuselah said...

RLK - interesting. It certainly, anecdotally, supports my hunch that being wired all the time can't be good. Stupid coffee indeed.

M said...

Hey, try Teeccino! It tastes like coffee but it's not.

There was another one, a drink from India, with ginger, very strong but made from spices, I forgot it's name. Sorry.

Methuselah said...

Thanks Marrakech - looks really nice. Not sure I'll be able to find it in the UK but I will look out for it.

Legerity said...

Great post, I appreciate the honesty in your writing. I've also struggled with caffeine addiction for about 6 years now. I've stopped and started more times than I can count. It gives me all sorts of problems, anxiety, bad sleep, energy crashes, heart palpitations, but I've always started again.

Now I'm in the process of quitting once again I'm down to one black tea in the morning. Thanks for the post, it is helping to give me the motivation to keep trying.

Methuselah said...

Legerity - good luck with this round of quitting. I noticed another adverse symptom on Friday, when I once again caved in: being impatient and agressive with people. I'd had too many coffees at work and was not functioning optimally. There's definately a sweet spot, beyond which one's concentration and performance actually deteriorates.

Anonymous said...

To Drs. Cynthia and David...Most Decaf coffee is decaffeinated with arsenic. Better to drink organic regular coffee, if any at all.

amjohns7 said...

First off I love the picture. Second, I found this article to be amazing. I am in love with coffee simply for the taste and not so much for the "pick me up." I never need it to get up in the morning but I really enjoy the calming effect from the smell and when drinking it with friends. I am currently on a detox/fungus plan for the next two weeks so that includes no coffee or tea. I realized that I had a slight caffeine addiction because I had a really bad headache after not having it for two days. I'm still going to continue to drink it after my detox but I'm going to try to just drink it on the weekends. Great post!


Methuselah said...

Thanks Adam - I have just had a couple of days of caffeine headaches myself due to once again having to kick it into touch after a few months of coffees. Good luck with the 'just on weekends' plan. I tried that too, and kept failing because during the week coffee remained an option when I was tired, even though it was technically against 'the rules'. I tend to find that stopping entirely is the only thing that works for me.... but you may have more success!

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