Quit caffeine, beat headaches and exhaustion
Some headaches are mild enough to ignore; others – such as migraine – can send you to bed for days with pain, exhaustion, nausea, vomiting, and a horror of light and sound.
As a carer, a darkened room is a vanishing oasis, so prevention is vital.
Lots of things, from sugar to posture, can spark headaches and migraines. But there’s a culprit lurking behind the scenes that no one suspects. Wake up and smell the coffee! Or tea, or cola, or chocolate…
Caffeine is a natural pesticide. It is contained in some plants (e.g. coffee, tea and cacao) to banish predators. It triggers fight-or-flight hormones in the marauding muncher. The creature feels a nasty jolt and leaves the plant alone. It’s the kind of shock you might feel if faced with a drooling tiger. But here’s the rub: caffeine triggers your fight-or-flight hormones too!
To your body, a big cat and a cup of tea have a lot in common. In the jungle, you sense a movement in the trees, get a fright (stress hormones being released), and tackle your stripy friend or rip through the trees, using up those hormones in the process.
In the kitchen, you drink a cuppa, get a buzz (the same stress hormones being released), but you rarely wrestle your mug to the floor and leg it out the door, so you don’t use up those hormones. Instead, your body keeps creating the muscle tension and nervous energy it thinks you need to handle the danger it thinks you’re in!
If you keep drinking caffeine, before long tightness and anxiety build up in your system. You might feel out of sorts but not think to blame caffeine because, unlike nicotine, its downside is not widely known.
Caffeine is an addictive drug. Used day after day it may hurt you. To see how, try this experiment. Clench your fist. It feels strong at first. But if you continue, your hand will get tired and sore. Likewise, caffeine feels good at first. It lifts you up. You feel clearer and zippier for a while. But caffeine, like clenching, causes stress. Over time – and sometimes quite quickly – it creates a build-up of tension in your body that leads to pain, mental lows and deep exhaustion.
You might decide to quit caffeinated drinks right now. But beware! For many people caffeine withdrawal is a major cause of headache and migraine. Why? Caffeine tightens your blood vessels, lessening the amount of blood that flows to your brain. Your body gets used to the level of caffeine you drink on a daily basis. If you miss your fix, your blood vessels start to widen within hours. Blood flow to your brain increases but your brain can’t yet cope with the extra volume, so it starts to hurt. Once it gets used to normal blood flow again the ache disappears. But that can take up to a week if you are a heavy caffeine user.
In addition, when your blood flow is restricted by caffeine, your brain receives less oxygen and nutrients than it should. This only makes you feel even tireder – the last thing you need as a carer.
Have you ever collapsed on your bed too exhausted to move, only to find that you can’t fall asleep for those few precious hours? When caffeine is coursing through your veins, you can be deeply tired yet too wired to enter the Land of Nod. For some people, this happens even if they drink only one cup of tea in the morning.
You might worry that you’ll be wrecked without coffee, tea, choccie or cola to keep you going. Far from it. Caffeine is a false friend. It jogs you along in much the same way that flogging a tired horse might make it budge a few paces.
When you quit caffeine, you may feel weary while your body is repairing the damage to its energy-producing mechanism. But things will soon change for the better. Non-addicts, far from living in a fog, leap out of bed without a fix. They suffer less tiredness and have fewer aches and pains.
Once you quit caffeine, sleep slowly improves. Caffeine addicts often lie in bed desperate for sleep, or wake up in the wee hours and can’t drift off again. They also get very little deep sleep – the kind that repairs and rebuilds body and mind – so they wake up exhausted, grab a cuppa, and the cycle begins again. After you have survived the first caffeine-free weeks, it gets easier to fall asleep and your zzzz’s are much more refreshing!
It’s also simpler to grab forty winks when you’re caffeine-free. As a carer, you might find it hard to get a full night’s sleep in the face of your loved ones’ needs, so being able to nap when you can is crucial to your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Again, with caffeine in your bloodstream, you are usually too buzzed to make the most of downtimes with a sneaky snooze.
Yet another advantage to quitting caffeine is eating better! Caffeine sends your blood sugar level swinging, which can cause tiredness. Sweet snacks are more tempting when your body and mind are searching for a lift. When your blood sugar level is stable, however, healthy foods become more appealing. Increased energy is a given but weight loss can also be a happy side-effect of binning caffeine.
How to quit caffeine painlessly
NB: If you are on medication, you need to talk to your doctor before quitting caffeine, as it could affect your dosages.
So, how do you quit without feeling sick?
Do not go cold turkey, or cut down suddenly on the number of cups you drink. A sudden drop-off in caffeine (e.g. deciding not to drink it in the afternoon) can spark withdrawal headaches even if you are still enjoying several cups a day.
The trick is to drink your usual number of cups but to lessen the amount of caffeine in each cup. That way, the level of caffeine in your bloodstream drops from day to day but in a more even way that does not trigger withdrawal headaches. You can do this in slightly different ways for coffee, tea, sodas and chocolate. Here they are:
Quitting instant coffee
Drink the number of cups you usually drink but start mixing your coffee with a grain-based substitute, such as Barleycup. (Don’t choose one that contains guarana, ephedra, or other ‘wake-up’ herbs.) Over a 2-3 week period, use the following formula for each cup you drink, always using the same-sized spoon. American spoon measurements are very useful for this. You can find them in homeware stores. If you level off the spoon, you’ll know exactly what’s going into your cup:
Days 1-3: ¾ spoon coffee + ¼ spoon Barleycup
Days 4-6: 2/3 spoon coffee + 1/3 spoon Barleycup
Days 7-9: ½ spoon coffee + ½ spoon Barleycup
Days 10-12: 1/3 spoon coffee + 2/3 spoon Barleycup
Days 13-15: ¼ spoon coffee + ¾ spoon Barleycup
Days 16-18: even less coffee + even more Barleycup
Day 19: Barleycup only
If you find yourself getting headaches during this process, slow down a bit and make each phase last a little longer.
Quitting ground coffee
Read ‘scoop’ for ‘spoon’ above and use ground decaffeinated coffee instead of Barleycup. Level off the scoop so you know exactly how much coffee is going into your cup. Again, American spoon measurements are useful (see above). Remember to quit decaffeinated coffee afterwards, as it contains other nasties plus a small amount of caffeine. Once you have quit real coffee, reduce your decaf by one cup a day until you reach zero. You could also use Teeccino coffee substitute instead of decaffeinated coffee. It is healthy and delicious but unavailable in Ireland. You can buy it online.
Stick to your usual number of cups but every second day, replace one of those cups with a cup of green tea. Green tea contains some caffeine but not as much as ordinary tea. Try to alternate cups of tea with cups of green tea to keep your caffeine level relatively stable and avoid a withdrawal headache. If you drink seven cups of tea a day, by the end of two weeks you should be drinking seven cups of green tea per day instead. Then, over the next week or two, slowly decrease the amount of green tea you drink by a half a cup a day until you reach zero.
As with coffee, if you find yourself getting headaches, slow the process down and replace a cup of tea with a cup of green tea every third day instead.
If you hate green tea, there is an alternative method. It is slow but good. :-) Drink your usual number of teas per day. Always use the same cup and spoon. Make a full cup of tea. Before you add milk, remove one dessertspoon of tea. Do the same for each cup you drink. The next day, remove two dessertspoons; the day after that, remove three. And so on until your cups are less than a quarter full. At that point, slowly reduce the number of cups you drink by one per day.
At the same time as you are quitting caffeine, start drinking herbal teas, such as chamomile, mint and rooibos. Rooibos is handy because it tastes a bit like tea but contains no caffeine. It is the one herbal tea you can drink with milk. Try using two teabags per mug if you find the taste insipid. If you like chai, try Yogi Tea African Spice herbal tea, which is a tasty blend based on rooibos. It’s lovely with milk and a little honey.
Quitting caffeinated colas and energy drinks
Keep to your usual number of cans per day but pour your soda into a glass and make sure that each day, your glasses are slightly less full than they were the day before. You can use American cup and spoon measurements to make the process more accurate. You will soon reach zero.
While quitting caffeine, increase your intake of pure water, veggie juices and herbal teas. Green powders (e.g. Pukka Clean Greens), added to water, help to counter fatigue. Ask your local health food shop for advice.
NB: Check with your doctor first if you are on any medication. Some drugs, such as Warfarin, can interact lethally with greens and green juices.
Crawl along. Don’t be too ambitious. Going too fast can drop you back to square one. Slow but steady success, however, will mean fewer aches and pains and more energy to spend on yourself and your loved ones.
Other forms of caffeine
The combo of caffeine and sugar can trigger a horrid migraine in susceptible people. Cut down slowly but savour each square and you’ll be happy with less.
Many compound painkillers (painkillers with more than one ingredient) contain caffeine. But caffeine only helps ‘cure’ a headache by (a) making the other ingredients (e.g. codeine and paracetamol) work better and (b) halting caffeine withdrawal symptoms!
Processed foods and drinks:
Caffeine lurks in countless products. Read the labels if you love sodas, fruit drinks, ‘energy’ elixirs, sweeties and flavoured goods. It has even been found in yoghurt!
Guarana, maté and ephedra (Ma Huang) all contain forms of caffeine. Don’t be fooled by promises of ‘vitality’. It is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
If you take the herb ginkgo biloba while still using caffeine, watch out! You could trigger a withdrawal headache, as ginkgo quickly expands the blood vessels that caffeine tightens. Come off caffeine before starting ginkgo.
All figures/studies mentioned above are referenced in Stephen Cherniske, Caffeine Blues (New York, 1998)
Stephen Cherniske, Caffeine Blues (New York, 1998)