A month without coffee – the surprising outcome

Giving up coffee

Late in January, in a podcast episode of Straight and Curly, Carly and I were discussing the merits of giving up alcohol for a month. And I felt a bit bad when that episode aired because I was probably a bit blithe about the whole thing; as if giving up alcohol for a month was the easiest thing in the world to do! (Well it is for me – I seldom drink!)

Around the same time my friend Catherine put out a call for anyone thinking of going cold turkey on something for a month.

So I thought to myself, maybe I could try giving up coffee for a month.

It’s something I was drinking every single day (like some people drink alcoholo) and if I was honest, I was drinking it more out of habit than for the enjoyment of it.

So I made the commitment.

My goals? Well I was interested to see how hard I would find it. I was also interested to see whether life might actually be better without coffee. (I fervently hoped it wouldn’t be.)

My history with coffee is a long one. I’ve been drinking it my whole adult life and bar some periods when pregnant and it didn’t appeal to me, I’ve never had a break from it. I started out drinking cappuccinos and have progressed to long blacks. Before I started this challenge I was drinking 3-4 long blacks a day.

Now February was perhaps a bad month to quit coffee. Not only was I finalising my book ready for launch and doing all the pre-launch promotion, I was also trying to get on top of all aspects of work and home life ready to go away in early March. While I try to make sleep a priority as I know how crucial it is to both my productivity and also to being a nice person, I knew I was going to be sacrificing some sleep in February to get everything done.

So – how did it all go?

Well, to my consternation, two days into my experiment I felt a distinct shift in my mood. For the better. It was like there’d been a thin layer sitting over my mood … and suddenly that layer disappeared and I felt instantly lighter and happier. I then promptly got a shocking cold for a week so that kind of killed the good mood. But when the cold finally passed on I definitely noticed that the ‘lighter’ mood (I have no better way of describing it) stuck around. Also, my anxiety levels which had been off the charts in January were distinctly more under control despite no change in my personal circumstances.

When this became apparent to me I went rushing to see if there was any link between coffee and anxiety. And while it’s known that coffee can cause cortisol spikes, I couldn’t find any definitive research linking its consumption to triggering or exacerbating anxiety.

Was I sleeping better? I certainly expected to be sleeping better. But I didn’t notice any distinct difference in the quality of my sleep (which is always reasonably good) or my ability to fall asleep. In fact my ability to fall asleep seemed to be worse – but that may have been because in February I was on my computer a lot after dinner, something I’ve stopped doing in recent times.

What about the cravings? Oh god – they were bad. I got to see exactly where all the triggers in my day for ‘I need a coffee’ were.

  • Waking up in the morning
  • Feeling a little tired while driving my son to school
  • Feeling a little tired at any point in the day
  • Feeling a little hungry at any point in the day
  • Walking into a coffee shop
  • Smelling coffee

All of these were full on triggers and it got to the point that in much the same way someone giving up alcohol for a month would find it hard to go to the pub, I had to stop going to coffee shops and cafes. It just seemed really wrong to go to a coffee shop and have a pot of tea!

But … while I may not have been having tea at cafes, I was certainly having it at home. I re-discovered my love of English Breakfast tea in particular. And thank god for that. After a week of green tea, no matter how nattily flavoured, I was over it.

Did I crack?

As deep as 27 days into February I was having full on coffee cravings still and harbouring thoughts that if I had one, it’s not like anyone would know. On two occasions I had decaf just to get the feeling of having coffee in my mouth – but I didn’t finish either of those cups because … decaf!

But I never cracked.

Then March 1 rolled around. I am not sure if it was because I was just getting over the effects of gastro from the previous day, but I had zero desire to have a coffee. So I didn’t have one. March 2 – still no desire so, no coffee. March 3 – same thing. On March 4 I was sitting in a café having breakfast and I was thinking ‘This is ridiculous – you can have a coffee now. So have one!’

So I did.

And it was completely underwhelming.

I didn’t enjoy it … and it also did absolutely nothing for me (didn’t give me any kind of energy boost).

I was stunned.

I didn’t embark on this experiment with the intent of giving up coffee. I knew I was addicted to it and I don’t like being that dependent on anything. But I’ve always figured that if that was my one vice in life, I was doing ok. Plus I couldn’t find a single piece of research that said drinking black coffee was bad for you. It seemed to be universally agreed that 3-4 cups a day was totally fine unless you were one of those people for whom coffee caused big cortisol spikes. (It didn’t do that to me.)

But – it’s undeniable. I’ve completely lost the taste for coffee … and all those things that used to trigger off a craving for coffee, now triggers a craving for tea. And when I have a cup of tea, it’s comforting and tasty in a way that coffee has not been for me in recent years. Funnily, in the short space of a month, I’ve become one of those people no one can make a cup of tea for because it needs to be made just ‘so’.

Also, my anxiety levels are definitely more under control and my general mood is still lighter.

So there you go. Quite an unexpected outcome. One I am super-interested to hear people’s thoughts on!



Carly:  Time to tackle the concept of giving up coffee for a month! Kelly felt a bit bad after we did our episode on giving up alcohol for a month. She thought she was a bit dismissive about how hard it is to give up alcohol since it’s something that’s not terribly difficult for her because she’s an infrequent drinker.

So, in the interest of research, Kelly decided to give up something that would be as hard for her to give up as some people find alcohol hard to give up. That thing is coffee.

Kelly, would you like to tell us about your relationship with coffee?

Kelly:   Well, I have been drinking coffee pretty much my entire adult life. I’ve consumed it daily since I started drinking it at 22. Yes, I was a little late to the coffee party, but I’m 38 now so I’ve been drinking coffee for a really, really long time and have never really come off it except when I was pregnant.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s my one vice. I don’t really drink alcohol. I don’t smoke. I don’t eat sugar. I don’t even eat bread anymore. So, coffee is my ‘one thing’ and I’m quite attached to it. But, as Carly said, I felt I was a bit blithe about how easy it should be for people to give up alcohol. Then, after listening back to that episode, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s probably not that easy, is it?’

So, I thought, ‘What’s something that I drink every single day that would be quite hard for me to give up because I’m actually quite addicted to it?’ And that thing is coffee.

In the months before I gave up coffee, I did also come to realise that I was drinking it more habitually than anything else. It was just something I had when I woke up first thing in the morning and it’s something I had when I got home from dropping my son at school. It was something I had in the afternoon. And I wasn’t even actively enjoying it anymore. It was just something I was really dependent on and it was a habit more than anything else. That’s kind of the definition of an addiction. So, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to give it up for a month.

Carly:  My relationship with coffee is similar to Kelly’s relationship with alcohol. Giving up alcohol for a month for her just wouldn’t be that big an issue. I’m not addicted to coffee. I pretty much only drink coffee if someone else suggests it. I guess I’m a peer pressure coffee drinker! If someone else is getting a coffee, I’ll get one. But if I’m in my house on my own during the day and no one gets a coffee or hands me a coffee, I won’t even think about it. It just doesn’t occur to me.

I recently got back from a trip around the US for a month and I pretty much didn’t drink coffee the whole time because coffee is gross there. Sorry America, but your coffee is literally like medicine to me. There’s no enjoyment in consuming it. Sometimes I’d get a coffee there and I couldn’t even swallow it. So, there wasn’t a huge amount of coffee drinking for me during this time and I have gone a long time without drinking coffee on several occasions.

My partner, however, is hugely dependent on coffee and absolutely cannot function without it. His whole family is the same. His dad literally takes an espresso to bed with him for a night cap. It blows my mind. I watch him do it and even just the smell of coffee makes me feel like I’m not going to have a decent night’s sleep. I also can’t have coffee in the afternoon because it does affect my sleep. I also don’t like black coffee. And I’m not overly fond of drinking several cups of hot milk in a day. It’s just too much stuff. So, I’m a zero to one, maybe two on a bad day kind of gal.

Back to Kelly, the coffee addict. How was it to go for a month without coffee? Did you get bad cravings and how did you deal with them? And did you find in your cold, cold heart just a little bit of sympathy for those of us who can’t survive without our glass of red wine at night?

Kelly:   (Laughing) Oh my God. I found a huge amount of sympathy. It was really interesting. But, just so that people here know, no one makes coffee like we do in Australia. Australians are horrendous coffee snobs.

Carly:  Huge coffee snobs.

Kelly:   And Carly lives in Melbourne which is like the coffee snob capital of Australia. So, when Carly was making fun of coffee from other places…

Carly:  I know my shit. I know what I’m talking about.

Kelly:   And, here is an indication of where I am with my coffee addiction. I can’t be without it when I travel overseas. But you can’t get a proper cappuccino literally anywhere else in the world other than Australia. So, I’ve learned to drink my coffee black. Just so I can drink it anywhere in the world.

Anyway, how much coffee was I drinking a day? (Before I did my ‘no coffee for a month’ challenge?) On average, four long blacks a day. That’s a lot of coffee. And this is where I got my sympathy for the people who I blithely told, ‘Oh, just give up alcohol for a month. How hard can it be? You’ll feel so much better about yourself.’

So, what happened to me when I gave it up was I got to see what triggered a craving for coffee. Waking up in the morning triggered the craving. Being even vaguely tired meant I instantly craved coffee. Another interesting one was if I got a little bit hungry, I really craved coffee. Going within ten kilometers of a coffee shop triggered a craving for coffee.

Carly:  That’s very similar to my partner. He sniffs out coffee and can smell roasters. He can go into different types of roasters and tell by the smell as to whether or not he’s going to enjoy the brew. I have no such skill. I think most coffee smells nice.

Kelly:   Ok, I’m not quite the aficionado Ben is but I do love the smell of coffee. If I smell coffee, I need to have coffee. It was interesting to see how many times during the month I thought to myself, ‘No one’s going to know if you just have one. Just have one.’ Also, February was a really intense month because I was finishing off my book.

Carly:  Yeah, I thought that was an interesting time for you to do that in the launch of a big project, I was thinking ‘Really? Is that when you want to do this Kel?’

Kelly:   You know what I was thinking? I was thinking February is the shortest month. So, if you’re going to give up coffee, February is the month to do it, right? Of course, I chose the month where February had freaking 29 days instead of 28.

Carly:  I do love how aware you were that there was an extra day in February for the leap year.

Kelly:    Well, it’s interesting because coffee is such a habit for me and people do like to say it takes 21 days to break a habit. The reality is, it takes a really variable amount of time. It just depends how badly ingrained that habit is. As deep into the month as 27 days, I nearly broke. I rationalised, ‘Hey it’s only two days to go. I’ve basically done a month here.’

But, just so you guys know, I didn’t break. Giving up coffee was awful, however. I thought about it every day. I couldn’t go to coffee shops because it was just wrong to go to a coffee shop and not have a coffee. I couldn’t have a pot of tea at a coffee shop. So, all you people who I told to just go to the pub and have a drink of sparkling water with some lime in it, I apologise. I really, really apologise.

I couldn’t go to coffee shops and on the few occasions that I did, I was really, really resentful of being at a coffee shop and not being able to have coffee. Of course, I replaced it with something because you have to replace with something. I begrudgingly replaced it with tea and as any dedicated coffee drinker knows, tea is not a replacement for coffee. They don’t taste anything like each other. They’re just not the same.

Anyway, here’s what was really surprising. I gave up coffee and I told people, ‘I really hope this doesn’t make my life better because I would be devastated to have a reason not to go back to coffee.’ But, within three days of getting off coffee, my mood considerably lightened. The effect was undeniable. Of course, I went racing off looking for research on this (and couldn’t really find any).

The other thing was, my anxiety had been ramping up a bit lately and over December and January I’d been having to go to the medication that I use on an ‘as needed’ basis more than I ever had before. And then February, which was a hugely stressful month, I didn’t have to use my medication at all, which was really, really interesting. And also disturbing because then I had to admit that maybe coffee wasn’t helping with anxiety?

So, even though on day 27 I was resentful of not being able to have coffee, when it got to March 1 and I knew I could have one and I didn’t feel like it, I could not believe it.

Out of interest, I stayed off coffee and waited to see how long it took before I really, really wanted one. I made it to March 4 and still hadn’t had a coffee and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I can have a coffee. I should have a coffee.’ So I had one, not because I needed it or because I wanted it. It was just because this is what I do, I go to coffee shops and have coffee. So, I had a coffee and it did nothing for me – mentally or physiologically. And this is after being off coffee for a month. You’d think it would have had some kind of effect! But it didn’t even taste good to me.

So, this was horrifying as you can imagine. This is probably a good time to talk about whether there’s even a point to giving up coffee.

Carly:  This is a huge thing we’ve been discussing with our listeners because a lot of people do try to give up coffee and we’re not actually convinced that people know why they’re doing it or have a particular reason why they want to. There is so much research about coffee and we’ve come up with some pretty solid answers on if and why you should give up coffee.

Kelly:   That’s right. And the main one is, I found no research to suggest that even as much as what I was having – which was four long blacks a day – was bad for you. If you’re having coffee that’s laden with milk and sugar, that’s a different issue. With milk and sugar, you’re consuming a lot of calories and that’s not optimal. But if you’re having straight up long blacks, there’s just nothing out there that suggests this is unhealthy unless you’re someone who’s particularly sensitive to caffeine, or if coffee causes cortisol spikes for you.

Cortisol is the stress hormone and what it does is it makes you feel jittery and on edge because it triggers a flight or fight reaction. Some people get massive cortisol spikes from drinking coffee because of the caffeine in it. I didn’t get that so, realistically speaking, there was no good reason for me to stay off coffee once I tried it for the month. The only reason I stayed off is because of the mood thing.

Carly:   My partner does a lot of research on coffee because he’s so dependent on it. Something he turned up recently is that the University of Queensland and the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation discovered there’s no real way to know how much caffeine is even in a cup of coffee. They had a control group where they experimented with different types of coffee from the same cafe and some cups have 10 milligrams of caffeine and a cup brewed 10 minutes later had 150 milligrams of caffeine. There’s obviously a huge difference between those two levels of caffeine. This is why sometimes you can feel totally buzzed from a cup of coffee and other times you don’t feel buzzed at all.

This is just some food for thought if you are trying to measure the amount of caffeine you’re having. Your measurements are probably off because there’s no real way of knowing how many milligrams of caffeine are in a cup of coffee.  The way that the beans are brewed, the temperature of the water, the way the coffee is actually made, all these make a huge difference to how much caffeine is actually in the cup that you’re consuming.

In some cases during the study, they found that a cup of instant coffee had more caffeine in it than an espresso made at a cafe. So that’s just something to be aware of. Another thing we discovered is that people metabolise caffeine differently and it’s genetic.

Years ago, Ben and I did the 23andMe testing. We had to spit in little jars and sent our saliva off and, yes, it’s just as disgusting as it sounds. After we did that we got sent back all this really incredible information about ourselves and our genetics. Ben’s results came back that he metabolises coffee a lot faster than I do which makes perfect sense because I have one cup of coffee and that’s enough to last me until the afternoon whereas he’ll usually have two or three because his body is burning through it a lot quicker. And this makes sense because he inherited it from his midnight coffee drinking parents.

Kelly:   My mum is the same. My mum can have a cup of coffee at, like, midnight and go to bed at a quarter past 12 with no dramas.

Carly:  That’s not me at all. My whole family is quite caffeine sensitive. We sort of stop having our coffees in the afternoon and we’re definitely not after dinner coffee drinkers. You assume behaviours like that are learned but they may be genetic. Also, be conscious of how quickly you think your body metabolises caffeine.

Another fact I found out about coffee is that coffee isn’t dehydrating. That’s a total myth. We get told you should have a glass of water for every cup of coffee that you have. It’s actually not true. I mean obviously, drink lots of water all the time. That’s always excellent but it’s not necessary to match your water and coffee consumption.

Kelly:   I’ve got a couple of other things that research has shown.

The first thing is that there’s actually little point having a coffee first thing in the morning to wake you up because your cortisol levels naturally rise on waking anyway. And studies have shown that a big glass of water is just as effective as coffee at that point in time of the day. Your cortisol levels naturally dip around mid-morning and around mid-afternoon so say around 10-10:30am and again around 3pm. Those are good times to have a cup of coffee if you’re going to have some because that’s the point where your cortisol has naturally dipped.

The other thing where you might consider giving up coffee is if you’re doing everything right from a weight loss point of view. You’re eating really well. You’re exercising every day. You’re doing high intensity exercise mixed in with your cardio. And you still can’t shift that bit of extra weight around your belly. That might be a cortisol related thing and a lot of people have noticed that once they gave up coffee, they were able to shift the belly fat that they were really struggling to shift before.

But overall, there’s no real reason to give up coffee. I experimented on myself and found to my horror that life is better without coffee – but only from an anxiety and mood point of view. I’ve had maybe two or three cups since then more out of desire than need. It’s been from more of a, ‘Well I’m at a coffee shop. I’ll have a soy cappuccino as a treat,’ kind of thing. And I just keep finding that those cups of coffee are not doing anything for me. I’m very attached to this new, ‘lighter’ mood I have. That’s why I’m going to stay off it.

Meanwhile, I’ve become one of those insufferable tea drinkers. I’ve rediscovered English Breakfast tea. Nobody else can make it for me. I have to make it for myself because it’s got to be just that right strength and it’s got to have just the right amount of milk in it. I can’t believe what I’ve become.

Carly:  (Laughing) Ok, we’ve put together a few little tips to help you get off coffee if it’s something you’d like to experiment with or you’re finding that coffee does have a negative impact on you in some way.

One of the things we came up with was that research shows that if you want to decrease your dependency on coffee, you need to make your consumption irregular. So maybe if you have it every second day and sometimes you have it with breakfast, sometimes you have it before lunch.

Another thing is that the half-life of caffeine is about eight hours. If you drink coffee after 4pm, it will have an effect on your sleep in some form depending on how quickly you metabolise it. So, just be aware of what the caffeine is doing to you and how long it will take to get out of your system. There’s actually a really interesting app called Up Coffee and it’s really, really cute. You enter how many glasses of water you’ve had and how many cups of coffee you’ve had and it has a little moving infographic that shows how much caffeine is in your system. It swirls around and shows what time you need to stop drinking coffee in order to get a good night’s sleep. That’s a really good way of being aware of your consumption of coffee and helping yourself cut down on it if that’s what it is that you’re aiming for.

Also, I listened to a podcast with Dr. Karl and a dietitian and they were talking about whether or not you should have full-fat milk or low-fat milk in your coffee. The dietitian standards in Australia recommend having low-fat milk. While there are more nutrients in full-fat milk and there’s a movement towards having full-fat dairy in recent times, the dietitian said yes, in general, having full-fat dairy is better for you but that that’s only if the rest of your diet is completely impeccable. If you have excess calories in any other form, the excess calories from having full-fat milk in your coffee bump up your total caloric intake for the day. So, unless you’re really disciplined on counting your calories and know that you can afford to have extra calories in your milk, it is actually better to have a low-fat cup of coffee rather than a full-fat cup of coffee.

Kelly:   If you’re like me and drinking coffee is a habit more than anything else, my tip for giving it up (if that’s what you want to do), is to replace the drink with something else. I replaced it with tea. I wasn’t game to try and get off caffeine (as opposed to coffee) during the month of February. I couldn’t deal with the headaches and stuff. But if you want to get off caffeine as well as coffee then you replace it with herbal tea.

And then watch your triggers. For me, it was often tiredness or hunger. And if that’s the case for you, you’d be surprised how physiologically effective having a big glass of water is. A big glass of water is not psychologically effective though. It would probably just make you angry and resentful at the fact that you’ve given up coffee. But from a physiological point of view, it removes that physical craving and then it’s up to you to deal with the psychological craving.

Coffee is good for your blood pressure. It’s good for your cardiovascular health. So as with most things, there are good things and bad things to it. As I mentioned before, I’m a big believer that we’re all experiments of one.

If you’re like me and you suffer from quite bad anxiety, I’d be really interested in hearing how you fare coming off coffee for a month. I always find it interesting from a self-improvement point of view to just experiment on yourself and test assumptions.

For me, I was testing an assumption that I could never, ever give up coffee because I love it way too much. And that assumption has been categorically busted. So that’s all we’re encouraging people to do: test assumptions and see what works and what doesn’t work.

               Update from Kelly: I’m back drinking coffee now, but only 1-2 cups a day. And more because I just really like it rather than any real dependency on it. If I find I’m struggling a bit with mood, I come off it for three or so days. That always lifts the cloud over my mood and returns things to what I consider ‘normal’.