Coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world.
It tastes delicious, it's good for our health, and it's very popular at social gatherings and for bringing people together.
However, quitting coffee has side effects.
For some people who wish to quit coffee, there are some unpleasant caffeine withdrawal symptoms to deal with.
This article takes a look at the issue in detail and examines what these withdrawal symptoms are, why they happen and how we can deal with them.
What is Caffeine Withdrawal?
Firstly, it is important to remember that caffeine is actually a drug.
Not just any drug either; caffeine is the most widely consumed drug in the world, with over 85% of people consuming at least one caffeinated drink per day (1)
Caffeine withdrawal refers to the side effects many people experience upon the cessation of caffeine/coffee.
These effects may range from mild to severe and typical symptoms include anxiety, fatigue and headaches (2).
How Long Does Caffeine Withdrawal Last?
Commonly, these withdrawal effects last for 2-4 days, and they are most severe from about 24 hours after the last caffeine dose.
Studies show that the severity much depends on the prior caffeine intake and for how long it had been sustained.
That said, we all metabolize caffeine differently and this may also influence how long it takes to overcome withdrawal (3).
For instance, in some cases, there may be no symptoms whatsoever. In other cases, individuals may suffer for over a week (4).
Caffeine Withdrawal is an Official Recognized Disorder
Perhaps surprisingly, caffeine withdrawal is an officially recognized disorder.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the 5th volume of their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Notably, this edition officially recognized caffeine withdrawal as a mental disorder for the first time (5).
Key Point: Caffeine withdrawal is a clinically relevant mental disorder and it can cause a range of uncomfortable side effects.
10 Common Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
What kind of issues should you expect if you experience caffeine withdrawal?
Here is a look at the ten most-reported symptoms.
Headaches are the primary caffeine withdrawal symptom for the majority of people. In fact, more than 50% of people who give up their coffee habit experience these headaches.
Depending on the severity, these headaches can be a mild nuisance, or they can be painful and debilitating. Interestingly, even consuming slightly lower amounts of caffeine than what people are used to may lead to these headaches.
To understand why these headaches happen, the first thing to note is that caffeine has cerebral vasoconstriction properties. In plain English, this means that caffeine consumption causes the blood vessels in our brain to narrow (6).
Ordinarily, this could be seen as both a positive and negative effect. Positive because it increases the concentration (and beneficial impact) of caffeine in our blood, but negative due to the blood pressure-raising effect this would have.
However, tolerance to caffeine happens quickly through the upregulation of available adenosine receptors. In turn, this has a compensatory effect and promotes vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) (7).
When we suddenly quit coffee/caffeine, habitual users will still have a higher number of these adenosine receptors.
Despite this, the effect they were compensating for in the first place will no longer be present, and this is thought to be why these withdrawal headaches happen.
Key Point: Caffeine withdrawal headaches are very common and they typically last for 2-3 days.
2. Fatigue / Reduced Energy Levels
Caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant.
First, this doesn't only mean that the drug makes us more awake. Caffeine also gives us more energy - for everything we do.
For example, caffeine increases energy availability and decreases our perceived exertion during physical activity. As a result, a cup of coffee can improve physical performance and make us feel like we can do more (8).
It is therefore no surprise that a side effect of quitting coffee is fatigue and reduced energy levels.
The previous energy levels provided by morning coffee(s) is no longer present, giving rise to feelings of drowsiness and lack of energy.
Key Point: Suddenly quitting caffeine abruptly brings our energy levels down, which may possibly lead to fatigue and exhaustion.
3. Lack of Focus and Difficulty Concentrating
Another potential side effect of stopping our caffeine habit is a lack of focus and difficulty concentrating.
The reasons for this are again down to caffeine's stimulant properties.
Notably, a wide range of studies demonstrates that coffee consumption improves focus, concentration and cognitive performance.
These above findings are why coffee makes such a popular drink for early-morning meetings; it helps us to clear our mind and concentrate. This effect would be especially desirable for those not getting adequate sleep.
When we stop drinking coffee, we feel the loss of these beneficial energizing effects, which leads to difficulty concentrating/focusing.
Key Point: Removing caffeine from our lifestyle also removes the boost it gives to our concentration/focus.
4. Mental Fog
Mental fog is very similar to the lack of focus and concentration difficulties.
However, a foggy mind is a typical caffeine withdrawal complaint.
This symptom refers to how some people feel like they can't keep a clear mind in the days after halting their caffeine intake.
A foggy mind can cover a range of different symptoms ranging from confusion and forgetfulness to feelings of being disorganized and fatigue.
Due to withdrawal effects such as these, many people trying to give up coffee start drinking it again (11).
Key Point: A foggy mind and feelings of disorientation are common when going without coffee, particularly in people used to high caffeine doses.
5. Irritability and Moodiness
Studies have found that people experiencing caffeine withdrawal are more prone to mood swings and irritability.
However, this is not unique to caffeine.
For example, people trying to give up tobacco and other vices are also renowned for exhibiting irritability.
An irritable mood is one of the 14 well-described caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and an empirical review accepted that irritability comes under the 10 (out of 49) that meet adequate validity criteria to be called a sign of withdrawal (12, 13).
Key Point: People often find themselves suffering from bad moods and getting easily irritated in the days following caffeine cessation.
Coffee is not only a stimulant that gives energy, it also makes us feel good.
The research clearly shows that caffeine elevates our mood, particularly in doses of over 200 mg.
Therefore, it makes sense that cutting out coffee may lead to feelings of depression in those who are accustomed to this better mood.
Feelings of depression may depend on the individual, the dose of caffeine they are used to and the way they metabolize it.
Despite this, it is one of the most commonly reported side effects of withdrawing from caffeine use.
Key Point: Some coffee drinkers feel a little depressed after coming off caffeine, particularly heavier consumers.
7. Drowsiness/Difficulty Getting Things Done
Difficulty getting things done is one of the ten most commonly reported symptoms of withdrawal from coffee.
Personally, I think it is closely related to the lack of focus/energy levels.
If we have a lower amount of energy, then we will feel drowsy and have difficulty getting things done.
There is also evidence that caffeine withdrawal may hurt driving performance and safety, due to increased sleepiness (16).
In fact, a recent study showed that caffeinated drinks have a positive effect for long-distance truck drivers.
This research demonstrated a significant 63% reduced risk of crashing for the drivers who consumed caffeine compared to drivers who didn't (17).
Key Point: Coming off coffee increases feelings of drowsiness/sleepiness, a side effect that is potentially dangerous for long-distance drivers.
Interestingly, caffeine consumption can give some people feelings of anxiety, especially when they overdo it.
However, the reverse is true - coming off caffeine can cause the same thing.
Notably, research was being conducted into this issue all the way back in 1980, with a clinical trial demonstrating that caffeine abstinence increased levels of tension (18).
Further research has been done in recent years too and 'caffeine withdrawal anxiety' is a well-accepted phenomenon (19).
Key Point: Some individuals suffer from anxiety when they first give up caffeine.
9. Flu-Like Symptoms
Surprisingly, some people have shown signs of flu-like symptoms such as nausea and muscular stiffness after withdrawing from caffeine (13).
As previously mentioned, the severity of withdrawal effects very much depends on the dose (as well as the individual).
It is likely that such flu-like side effects are rare and constrained to those who previously consumed large quantities of caffeine.
Key Point: It is accepted that flu-like symptoms come under the potential effects of caffeine withdrawal.
10. Decreased Mental Alertness/Sharpness
These benefits are more apparent in sleep-deprived individuals and those suffering from mental health issues.
Refraining from caffeine consumption has a temporary reverse effect in the first few days, with mental sharpness falling.
After a few days, this typically normalizes.
Key Point: Just as consuming caffeinated drinks can boost mental alertness, giving them up causes our mental sharpness to drop - at least initially.
Reducing the Intensity of Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms
If we want to quit coffee or caffeine in general, then how can we do it in a way that doesn't make us feel like we're dying?
While "dying" might be an exaggeration, these withdrawal symptoms can make people feel terrible, so it's important to come off caffeine in a way that doesn't cause too many problems.
Fortunately, studies have looked into this issue, and they offer some guidance on how to avoid the worst effects.
So, what is the best way to avoid caffeine withdrawal?
Cold Turkey vs. Gradually Tapering Down
The most common recommendation that researchers have is not to suddenly quit coffee/caffeine in one go.
Instead, slowly lowering the daily dose of caffeine lets us reduce and eventually remove it with a much lower risk of withdrawal symptoms.
Cutting back slowly in this way removes the possibility of suddenly switching from large to small doses.
For example, if someone currently consumes five cups of coffee a day, they could be ingesting around 500 mg of caffeine per day.
Large doses such as this have a more pronounced effect, and suddenly switching to no caffeine from such a high amount would make side effects likely.
A Better Option
Here is an example of how someone consuming 5 cups of coffee per day could slowly cut down on their caffeine consumption.
Although some symptoms may still occur, there would be a minimized risk of significant withdrawal effects.
Drinking enough fluids and staying in a good state of hydration can help to minimize the severity of headaches.
Several symptoms related to caffeine withdrawal affect our focus, mental sharpness and better sleep quality can improve these.
Furthermore, sleeping through a headache can be a good way to avoid the discomfort.
Key Point: Slowly tapering down our daily caffeine dose is much easier on our body than suddenly going 'cold turkey'. Additionally, staying adequately hydrated is important.
Personally, I love coffee and believe it to be very healthy.
Coffee is a delicious drink, and if you can drink it without problems, then there's no reason to stop drinking it.
However, for those that do want to quit/reduce their caffeine consumption, slowly but surely is the best way.
By reducing our intake of caffeinated beverages slowly, we have the best chance to avoid uncomfortable caffeine withdrawal symptoms.