You feel a little low on energy, so you reach for a cup of coffee or tea to get you going. It seems like this is everyone’s routine—caffine is so integrated into our culture and daily schedule—so it must make sense, right? Well, as a functional medicine doctor, I have to break the news that this common ritual may actually be depleting your body and zapping your energy instead of boosting it.
I stopped drinking coffee and diet soda (yes, really!) when I was in medical school. I, like many other people, was reaching for caffeine to help me get through my work on long days. One quiet night when I was on call in the hospital, I was lying in bed in the call room, and I could not fall asleep. I needed these few hours of sleep and was very frustrated until I realized that I’d had caffeine at lunch. This (in addition to the adrenaline of needing to take care of people in the hospital) resulted in my body’s sympathetic nervous system being in overdrive. When I truly needed to rest, I could not get any sleep. It was then that I realized that I needed to make a change. I decided to cut out caffeine. My reason for doing this was so I could sleep better at night, but I was pleasantly surprised by an added benefit. After a couple of weeks, my energy during the day was actually better. Here’s how this is possible:
The truth about caffeine and energy levels.
The caffeine found in coffee, tea, soda, diet soda, chocolate, and some medications is a stimulant, activating the sympathetic nervous system. This means that in the short term, caffeine can increase energy and focus but also (depending on the dose consumed and the person) increase heart rate, blood pressure, and irritability. Increasing the sympathetic activity in your body is not always a bad thing. It can help you finish a difficult assignment, get your workout done, concentrate on a difficult problem, or compete in a tennis match. The problem occurs when we are activating our sympathetic nervous system repeatedly and not giving our body adequate time to rest. Many of us are not listening to our body when it’s telling us it needs a break and instead push forward to finish the task at hand.
When we do this, we’re putting stress on our body and our hormones. The HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis) is the primary part of our body that helps us manage stress. When we activate the stress system in our body chronically—and don’t give our body time to rest—we can get HPA axis dysfunction, commonly known as adrenal fatigue. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can help with energy in the short term, but with chronic excessive use, it could be depleting your energy.
Why everyone has a different relationship with caffeine.
It’s also important to keep in mind that everyone metabolizes caffeine differently, and it has everything to do with the genes you inherit from your mom and dad. You see, there are slow caffeine metabolizers and fast caffeine metabolizers, and depending on which one you are, your body will either be able to handle quite a bit of caffeine at one time or it will be really sensitive to it.
What does this mean in real life? It explains why some people can have a cup of coffee after dinner and fall fast asleep a few minutes later while others would be anxious and up all night. I have all of my patients with sleep issues wean off of all caffeine to see if it may be contributing. Remember that because caffeine is a stimulant, you can develop tolerance to it and have withdrawal symptoms (such as headache, fatigue, or irritability) when you eliminate it suddenly. Because of this, it is important to cut back slowly.
Tired all the time? Here’s how to wean yourself off caffeine.
If you’re feeling low on energy, depleted, stressed out, or having difficulty sleeping, give yourself a caffeine detox. In general, I have my patients cut back by half a cup every three to four days. You can also substitute lower caffeine teas (like green tea) for black coffee at first. Eventually you can substitute the lower caffeinated teas with herbal teas. I do recommend that you complete the full process and wean off of all caffeine. This way you can see how caffeine is affecting you and your energy levels. Give yourself at least three to four weeks away from all caffeine to get a true sense of what your life is like without it. You may eventually decide that one cup of coffee per day is good for you, which is true for many people. But for many others, cutting out coffee completely may be the way to go.
When I took caffeine out of my diet, I realized that it was actually increasing the anxiety in my body and depleting my energy, not supporting it. Once I removed it, I was able to listen to what my body needed and rest when my body needed to rest. I started to sleep better, and I felt less anxious. By taking out this stimulant, I was fully able to listen to what my body was telling me and care for it the way I needed to.