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Coffee withdrawal symptoms?

Hi Alice,

Been reading your site for a while and wanted to first thank you for an excellent site! So anyway, here's the question:

I've been having headaches off and on for the past year and noticed that it seems to coincide with days that I don't drink coffee in the morning. I've heard of becoming "addicted" to caffeine, so I decided I should just go ahead and quit for a while. This past week, I cut out coffee and all caffeine-related products from my diet, and have been suffering from pounding headaches every day. Today (six days from my last cup of coffee) is the first day that I don't seem to have a headache. Is this common? And also, any ideas on what will happen if I do have some coffee? Will my system require coffee every day again (at the sake of a pounding headache)? I'm completely clueless on this, and I love coffee, so any advice would be helpful.

— de-caffeinated and hating it

Dear de-caffeinated and hating it,

Headaches are a normal response to an abrupt and drastic reduction in the level of caffeine in your system. If you drink a lot of coffee, or somehow consume a steady supply of caffeine, with time, your body will develop a tolerance to caffeine and its stimulatory effects. Caffeine deprivation following a period of building tolerance can lead to a host of withdrawal symptoms. Essentially, when you deprive your body of the caffeine it has grown accustomed to, it struggles to cope with the sudden change. During this coping process, you may experience headaches, irritability, lethargy, nervousness, and mild depression. These withdrawal symptoms normally dissipate in 12 to 24 hours, though, as you have experienced, it can sometimes take up to several days.

Withdrawal symptoms from a caffeine "detox" are nowhere near as severe as symptoms of withdrawal from other drugs. Although regular consumption of caffeine can lead to caffeine dependency, most of us would not identify caffeine as a dependence producing substance. It's also important to note that a dependency isn't the same as an addiction; while a dependency leads to physical symptoms during withdrawal, an addiction is generally more complex and involves disordered behavior around a substance that can affect a person's work, social, and family life. 

Regarding the possibility of reintroducing caffeine into your life, it may be helpful to consider your relationship with coffee and how you would feel drinking smaller amounts. It's possible to drink a cup of coffee every now and then, or even one a day, without developing such a strong tolerance that your headaches reemerge following a morning free of caffeine. However, even low doses of caffeine can produce withdrawal symptoms when you stop consuming it. Knowing the caffeine content of other beverages you consume, primarily teas and sodas, can also be helpful in monitoring how much caffeine you intake each day. This way you can make sure you're not substituting one form of caffeine for another. 

If you want to continue drinking coffee while reducing your caffeine intake, one solution could be to drink one cup of full strength and then switch to decaf for the rest of the day. Alternatively, you could try making your pot half-decaf and half-caffeinated.

Bottoms up!

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Last updated Oct 07, 2022
Originally published Feb 28, 1997

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