What is Caffeine Withdrawal?

Simply put, caffeine withdrawal happens when a person who regularly consumes caffeine suddenly decreases or stops their caffeine intake – and results in a wide range of symptoms.

The most famous symptom of caffeine withdrawal is the infamous “caffeine headache”.

How and why does caffeine withdrawal happen?

Caffeine blocks adenosine levels

The science behind caffeine withdrawal lies in how caffeine affects the brain and its subsequent absence after regular consumption.

Caffeine is actually a central nervous system stimulant and its primary mode of action is blocking adenosine receptors in the brain, which are neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and relaxation.

Normally, adenosine levels build up over the day all the way up to the night when you sleep and makes you increasingly tired and eventually leading to sleep.

So, when you consume caffeine, it competes with adenosine for the same neural receptors and, by blocking these receptors, caffeine prevents adenosine from binding - thus warding off drowsiness and promoting alertness and wakefulness.

Body builds up caffeine tolerance

With regular caffeine consumption, the brain's chemistry adapts to the continual presence of  caffeine by by making more adenosine receptors and attempts to counterbalance the effects of caffeine.

This adaptation is what leads to caffeine tolerance where more caffeine is needed to achieve the same effects.

Caffeine withdrawal is causes by an excess of these unblocked adenosine receptors when you stop consuming caffeine

When caffeine consumption is suddenly reduced or stopped, there is an excess of unblocked adenosine receptors.

This leads to an overactivity of adenosine, which causes the brain to experience the opposite effects of caffeine consumption, such as drowsiness, fatigue and often headaches.

At the same time, the abrupt decrease in dopamine levels can lead to feelings of depression or irritability.

The physical dependency is really due to the neurochemical changes in the brain since, when caffeine is no longer present, the body takes time to readjust to the overabundance of adenosine receptors.

Eventually, the brain returns to its pre-caffeine state and  the number of adenosine receptors normalizes and caffeine withdrawal symptoms end?

Why does caffeine withdrawal cause headaches?

The classic “caffeine headache is due to the increased bloodflow to the brain caused by the excess adenosine receptors – in scientific terms this is called the ‘adenosine vasodilating effect’.

What are the possible symptoms you can get from caffeine withdrawal?

There are a lot of possible symptoms from caffeine withdrawal, but it really does vary on the individual. Here are some possible symptoms:

Headache - See above – our explanation about “caffeine headaches”. This is one of the most common symptoms and can range from mild to severe.

Fatigue, Decreased Energy & Alertness - People may feel unusually tired or sleepy because caffeine's stimulating effects are no longer present and the body reacts to the flood of unblocked adenosine receptors.

Drowsiness - This is related to fatigue and decreased alertness and can manifest as a strong desire to sleep. Our advice is sleep if you feel sleepy – it’s best not to fight it!

Depressed Mood - Some people may feel down or depressed when they stop consuming caffeine.

Difficulty Concentrating - Caffeine withdrawal can affect cognitive functions, making it harder to concentrate on tasks, though this may also be down the psychosomatic side of caffeine. This means that, since you’ve stopped consuming caffeine, you think you’ll be tired and sluggish mentally in a psychosomatic way.

Irritability: Many individuals experience a short temper and irritability during caffeine withdrawal – particularly, if you’re a heavy caffeine user.

Tremors: In some cases, people might experience slight tremors or shakiness. Again, this is more likely for heavy caffeine drinkers.

How do you reduce symptoms and treat caffeine withdrawal?

This depends on your situation. If you have gone “cold turkey” and stopped consuming caffeine completely, you have 2 options:

  • Ride the caffeine withdrawal symptoms out - Take painkillers and wait for the caffeine headache to finish. This will happen over time as the body reacts to the withdrawal and stabilises. In this situation, the best painkillers for caffeine headaches are ibuprofen and aspirin. You should feel clear of caffeine withdrawal’s effects over the following week. Make sure you drink plenty of water.
  • Get back on the caffeine sauce - Consume more caffeine to stop the headaches and continue your caffeine habit. If you consume caffeine again, the headache should lesson quite rapidly. You can also reduce your caffeine intake more gradually after that, which will be a much smarter way to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

What’s the best way to cut your caffeine consumption?

You can pretty much avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms by simply taking your time – gradually reduce your caffeine intake over 7-10 days.

Here's an example of a 7-day schedule to gradually eliminate caffeine:

Day 1: Consume your usual amount of coffee and tea.

Days 2 to 4: Mix your regular coffee with 50% decaffeinated coffee, known as 'Half Caff'.

Days 5 and 6: Switch to a blend with 25% regular coffee and 75% decaf. You’re nearly there.

Day 7: Shift entirely to decaffeinated coffee.

Week 2: Keep going with purely decaffeinated coffee.

Week 3: Attempt to completely stop consuming coffee and see how you fare.

December 04, 2023 — Guy Wilmot

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