The idea to experiment with removing caffeine from my life came from chapter about Jocko Willink in Tools of Titans book.
Jocko is former SEAL commander, who, after leaving the army officially, co-founded successful leadership and management company and wrote best-selling book Extreme Ownership.
I expressed my mixed feelings about Jocko in previous post, so now I will just focus on the experiment, what I learned about caffeine and it’s close relative l-theanine, and why I decided that Jocko’s advice is not relevant for me.
First something about my relationship to coffee. Because I take my coffee very seriously.
I drink coffee pretty much every day. I usually have one normal coffee in the morning – hand ground beans from the best roaster available around, lovingly prepared with Kone filter and added butter and MCT oil (bulletproof coffee). I usually add a bit of cinnamon, matcha or vanilla, and occasionally also black pepper for bioperine or cayenne pepper when I accidentally take the wrong spice bottle.
Making my morning coffee has become part of my mindfulness practice. And I love it, every morning.
Another nice thing with fatty coffee is that there is no steep spike and drop in energy, the curve is much smoother and my focus is steadier. Plus I’m not hungry for next few hours.
No caffeine after 4pm
I rarely drink caffeine after 4pm.
I used to do that, until I found out that even though I can still fall asleep, my sleep quality is impacted by caffeine. I really appreciate good sleep these days, so I don’t want to mess it up even for a cup of black tastiness.
At around 3 in the afternoon I usually take 70:30 mix of decaf and normal coffee, also hand ground and make my coffee using V60 filter I have at work. Does “good decaf coffee” sound like oxymoron to you? Yes it’s not easy, so far I only found one place that has good decaf, and it’s almost 10,000 km far. (Many of decaf coffees still have a bit of caffeine. I haven’t tested this one, but those guys are quite serious about their products so I will have to trust them.)
Coffee and travel
I like good coffee. And I mean really good coffee beans, freshly roasted, freshly ground, freshly brewed.
You can call me spoiled coffee snob, but I’d rather not drink coffee than drink bad coffee (yes, USA, I’m looking at you).
Therefore when I travel, I always bring my Caffelano and my own coffee beans. That makes my coffee experience consistent. I obviously don’t travel with blender (yet – is anyone making travel-friendly blenders?), but I learned how to shake the bulletproof coffee to make it creamy.
Regular caffeine sensitivity reset
Have you experienced the “coffee inflation” when you need more and more coffee to get the same results?
I don’t like that either, so I’m doing “decaf week” once every 2-3 months to restart my adenosine receptors and bring back sensitivity to caffeine.
My usual method was to switch to 100% decaf coffee (I still needed some tasty liquid as a bulletproof carrier), herbal teas, and occasional hot cocoa (=a tiny bit of caffeine) or turmeric almond latte.
If you are a heavy caffeine user and you had terrible headaches when you tried to do this, I have one recommendation – get into it slowly. Prior to decaf week I do 2 days of having half-caffeine coffee in the morning for 2 days, no caffeine in the afternoon. I have no withdrawal effects whatsoever.
You’ll be rewarded. Imagine the feeling when you have your first real coffee with caffeine after week without it. It’s beautiful, you can literally feel the energy rising.
How coffee really works what I didn’t know
I studied a bit more how coffee and caffeine work, both for this experiment and for my talk about “5 productivity hacks”.
I knew it works by binding to adenosine receptors in brain, but I never went deeper. Adenosine is inhibitory neurotransmitter that informs your body that you are tired, and that caffeine works as “antagonist” to its receptors in brain. That means that it binds to its receptors, but does not activate them (other compounds bind to receptors *and* activate them).
That practically means that caffeine blocks the receptor from being activated by the adenosine circulating in your body, so you don’t feel tired until the caffeine effect wears off and your body suddenly finds out there’s a lot of adenosine floating around.
How long it takes for the effect to wear off depends on your genetic predispositions – whether you are slow or fast caffeine metabolizer (I’m a fast metabolizer, but I’m not sure how that information is helpful. I still have sleep issues if I drink caffeine a few hours before sleep).
Something new that I learned is that on top of blocking adenosine, caffeine also increases activity of dopamine (motivation and reward neurotransmitter) and glutamate (neurotransmitter involved in learning and long term potentiation), and decreases GABA (inhibitory neurotransmitter that is calming us down).
So in theory with caffeine you feel less tired, more motivated, and you learn better. Awesome.
Surprising studies about impact on nervous system
We all know that as we drink coffee often we build tolerance.
But it’s not as easy as it seems. My surprise: coffee works *very* differently on habitual vs. non-habitual users.
In non-habitual users, caffeine activates sympathetic nervous system (flight, fight or freeze). That could explain why you are so alert when you drink coffee. Unfortunately it also inhibits parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), so your recovery takes longer. You should not have coffee after your Spartan Race.
Habitual coffee users
Unless you are a habitual user of caffeine.
Because in habitual users caffeine does the exact opposite – it *activates* parasympathetic nervous system. So if you are already used to drink coffee, caffeine kind of does the opposite of what it does for non-drinkers.
But wait, it gets even stranger. The study found out that… (In the same habitual users,) decaffeinated espresso *inhibits* parasympathetic nervous system.
I drink decaf coffee for taste and I’ve never expected that it has any real effect. Yet it seem to have effect, and at least for habitual users it’s exactly in the opposite way compared to caffeine.
Obviously, there are some other compounds in coffee that have impact on our nervous system, and as usual it gets more complex as we look into more details.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find any information on whether the effects of caffeine on sympathetic system are restarted after some time with decaf coffee. My intuition is that probably not, so I need to rethink my caffeine reset strategy and avoid any type of coffee.
New strategy for caffeine reset
No more decaf coffee during my decaf week. Which sucks because I also learned that 1 week is enough and body needs 2 – 8 weeks for reset. And while I like lattes from almond milk, I would miss the coffee experience.
Luckily I found replacement that still tastes quite good – dandelion coffee in one of my favorite places to eat in Singapore’s CBD area. Luckily they are willing to sell a pack for me – paying 6.50 SGD twice every day would be a bit of a stretch.
I only focused on caffeine as energy booster, but there are a lot of studies done on other health properties of coffee. Anything from antioxidants, anti-inflammatory effects, Alzheimers, depression, liver heath, and many more. And I don’t think it’s just coffee lobby paying for all that research.
Of course there are some studies suggesting there are negative effects beyond those on autonomous nervous system. You probably want to avoid coffee if your blood pressure is high. As with everything, be careful and don’t overdo it.
Not your cup of tea? Try l-theanine
Tea is another great source of caffeine. Plus – among other good things – it also contains l-theanine.
L-theanine works very differently from caffeine. It also crosses blood-brain barrier, where it binds to glutamate receptors and activates them. Glutamate is the only neurotransmitter that is always excitory, hence the alertness. But l-theanine does much more. It also increases serotonin, dopamine, glycine and GABA (the only always inhibitory neurotransmitter). It also increases alpha brain waves.
To me that explained why tea gives me more mellow and more manageable energy.
Special magic: Caffeine + l-theanine
But it turns out that the real magic happens when these two meet. There are synergistic effects that can be valuable – things like more alertness and better cognitive performance, better attention and even more alpha waves.
I love this finding because matcha (green tea grown in shade, dried and ground into fine powder) has become my favorite ingredient in bulletproof coffee.
I did my decaf experiment before I found out about half of this stuff, so it still included decaf coffee.
I did it the usual way, but with the idea in mind that I might never come back to drinking caffeinated beverages. 2 days of easing in to avoid withdrawal symptoms, and then 7 days without caffeine.
No, I will *not* give up coffee.
I thought a lot about this. Yes, coffee is a drug and I understand Jocko’s point and usefulness of not depending on any drug to perform the best. It absolutely makes sense for soldiers in conflict zones – if the supply of coffee is cut off, withdrawal headache or drowsiness could be a dangerous thing.
But I’m not a soldier in conflict zone. I live in Singapore and great coffee is abundant, albeit pricey. Even cheap coffee is relatively good (kopi-o-kosong please). I don’t think Singapore will run out of coffee anytime soon, and if yes I will for sure have much bigger problems to take care of.
There is no point for me to give up coffee – it’s not taking away anything from me, and it gives me a lot in terms of enjoyment and productivity.
For example we went stand up paddleboarding one Saturday. We left in the morning, had a good time (some of us), and returned in the early afternoon. I was pleasantly tired after all the sun and sea and exercise, but I wanted to be productive for the rest of the day – do some research and prepare presentation for the Life Hackers meetup.
How do I overcome that without coffee? I tried taking a short nap, but it didn’t work. I tried breathing exercise, no impact. Even my usual combo Pomodoro + brain.fm was not really working. I took Dopamine brain food, it worked a bit for focus, but I still felt tired.
I know that in such situation one cup of coffee will take me back to track. Why would I give up such a good tool?
Take-aways from this experiment
But this experiment was not worthless. I learned things, and I will adjust my approach based on that.
- I will extend decaf week to 3 decaf weeks, and I will not drink any decaf coffee during that time (sob sob)
- I will use caffeine more strategically. No more mindless drinking. I will use it when appropriate – when I need to work on something and want to be energized and focused. Or at least I will make sure to enjoy it properly.
- I feel even better about adding matcha to BPC 🙂
This all made me realize how much I enjoy these two beverages. Both coffee and tea made it into “I am grateful for …” section of my 5 minute journal. Thank you nature and evolution for your wonderful gifts.