Getting off coffee – as quickly as I can

Say it isn’t so

So, my new neuro encouraged me to get off coffee to help my migraines.

Oh, great wailing and gnashing of teeth!!! How can anyone expect me to do away with coffee?! It’s ridiculous. Why would I do away with my last real vice (aside from super-dark chocolate)? It’s the only thing that helps my mood and thinking when I’m dragging — which is a lot — generally within 4 hours of waking up and living my full-tilt-boogie life.

I scoffed at the very thought of it. Give up coffee. Yeah, right. Not gonna happen.

Why would anyone ask me to do such a thing — especially for headaches? I always thought that caffeine helped headaches, since so many headache medicines (including “Migraine formula” versions) have caffeine in them.But apparently, it’s the other way around. It doesn’t help. It hurts.

Here’s how I understand things now, based on what I’ve learned in the past 48 hours.

I found an article over at Lifehacker.com What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain and it was kind of sobering for me.

I’ll quote from the article:

Right off the bat, it’s worth stating again: the human brain, and caffeine, are nowhere near totally understood and easily explained by modern science. That said, there is a consensus on how a compound found all over nature, caffeine, affects the mind.

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain

Every moment that you’re awake, the neurons in your brain are firing away. As those neurons fire, they produce adenosine as a byproduct, but adenosine is far from excrement. Your nervous system is actively monitoring adenosine levels through receptors. Normally, when adenosine levels reach a certain point in your brain and spinal cord, your body will start nudging you toward sleep, or at least taking it easy. There are actually a few different adenosine receptors throughout the body, but the one caffeine seems to interact with most directly is the A1 receptor. More on that later.

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain

Enter caffeine. It occurs in all kinds of plants, and chemical relatives of caffeine are found in your own body. But taken in substantial amounts—the semi-standard 100mg that comes from a strong eight-ounce coffee, for instance—it functions as a supremely talented adenosine impersonator. It heads right for the adenosine receptors in your system and, because of its similarities to adenosine, it’s accepted by your body as the real thing and gets into the receptors.

Update: Commenter dangermou5e reminds us of web comic The Oatmeal’s take on adenosine and caffeine. It’s concise:

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain

What Caffeine Actually Does to Your Brain

More important than just fitting in, though, caffeine actually binds to those receptors in efficient fashion, but doesn’t activate them—they’re plugged up by caffeine’s unique shape and chemical makeup. With those receptors blocked, the brain’s own stimulants, dopamine and glutamate, can do their work more freely—”Like taking the chaperones out of a high school dance,” Braun writes in an email. In the book, he ultimately likens caffeine’s powers to “putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.”

It’s an apt metaphor, because it spells out that caffeine very clearly doesn’t press the “gas” on your brain, and that it only blocks a “primary” brake. There are other compounds and receptors that have an effect on what your energy levels feel like—GABA, for example—but caffeine is a crude way of preventing your brain from bringing things to a halt.

So, basically, it’s keeping my body from putting the brakes on, disguising fatigue from the receptors that are built to realize when there’s a bunch of adenosine in my system.

That can’t be good, if I’m running out of steam and genuinely need to rest. Basically, it sounds like caffeine is tricking my body into picking up speed, when it should be doing just the opposite.

I kept reading… and when I Googled “coffee neurotoxin”, I came across this article: Coffee, caffeine, performance and you.

I quote again:

Caffeine is neurotoxin alkaloid. It stops insects eating plants. It works by being a very similar shape to adenosine, a nucleotide which is very important in energy transfer and neurotransmission. Adenosine inhibits nerve firing because it prevents the release of excitatory neurochemicals such as serotonin and acetylcholine.

The structure of caffeine as elucidated by Hermann Emil Fischer.

Caffeine settles into the adenosine receptors in the surface of neurons and in doing so, prevents adenosine itself from getting in there. Therefore no receptor activation can occur and the effect is just the opposite. With no adenosine in place to tranquilise the nerve, excitory neurochemicals will be released. Blood vessels constrict in your head and neck, the rate of nerve firing increases, your blood pressure and heart rate may rise and you experience a renewed interest and vigour when it comes to your Excel document.

Your higher cognitive function is now improved. Even what you can see is enhanced. The stimulation of nerves which use acetylcholine to send their messages affects a variety of areas in the body and brain. The visual cortex is one such area and drinking coffee causes an enhancement in our ability to process the shape, colour and location of visual objects.

 So, here’s this neurotoxin getting into my system, pumping me up and cranking out those neurochemicals. It might not seem like such a bad thing, but I’ve also heard that part of the excitory activity actually comes from the body’s defense response to a perceived threat from the caffeine, which some have called a natural pesticide. So, my system is getting a dose of pesticide and going into fight-flight mode to defend itself from this threat I’m introducing on purpose, which then makes me feel like I’m doing better, when it’s really the adrenaline that’s coursing through my veins that’s telling me that.

I don’t actually become better. I just feel like I am.

So, here’s what I take from this whole little 48-hour research investigation of mine:

Caffeine is bad stuff — especially if you have issues with fatigue and TBI. I mean, seriously, when I’m fatigued, I need to rest and recuperate, not push myself through like I always do. That fries my system and makes sure I’m in a persistent state of fight-flight. I know for a fact that that’s no good — it makes it difficult to learn and use higher cognitive functions. And the longer and more intensely I use caffeine, the more I’m stressing my system and whacking it out and jeopardizing my recovery.

In TBI recovery, you need to rebuild connections in your brain and re-learn things your system has (in)conveniently forgotten. Fight-flight marination in adrenaline impairs learning. So, if TBI recovery is dependent on learning, then coffee, tea, caffeine, even chocolate, are all a threat to my successful progress.

I had no idea.

It would have helped, had my neuro actually explained all this to me in a way I could understand. But it really took a passionate raw-food vegetarian fruitarian Australian dude living(?) in Thailand to make it clear. Here’s his expose that started turning things around for me:

Anyway, there it is. More to come on this, but for now,  it’s time to seriously cut out the caffeine.

 

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Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

20 thoughts on “Getting off coffee – as quickly as I can”

  1. I’d be willing to look into this further but only from another source that doesn’t oversimplify (and just plain get some things wrong) neuropharmacology and neurobiology to make their point. It’s also very much slanted towards declaring caffeine a toxic substance. It modulates adenosine receptor activity but it isn’t necessarily poisoning our adenosine-dependent neuronal pathways. There are benefits to drinking coffee that are also cited by naturopathic health advocates and doctors. Even in the case of TBI recovery not everyone will have the same response to eliminating caffeine from (or adding it to) their diet. Take your time and look at it from other sources and make up your own mind.

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  2. Hey you,

    It’s been a while since I’ve commented. I definitely had to jump on this one with some more funky Neurology.

    I have migraines. For everyone, it can be a total trigger or not. Like caffeine you mentioned, red wine (usually due to the tannins.) A whole load of thing as I’m sure you know.

    What do you need to help? Vasodilation! Here’s where a big flip flop comes in. For some people when they get a migraine, they can make it stop by drinking caffeine!

    It’s true! I’ve tried it! Granted with only partial success at onset. However, I’ll add another granted. My prodrome is basically my migraine. Afterward, I can try and search back for something?

    So that second granted, is that it might work better for others. Caffeine for vasodilation for migraines or other?

    Now I’m going to go all epilepsy on you! This is cool–but also ugly. Neurology Rocks!
    *laughing ”

    Well, I suppose not epilepsy alone but for anyone who has seizures regularly.

    It’s a bit of a deviation but it’s REALLY important about quitting what most people would think a pretty harmless, although possibly addictive substance. And don’t forget, you can become addicted to caffeine and suffer horrible withdrawal.

    However, we are talking about neurochemistry, transmitters etc?

    Sure, some caffeine in cigarettes but it’s the nicotine that make some of us sick. VERY.

    People with epilepsy have an unbelievably high number of nicotine receptors than those who don’t have it. Some people can start seizing all over the place after quitting, thus needing serious medical monitoring to do it successfully (hopefully.)

    I’ve quit cold turkey several times in my life. My epilepsy was in remission, or I suppose my seizures weren’t that noticeable. They were confined to very small Simple Partials.

    Some time ago, I quit cold turkey. Hey! I’ve done it before! Oh, boy! With my epilepsy now, as soon as I did it? My head, the world, swirly, no thinky…

    I ran out and bought some cigarettes. After I had a two or three, everything was alright. So now, I know I have to taper. Just like a med.

    Because all of things work in the same way. They just don’t come written on a prescription pad.

    Take care,
    PA

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  3. Sounds like good reasoning to me, thanks. One if the chief issues I am trying to solve these days is how to get better rest. And also be more autonomous in my diet – that is, be less dependent on foids I “can’t” do without. Coffee and chocolate are huge crutches for me, and I would like to give it a go without the, for a while.

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  4. Hello again – thanks for writing.

    I’m feeling the withdrawal thing as I “titrate off” the coffee. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get rid of it 100%, but it’s worth at least backing off, so I can jump-start my body to start doing what the caffeine has done for it, lo these many years. I’m having a cup right now, as a matter of fact — sans the butter and oil, for today. I abstained completely yesterday afternoon — I usually have a cup around 3 or 4 in the afternoon on the weekends, but yesterday I went without. Typical withdrawal symptoms: irritability, lethargy, feeling squirrely. But I know what it is, so it’s not terribly disruptive.

    I don’t drink any alcohol, and I quit smoking 25 years ago, so those aren’t in the picture.

    It will be interesting to see how this goes. Gradually is working out to be best. As usual.

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  5. Hi again. You hang in there. Get lots of rest as withdrawal makes you exhausted.

    I don’t know if you have Benzos available but standard treatment. They’re used to help keep you calm and not like you say above. And me too because…

    I’ve been through this so many times at home from alcohol and discontinuing cigarettes too. The time has always varied.

    So hopefully all this messing around won’t take that long.

    I’m still working on the cigarettes, but have recently joined AA! Not good to quit two things at once. And with my brain. Are you serious? My doctors know I’d explode, so all good.

    I’ve been sober for just 40 days now!

    So you take care too. Let’s both do it.

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  6. Congrats on your recovery! Awesome. I don’t have access to benzos – want to stay as clean as possible. I never thought of coffee as a serious addiction, but it has the potential to complete ly wreck me, so…

    Yeah, let’s do this together. One day at a time, as my AA friends say.

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  7. very good article, i really like how you tie in the fight or flight stuff with caffeine, i love the way you explain things in youre writing, its perfect for how my brain tries to figure things out. and i guess I’m not ready to do anything until I’m in fight or flight mode each day, haha! i think youre studies and writing are going in a really interesting direction. i experience this coffee craziness often as i drink about a half gallon each morning before eating i need more than a cup or little buzz to get a move on for the day and many days its 4 – 6 hours of coffee drinking before I’m “good to go”. but i never thought it to be harmful to my brain, instead i thought it to be good, and help me be “more on top of my game”. certainly not as bad as booze!
    for now, i avoid the alcohol, that one is a real kicker and brain wrecker, (never heard of divorce because he’s a coffee drinker) haha, which is a whole other intertwined series of complicated mess, when combined with T.B.I. and P.T.S.D. alcoholism is connected in many ways, so for now i hold tight to my coffee and cigarettes. very informative article and youve given me even more to think about! i have had people comment on my strangeness and “mood swings” after caffeine intake, but my response is always i feel great, its the caffeine kicking in 😀

    i love youre blog and its a sort of online home base where i find clarity or often can make sense of things. a true friend who can understand the challenges despite never meeting.

    often when i read youre articles, its as if youre explaining to me whats going on in my life that i dont understand. you answer questions i didnt know needed asking, and then i can better understand what was so confusing to begin with.

    recovery is a balancing act of self maintainence, not an end goal.
    thank you so much

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  8. Thanks for writing – this is a really excellent way to start the week. I appreciate the kind words, and also hearing about your own experience. TBI and PTSD and alcoholism go hand-in-hand so often, I’m surprised there isn’t a whole field of study about it. Or maybe there is, and I just don’t know about it. Anyway, we always have opportunities to become better versions of ourselves. Each choice we make can point us in the right direction… or … not. It’s all a process and as you said, a balancing act.

    Be well and have a great day — and week!

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  9. Hi Peter – the process is… going. I overdid it over the weekend, and ended up with a migraine, but I’m sure it’s not only about cutting back on coffee. That part is actually going pretty well. I think I’ve found a happy balance — 1/2 cup in the morning, first thing, then 1/2 cup in the afternoon, before 2:00.

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  10. Hey, so I had an idea you might be able to implement. It depends on how you get your coffee prepared. If you do it yourself you might be able to alter the ratio of regular (what ever your favorite type is) to decaf (hopefully there’s s decaf version of your favorite) little by little over time.

    I’m thinking over the course of weeks. This would let you still keep the habit of an enjoyable warm/iced coffee in your day as well as getting the benefit of the nice things coffee supposedly gives you. Your neurons could then slowly adjust to the changing levels of caffeine present – closer to the gene expression rate in the nucleus and this potentially better matched to the cell’s ability to adjust on the fly.

    Again, it could be too complicated of your means of getting your coffee don’t allow it. You could try diluting regular coffee but that might just be too yucky.

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  11. Thanks for the idea. I love the idea of decaf, unfortunately it tends to make me sick to my stomach and give me a headache. I think it’s about the process they use to decaffeinate it. I think there are different ways they do it, so maybe not all decafs are created equal. I’ll have to do some research – it might just pay off.

    Thanks for the ideas. Steady on, is the best way… gradual changes… and peace.

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  12. Although the descriptions provided in those links on how caffeine chemically affects the brain are generally accurate (albeit oversimplified), and their classification of caffeine as a neurotoxin and “natural pesticide” is technically accurate, terms like “neurotoxin” sound more sinister than they really are, particularly to those who are not familiar with just what that means. For that reason, I question the motives of the sites you cited. The classification of a chemical as neurotoxic or pesticidal isn’t really meaningful without proper contextualization, given the broad nature of toxicity. As such, failure to contextualize such terms reeks of sensationalism.

    For example, ethanol (the alcohol which constitutes alcoholic beverages) is a neurotoxin. Nitric oxide, dopamine, and glutamate—all essential neurotransmitters—are endogenous neurotoxins. Just because something could be technically classified as a neurotoxin, that does not mean that it actually poses any danger to your health (neurological or otherwise) so long as you consume it within the appropriate doses. This is because a neurotoxin, like any toxin or poison, is wholly dependent on the dosage. As such, a wide array of chemicals—like oxygen and dihydrogen monoxide (water)—can be and are toxic or even deadly in high enough doses.

    When it comes to caffeine in particular, I cannot find any reputable sources which classify it as a neurotoxin for humans, probably due to the fact that caffeine is beneficial to humans in low to moderate doses and only toxic in very high doses (e.g., 5,000mg). There is, however, a wealth of literature—including numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies—confirming caffeine’s numerous beneficial effects on humans, including human cognitive functions. In that sense, caffeine could be classified as both hormetic and nootropic. Coffee and tea moreover yield additional health benefits due to the phytochemicals and flavonoids in them which possess antioxidant properties.

    As for caffeine’s pesticidal properties, that’s because caffeine—like oxygen and water—can be toxic in high enough doses relative to the organism and their metabolism. The fact that caffeine can kill slugs is as problematic for human dietary consumption as are alliums and their ability to kill a variety of other animals: they do not pose a threat to human health unless consumed in ridiculously high doses, typically doses which are not naturally occurring.

    Overall, I wouldn’t be concerned in the slightest about caffeine so long as you do not experience any adverse effects and average consumption is below 500mg. In fact, due to the beneficial properties of caffeine—not to mention the additional benefits from coffee, tea, and chocolate—I would personally recommend low to moderate consumption of caffeine. Whether you consume caffeine it is, of course, your choice and may be best given your TBI (I don’t know what caffeine’s specific effects on those with TBI are); however, I wouldn’t be concerned with the fact that caffeine could technically be classified as a neurotoxin or “natural pesticide”. As the cliché toxicological phrase goes, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

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  13. True enough. I have noticed a big reduction in headaches, since I cut out the caffeine – and chocolate, too, which has a lot of caffeine.

    It seems to be working for me.

    Thanks for all the info!

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  14. Former heavy coffee drinker here. I stopped to drink coffee almost 3 years ago. Had withdrawal headaches for about 6 months. Then it was done. Never looked back. I don’t miss drinking coffee AT ALL. Moreover, I find it quite strange that everybody seems to be addicted to it.

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  15. Well, it’s a drug. And it helps you do things quicker that take time and energy to do on your own. I have a theory that people have trained themselves out of being able to do things for themselves that coffee does. Also, it’s a bit of a status symbol, to be carting around a certain brand, or an expensive travel mug.

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