Adding back coffee – a little at a time.

Kim-Sutton-Positive-Productivity-Coffee-and-ComputerI’ve been “off” coffee for a couple of years now.

Well, not entirely off, but severely curtailed. I went from drinking 3-4 cups a day (starting with two big cups in the morning) to barely one cup a day.

I’d start with 1/3 cup of really strong coffee, and then I’d have another small cup of strong coffee in the afternoon — preferably no later than 2 p.m., because if I drank it later, it would throw off my sleep schedule, and then I couldn’t get to sleep.

And in between, I’d eat chocolate to keep myself going. Because… chocolate. Caffeine. Sugar. Other tasty anti-oxidants in there to pump up my flagging energy.

But I had to give it up. Chocolate. Especially coffee.

What would make me do such a thing as give up my regular flow of dark and lovely caffeine? Well, all those cups were contributing to migraines — constant headaches that rarely went away. I had a non-stop headache, it seemed, for years. And I didn’t even realize it could be any other way. I figured it was just how my life was going to be, for now and evermore.

Untrue.

When I was told by a neurologist that caffeine (which includes chocolate) can actually trigger migraines, it amazed me. Here, I’d thought they actually reduced headaches. That’s what I’d been told, anyway. But the science is there — with some kinds of migraines, caffeine can actually make things worse. And discontinuing can help.

That’s what happened with me.

But lately, I’ve been reintroducing a little more caffeine (and occasional chocolate) into my days, without too much adverse effect. I’ve been having slight headaches, but nowhere near the intense ones that used to be constant with me. And since I notice them more, now, than when they were non-stop, those headaches are a good signpost for when (and how) I need to make different choices and do things differently.

Just the other day, someone had left some candy on the counter near the coffee maker at work. It was a kind I used to really love. Couldn’t get enough of it. I was able to walk past both the coffee maker and the candy all morning, but in the afternoon, as I was making my 1:30 p.m. 1/2 cup of espresso, I nabbed a few pieces and ate them slowly.

Sweet. On so many levels.

And then I drank my 1/2 cup of coffee. And I had another 1/2 cup a few hours later. No immediate headache. At least, not that I could tell.

I’ve been drinking a little more coffee, nowadays… and while I have developed low-level headaches (I have one right now), they’re not so awful that I can’t function. I’m keeping an eye on it, but so far, so good.

And the other good news is that with my regular daily exercise and eating a really healthy diet, I have been able to get to sleep, even if I have a little caffeine after 2 p.m. Sometimes I’ll have some at 4:00, and I’ll still be able to get to sleep. I think it’s because I’m really actively living my life. I’m “all in”, each and every day, and I also usually finish up the day with stretching and relaxing before I go to sleep.

That last bit — stretching my back and legs before I tuck in for the night — has actually done me a world of good. If I don’t stretch, I often find myself waking up at 3 a.m. in pain, and I can’t get back to sleep.

So, stretching before sleep is really helpful. As is relaxing before I turn off the light. Just consciously relaxing makes a huge difference. Until I learned how to do it (it didn’t come naturally), life was a whole lot harder than it needed to be.

Well, it’s Friday, and that’s a good thing. I’ve got a full weekend ahead of me, and I’m working from home today to get myself geared up. Relax a little bit. Tie up loose ends from the week. And get ready for what’s next.

It’s all good.

Onward.

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Getting off coffee — After the migraine subsides

So, this is interesting. I did something to my system over the weekend, and I came down with a horrific migraine yesterday afternoon. It was the worst one I’ve had in quite some time. I’ve had some of those where you go blind in one eye and the world is spinning and you feel like you’re going to throw up, but I don’t remember the headache and weird feeling and light sensitivity ever being as bad as they were yesterday.

Holy crap.

I really didn’t expect it at all. My weekend was going really well. I was cutting back on the coffee and eating a more substantial breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, along with more fruits and vegetables throughout the day, getting more exercise (I rode the bike a long while on Saturday and Sunday and went for multiple hikes in the woods, up to the top of a nearby hill in our local conservation area), and drinking more water. I felt fantastic, with a lot of energy. I also got some roasted dandelion root tea, to try out as a substitute for coffee. I drank some on Saturday afternoon. It was nothing to write home about, and certainly not a reliable substitute for coffee. But it was worth a try. It was in the coffee aisle at the grocery store, after all.

But I woke up to a screaming migraine after my nap on Sunday afternoon. Couldn’t stand the light, head throbbing, sick to my stomach, feeling dull and drugged. Usually my headaches are just there, but this one was intrusive. Holy crap, whenever I moved, it just thrashed me. Up around an 8.5 – 9 on a scale of 1 – 10. I had a bunch of things I wanted to do on Sunday afternoon, but all I could do was sit in a dark room with my sunglasses on, soaking my feet in a hot mustard bath.

I had half a cup of coffee, ate a banana and a piece of chocolate, took a couple of Advil, and drank water (how’s that for performance enhancement?) and I started to feel better. Not as sensitive to light and not as sick. Still not great, but better than I had been. You do what you have to do.

I suspect this was partly about cutting back on coffee… increasing my exercise… changing my diet… and drinking that tea. All that change was abrupt, even if it was in a positive direction. I have a tendency to overdo things out of enthusiasm, and I think this was one of those times. I’m nervous about the MRI, and my anxiety is really rising. So, to calm myself down, I do things that give me the sense that I have some control over my life — changing my diet, exercising, trying new foods, cutting out coffee.

I’ve done some reading over the weekend about migraines, and they can be triggered by a bunch of things, including changes to diet and activity – check, and check. I know that exercise tends to start a headache with me, and I did start to get a bit of an ache while I was riding the bike — both days. But it’s usually just a headache, not the nausea, crazy feeling, and intense sensitivity to light that had me walking around the house with all the curtains drawn and wearing my sunglasses because even through the curtains, the light was too bright.

So, I did a number of things differently than usual, and I learned my lesson. I need to take things slowly — gradually — not dive in head-first, as I tend to do. Impulsiveness plus anxiety equals — surprise!

And not a good surprise, either. Right now, I’m fighting back more throbbing pain, keeping the blinds drawn, and reaching for the Advil. I don’t want to take the Imitrex, because I don’t know what it will do to me, and I have to be “on” this morning.

So, I need to take things easy and make change gradually. Not bombard my system like it’s a machine. As much as I like the idea of roasted dandelion root tea as an alternative for coffee, I don’t think it’s going to do it for me. I think it really contributed to the migraine. After the pain subsided to a relatively simple headache of “4” on a scale of “10”, I tried to drink it again yesterday evening. And the headache started up again. So, even if it’s not the sole contributor, it did not make things better for me. Dandelion is a natural diuretic, and it has other properties, too, that are used as home remedies.  I got some to get ready for my MRI on Wednesday, so I can flush out my system and not be poisoned (too much) by the contrast agent. But I just can’t do it.

Well, better I learn now, than later. That’s for sure. I’d rather get this lesson out of the way ahead of time, while I have the time to rest and recuperate. I have a busy day on Thursday, so I need to not get knocked out by the MRI on Wednesday. Most people don’t have problems with it, and they look at me like I have two heads when I tell them I get sick afterwards, but so what? I know what happens to me, and I need to get ready.

So, it’s plain water and healthy foods for me, thank you very much.

Onward.

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.

 

Tea at Two

Time for a hot drink

It’s 2 p.m. right now. I’ve got a little pot of tea steeping on the desk in front of me, and I’ve got a bunch of things I need to do this afternoon and evening, including some audio production, checking on my federal tax refund status, helping a friend with their website, and taping the Super Bowl to watch later.

I have this thing about watching games I care about — not going to say which team I’m rooting for, just ’cause I don’t want to get into that whole rah-rah business right now — when there’s a lot riding on the game, I have a hard time watching, because I tend to get so invested in the outcome. I love football. Always loved to play it, always loved to watch it. But it’s much more entertaining for me, if I can watch the game for the sake of the game, knowing what the ultimate outcome is, rather than getting all tweaked out with suspense.

Suspense, for me, can be a killer. Especially on a Sunday, when I have an early day tomorrow – which I do.

So, I’m going to tape the game and watch it after the fact, with plenty of time to pause and rewind and fast-forward through all the commercials.

Anyway, I have this tea. Low caffeine, lots of flavor. I need something, because it’s cold today, and I need to not keep snacking all the live-long day. The bad eating habits I developed over the holidays have persisted, and I’m spending less time chewing my food, I’m giving myself larger portions, and I’m doing more between-meals snacking. Not good. My weight is up — but the real problem is not that I weigh more, rather than I’m feeling more sluggish and less sharp than I used to.

Something has got to change.

One thing at a time — instead of making a snack or fixing another cup of coffee to jazz me up, I’m having tea. At two.

I’m looking around my office, marveling at how cluttered it’s become. Usually it doesn’t bother me, but it’s been getting to me, more and more. Several years back — five years, actually — I cleaned the whole place out and had a really great workspace set up. I’ve regressed, since then, and I’m surrounded by all the things that catch my fancy and I like having around me. I have a lot of artifacts from my past adventures — cards from different occasions, odd assortments of hardware and tools and mementos from endeavors and adventures, pens and pencils and books and unopened mail that I should really be getting to.

It’s this wild assortment of all the things that matter to me in life — and in the spot of honor to my right, is the new double CD of Johnny Cash’s Bootleg Vol II — two CDs full of his music from the 50s and 60s. I started listening to some of it yesterday, and I really liked what I heard. I’ll have to listen some more. After I get some of my chores done and can sit down to work on the assortment of technical things I have been meaning to tend to.

The day is half over, and I’m good with it.

I went out for a walk this morning, after I half of did my morning routine. It’s a beautiful day today, and rather than riding the exercise bike for 15 minutes, I got out and waked for over an hour. Does the body good — especially my knees, which have been getting used to the experience of sitting cross-legged each morning (and some evenings) while I sit and breathe and balance my autonomic nervous system. It also helped to get the blood pumping, which I haven’t done as much of, as busy at work as I have been.

Busy tends to mean sedentary. And that’s no good. I feel sluggish and “gooped up” which stands to reason. If I haven’t moved the lymph in my system with some good extended exercise, then I can fully expect my body to get pretty sludged up. Lymph doesn’t move itself. And with winter winding down, it’s soon time for the second wave of colds and flu. Great…

Anyway, I had a good walk, went down a road I haven’t walked down for a couple of years, took a good look over a long valley to a mountain on the other side, and headed back into the woods for a bit. I walked around an icy pond that was filling the woods with sounds of the ice cracking and splitting in the morning sun. It’s been an uneven winter, with cold snaps but not enough hard cold to thicken ice to a safe walking thickness. More people fell through ice this year, than in recent memory. Pay attention, people. Pay attention.

So, in 2 more minutes, it will be 2:22 p.m. I’ve said my piece, I’ve had my tea. I’ve done some chores, and I know what else needs to be done. I’ll listen to Johnny Cash later on this afternoon — maybe after my nap. For now, it’s back to business as usual.

Ah, now it is 2:22. Signing off….