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Why giving up caffeine could cause splitting headaches, crankiness and fatigue

by Martyn Jones
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Why giving up caffeine could cause splitting headaches, crankiness and fatigue

Resisting your cravings for a cup of coffee may not be worth it.

Splitting headaches, lack of focus and irritability— as well as the obvious side effect of feeling a bit sleepier— are common withdrawal symptoms from quitting caffeine. 

And the more caffeine fuelled drinks you consume, the more severe side-effects may be when you stop.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘If you’re used to drinking caffeinated drinks, then cutting these out quickly might lead to headaches, feeling tired and lethargic, or having trouble concentrating.’

Caffeine is the most commonly used drug in the world. In the UK people drink an average of two cups of coffee a day. If you are used to drinking coffee every day, you will probably feel the side-effects if you suddenly decided to quit. This could include headaches, fatigue and nausea

What contains caffeine and how much is safe to drink?

  • Coffee, tea, colas and energy drinks contain high amounts of caffeine. 
  • Caffeinated drinks are unsuitable for toddlers and young children.
  • Pregnant women should have no more than 200mg of caffeine a day because high levels of caffeine can result in babies having a low birthweight.
  • One mug of instant coffee contains around 100mg of caffeine.
  • Energy drinks can contain 80mg of caffeine in a small 250ml can. This is the same as two cans of cola or a small mug of coffee.
  • The NHS advises that tea and coffee is fine to drink as part of a balanced diet.
  • But caffeinated drinks can make the body produce urine more quickly. 

Headaches

If you have ever attempted to survive a day at work without caffeine, you may have been forced to bring your health kick to an early end by the unwanted presence of a banging headache. 

But what is the reason for the pounding headache?  

Professor Barbara Sahakian, a neuroscientist from the University of Cambridge, who has researched the impact coffee has on the brain, explained caffeine constricts the blood vessels in your brain, and over time, you get used to it.

But when you skip your morning coffee, the blood vessels relax and an unexpected amount of blood is pumped into the brain, causing a headache. 

She said: ‘Usually, symptoms start 12 to 24 hours after stopping caffeine intake and peak within one or two days but may persist for much longer.’

However, headaches can be caused by a plethora of other things too, including dehydration, too much alcohol and stress. 

If your headache keeps coming back, painkillers do not work or you feel sick and find light or noise painful you should see your GP.  

Fatigue

Unsurprisingly, without your morning coffee fix, you may find yourself fighting off the urge to have a snooze. 

Caffeine structurally resembles a chemical which is naturally present in our brain, called adenosine which is responsible for making you feel sleepy.

Like a lock and key, caffeine fits into the adenosine receptors, blocking the chemical and making you feel more awake. 

Once the caffeine wears off, it can result in making you feel very tired and sleepy. 

According to research, the withdrawal effects are exaggerated in people who drink coffee or tea every day.

This is because caffeine causes their brain’s chemistry to change over time and produce more adenosine receptors to keep up with the constant supply of caffeine. 

It is a cruel catch-22 that causes regular coffee drinkers to build up a tolerance to caffeine, making the urge to snooze even greater when you stop drinking it. 

Moody and cranky 

Going cold turkey and abruptly quitting coffee could also make you feel cranky.  

It is well known that coffee can pick up your mood.  

The stimulant increases the release of a group of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters — dopamine and norepinephrine.

Dopamine influences your mood and feelings and norepinephrine increases heart rate, breathing rate, and blood glucose levels.

As a result, if you stop drinking coffee, and these chemical signals are sent out at a slower rate, you could notice a big drop in your mood and energy levels making you feel cranky. 

If you are a regular coffee drinker that has attempted to go a day without caffeine, you may have experienced a headache. Caffeine constricts the blood vessels in your brain, and over time, your brain gets used to it. But when you skip your morning coffee the blood vessels relax and an unexpected amount of blood is pumped into the brain, causing a headache

If you are a regular coffee drinker that has attempted to go a day without caffeine, you may have experienced a headache. Caffeine constricts the blood vessels in your brain, and over time, your brain gets used to it. But when you skip your morning coffee the blood vessels relax and an unexpected amount of blood is pumped into the brain, causing a headache

Lack of focus

Just like its effects on fatigue, if you suddenly stop drinking coffee altogether, you will notice a difference in your concentration levels.

A US study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition in 2020 suggested caffeine can improve your problem-solving capabilities.  

This is because caffeine has an effect on the chemicals in your brain, including glutamate which is vital for learning and memory.

But after the caffeine wears off, your hormones will begin to realign and the chemicals that help you concentrate start to be sent out at a slower rate, giving you a cloud of brain fog. 

Experts say feeling sick is a common withdrawal symptom for many things including giving up coffee and it could last a few days. However, drinking coffee and not giving it up also wreaks havoc on your digestive system causing have unpleasant side effects

Experts say feeling sick is a common withdrawal symptom for many things including giving up coffee and it could last a few days. However, drinking coffee and not giving it up also wreaks havoc on your digestive system causing have unpleasant side effects

Nausea 

Coffee can wreak havoc on your digestive system, both when you consume too much and when you refrain from drinking it. 

It is not uncommon to experience flu-like symptoms including nausea and a queasy feeling when you stop gulping down the coffee — that is according to a study published in Johns Hopkins Medical Journal in 2004. 

Coffee can cause muscle contractions in the digestive system, which has been shown to relieve constipation. 

As a result, when you stop drinking it, it can impact how regularly you go to the toilet. 

A questionnaire study by Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield in 1990, published in Gut, found that caffeinated coffee increased bowl movements within four minutes for a third of participants. 

However, hot water and decaffeinated coffee did not have the same effect, suggesting caffeine is the culprit. 

This change in your digestive system when you cut out caffeine could also be responsible for the unpleasant queasy feeling. 

Tremors and shakes 

Feeling jittery and shaky can occur from drinking too much coffee because caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant.

But, although rare, it can be a withdrawal symptom for those with a serious dependency. 

Experts say there is nothing you need to do to stop the tremors and they should pass in a few days.

Better sleep, whiter teeth, lower blood pressure and less anxiety are some of the long-term positives that you could see after quitting coffee if you can bare the temporary side-effects

Better sleep, whiter teeth, lower blood pressure and less anxiety are some of the long-term positives that you could see after quitting coffee if you can bare the temporary side-effects

What are the benefits of quitting coffee?

Once you have put yourself through a banging headache, nausea, tiredness and brain fog, you may be wondering what the benefits of quitting even are. 

According to experts, better sleep, whiter teeth, lower blood pressure and less anxiety are some of the long-term positives you could experience after giving up, if you can bare the temporary side-effects.  

Harley Street nutritionist Kim Pearson believes that having severe withdrawal symptoms could be a sign you were consuming too much caffeine in the first place. 

She said: ‘If you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms, it’s a sign you’ve been consuming too much and have become dependent on it. Caffeine is a drug after all. 

‘If you have been over consuming caffeine then coming off it for a while, or at least cutting down, is a good idea.’  

However, she adds that research has also shown that coffee consumption can help reduce the risk of certain diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinsons and certain cancers. 

Ms Taylor, of the British Heart Foundation, explained caffeine, if consumed in moderate amounts, is not bad for your heart. 

She said: ‘Although coffee is often thought as something we should give up to protect our heart health, that’s not necessarily the case. 

‘For most healthy people, a moderate intake of caffeine shouldn’t be detrimental to your heart health, for example, around four to five cups of tea or coffee a day.’

She added: ‘Coffee has been shown to increase blood pressure, but this effect is usually temporary and is minimised over time if you drink caffeinated drinks regularly.’

She added that it is not just caffeine you should be wary of if you are concerned about your heart health, but also sugary drinks. 

She said: ‘If you want a healthy cup of coffee avoid added syrups, sugar, cream or large milky coffees – they all add up in terms of sugar, calories and saturated fat.’

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