Many people use coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks to just get through the day sometimes, but if your caffeine dependence has gotten out of hand, you might think about cutting back. The only problem is you're worried about caffeine withdrawal and how long it will take you to function without it.
Not to worry — cutting back on your caffeine consumption doesn't have to be an agonizing experience as long as you do it the right way. Many people find that once they're consuming a moderate amount of caffeine, they enjoy many more of the stimulant's benefits without all of the drawbacks. Others who drink too much might experience a caffeine withdrawal headache or caffeine withdrawal nausea.
It takes about 10 hours for a dose of caffeine to leave your system, and you’ll feel the effects of caffeine withdrawal after about 12 to 24 hours without it. Expect these symptoms to last for about two to nine days.
Is Caffeine Addictive?
Let's start with the most obvious question: Is caffeine addictive? After all, people who consume caffeine every day don't feel so great once they try to give it up, and they find themselves going right back to their regular intake.
The short answer is no, you can't be addicted to caffeine. But you can be dependent on it, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. It's true that caffeine can give your brain a dose of dopamine, a chemical that affects your motivations and emotions, making you feel more awake. But caffeine doesn't affect the brain to quite the extent that other stimulants like ecstasy and meth do.
The Cleveland Clinic describes it as a tolerance — when your body comes to expect a certain amount of caffeine every day, it adjusts to functioning with that amount, so you need to keep consuming more and more to get the desired effects. When you cut back, the body starts to hurt, mostly in the form of a caffeine withdrawal headache or caffeine withdrawal nausea.
This was a point emphasized by Penn Medicine, which indicates people could have a physical, emotional and psychological dependence on caffeine if they drink it often, and they will suffer withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop.
How Much Is Too Much?
People worldwide consume caffeine more than they consume any other psychoactive drug, and as long as they are using it in low to moderate amounts, they're probably enjoying many benefits: increased energy, alertness, happiness and sociability.
Low to moderate amounts include 20 to 200 milligrams. The maximum amount that a person should consume in a day is 400 milligrams, the amount in approximately four cups of coffee. Any more than that and a person will start to have negative side effects.
If you are experiencing any of the following, you might be consuming too much caffeine, per the advice of the U.S. National Library of Medicine: restlessness and shakiness, insomnia, headaches, rapid or abnormal heart rhythm, nausea, dehydration and anxiety.
Don't just give up caffeine altogether though, as this could make the problem even worse. Instead, aim to decrease your consumption over time to avoid a caffeine withdrawal headache.
Read more: How Many Cups of Coffee Can You Drink a Day?
Caffeine Withdrawal Is How Long?
One of the reasons most people fail in cutting back on their caffeine consumption is because they try to give up too much too quickly. This triggers withdrawal symptoms, and people will usually go right back to their source of caffeine to alleviate them.
To understand caffeine withdrawal and how long it lasts, you should first understand how caffeine is processed by the body. After you consume caffeine — for example, by drinking a cup of coffee — the caffeine is absorbed into your bloodstream through your digestive tract, and you start to feel its effects in as little as 15 minutes. By four to six hours later, about half the caffeine is still in your system. About 10 hours later, all of it is finally out of you.
This is why you usually start to feel withdrawal effects within 12 to 24 hours after your last dose of caffeine; this reaches its peak around 20 to 51 hours later, and symptoms will last for about two to nine days.
Everybody will feel withdrawal differently, but symptoms can include headaches, tiredness or fatigue, depression, an inability to concentrate, nausea, vomiting and muscle pains.
So if you're wondering whether there's a link between caffeine withdrawal and diarrhea or whether caffeine withdrawal can make you dizzy, it is hard to say. Caffeine withdrawal and a headache are commonly associated with each other, as are caffeine withdrawal and nausea.
Even so, a headache isn't the same thing as dizziness, and nausea doesn't necessarily lead to diarrhea (dizziness and diarrhea are two symptoms more commonly linked to excess use rather than withdrawal).
Still, the incidence and severity of your symptoms have to do with the amount that you take, as you're not likely to see symptoms if you consume a normal amount. Symptoms are most frequently seen when somebody who is consuming more than 500 milligrams a day tries to cut back suddenly. Try reducing your consumption by 25 percent a week to avoid severe symptoms that will drive you right back to consuming the same amount.
Cleveland Clinic recommends switching between regular and decaf, ultimately replacing more and more of your coffee, tea or soda with decaffeinated versions over the course of several weeks. You can also replace cold caffeinated beverages with water, which will keep you hydrated and help flush caffeine from your body. Doing this will decrease your risk of a caffeine withdrawal headache or caffeine withdrawal nausea.
Once you have got your caffeine consumption under control, you should talk to your doctor about how much you can reasonably have. The U.S. National Library of Medicine discourages caffeine consumption in people who are pregnant, have sleep disorders, suffer migraines, have anxiety, have ulcers, have irregular heart rhythms and have high blood pressure, as caffeine could post a greater risk to their health.
Those who are striving for a caffeine-free life can combat headaches and fatigue with other methods like reasonable use of over-the-counter medications (look for ones made without caffeine), a nutritious diet, plenty of water to stay hydrated and high-quality sleep for eight to nine hours overnight.
- American Migraine Foundation: "Understanding Caffeine Headaches"
- Cleveland Clinic: “Caffeine and Headache”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Caffeine: Tips for Breaking the Habit”
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens: “Is Caffeine Really Addictive?”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: “Caffeine”
- Frontiers in Psychiatry: "The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review"
- Penn Medicine: "5 Caffeine Myths: Debunked"