Help, History, and Tips
Coffee, energy drinks, and other caffeinated beverages and food have become a staple in today’s society. A generation ago, coffee was a beverage reserved for adults, and energy drinks as they are known today were unheard of.
Now, it is common to see children as young as twelve bellying up to the local coffee bar for a 24 ounce drink loaded with calories and caffeine.
Truck drivers knock back so many “energy shots” that there have been cases of men who have died from heart attacks, which coroners attributed to their caffeine consumption. Perhaps these men wouldn’t have died if they’d gotten some kind of help.
Where did this stimulant come from? Why do so many people find themselves at the mercy of caffeine? And how can you end the addiction without suffering from the dreaded “caffeine headache?”
WHAT IS CAFFEINE
Caffeine, a naturally occurring plant alkaloid, is found in over sixty varieties of plants. It functions as a plant’s natural pesticide, paralyzing and killing certain insects that attempt to feed on the plant.
Coffee, tea, and cocoa beans are the most well-known of the plants which contain caffeine. Other plants are guarana and yerba mate, both used often in “natural” energy beverages.
A large portion of today’s population uses caffeine to combat fatigue. Caffeine is similar to drugs in that it has addictive qualities in common with substances like cocaine and heroin.
THE HISTORY OF CAFFEINE
Caffeine has been consumed in some way since early peoples first learned in the Stone Age that they could chew the bark, seeds, or leaves of some plants to produce feelings of alertness, to reduce fatigue, and to uplift their mood.
It wasn’t until much later in human history that is was discovered that soaking these plants in hot water for a time enhanced these desired effects.
No one is sure exactly when coffee first came on the scene, but one popular story says it was started in Ethiopia, the origin of Coffea Arabica. As the story goes, Kaldi, a goat herder, noticed that his goats were having trouble sleeping at night after munching on what is now known as coffee shrubs. When he sampled the berries of the bushes himself, he felt the same elation and sleeplessness that he’d observed in his goats.
Coffee consumption was noted by a European living in Egypt back in the late 1500s, around the same time that it was known to be used in the Near East as well.
The first London coffee houses opened in 1652, spreading in popularity throughout Europe, and became a focal point in European socializing.
The first time caffeine was extracted from cocoa beans into a white powder—the purest form of caffeine—was by Friedrich Ferdinand Runge, a scientist from Germany, back in the 1820s.
Today, the consumption of caffeine has become so commonplace that it is estimated that across the globe, there is consumed the equivalent of one serving per person per day—for the entire human population! Not only that, but ninety percent of North American adults will consume some amount of caffeine every day.
HOW CAFFEINE WORKS IN THE BRAIN
Strangely, caffeine isn’t actually a stimulant. In reality, it sets off a chain reaction in our brains whereby our own body stimulates itself to become more alert.
How does it do that?
When you consume something that contains caffeine, that caffeine is absorbed through the small intestine and into the bloodstream. As a fat-soluble chemical, caffeine can cross the blood-brain barrier. Because caffeine molecules are very close to adenosine molecules, the caffeine plugs itself into the brain cells’ adenosine receptors.
It’s almost like a stranger coming along and parking his car in your garage. With the “stranger’s car” (caffeine) blocking the “garage” (your brain cells’ adenosine receptors) that means that your own car (your natural adenosine) has no receptor site to “park” in.
Adenosine produces a feeling of tiredness, so when caffeine is hogging up all the adenosine receptors, the adenosine can’t do it’s job of making you tired…and you end up feeling more alert.
On top of that, when adenosine receptors are blocked, other natural stimulants like dopamine are able to work better. And if that didn’t get your body raring to go, with all of that extra adenosine available in the brain, the brain tells the adrenal glands to turn on adrenaline production.
Now you know where that jittery feeling comes from!
So you can see that caffeine isn’t technically a stimulant—it just gets the body to do a great job on its own of stimulating itself, all by blocking some receptors. The effects last for a few hours, usually four to six, depending on age and other factors.
WHAT CAUSES ADDICTION TO CAFFEINE
When you partake of a caffeinated beverage every day your brain chemistry changes over time. Remember those brain receptors that caffeine likes to block? Your brain eventually finds a way around that, because it knows you need rest, so it creates more adenosine receptor sites.
This explains why caffeine consumers experience a caffeine tolerance over time—because once you have a larger number adenosine receptors, it will take an ever-increasing amount of caffeine to block a significant proportion of them and achieve the desired effect. Your brain is trying to make darn sure that your car (natural adenosine) has somewhere to park! With more open receptor sites for your natural adenosine to plug into, the adenosine can once again do it’s job of making you tired.
So what’s a desperate caffeine drinker to do? Drink more caffeine! In order to get the same effect of holding off tiredness, you end up flooding your system with more caffeine (that second, third, and eventually fourth caffeinated beverage of the day).
Like so many other addictive substances, you end up needing more and more of it to produce the same effects. Also, you’ll be plagued with side effects if you try to end new “addiction.”
Anyone who has gone “cold turkey” off of coffee or energy drinks knows the feeling—the skull-crushing headache that won’t go away until you get another “hit” of caffeine.
Without the substance that your brain chemistry is now used to, you’ll throw everything out of balance if you go cold turkey, producing the excruciating headache.
You’ll also feel like a truck ran you over, because now you’ve got a plethora of adenosine receptor sites just waiting to be filled—with no caffeine competition in sight! Your adenosine has a field day, driving straight for those receptor site “garages” and parking themselves, nice and snug, ready to make you fall asleep.
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE TO BREAK A CAFFEINE ADDICTION?
To kick your caffeine habit, you need to survive seven to twelve days of caffeine withdrawal symptoms, although the worst symptoms are usually observed for the first two to three days.
During that time, your brain is working to shut down all the unneeded adenosine receptors on each cell, now that there’s no extra “caffeine cars” competing for “parking space” anymore.
After twelve days, the number of adenosine receptor sites should be back to normal, so if you can make it that long with no caffeine, you’ll be in the clear.
HOW TO BREAK YOUR CAFFEINE ADDICTION
There are many ways to break a caffeine addiction, and the best way depends on you, your body, your philosophy on health and wellness, and your level of commitment. The following hints may give you a little help.
One way is to go cold turkey—probably everyone’s least-favorite method. This will require a lot of perseverance and pain relievers. Unfortunately, for many people the pain relievers won’t touch a caffeine withdrawal headache.
Some people have had good luck using lavender essential oil or peppermint essential oil to knock out headaches, and found them to be quite effective. It’s important that you use pure therapeutic grade essential oils that are safe to use directly on the skin.
Another method is to wean yourself off the caffeine a little at a time. This works for some people. Others will reduce the amount of coffee they drink by a little bit with each serving, or they’ll space out their drinks a little more each time, or some combination of the two.
While this can be effective, you may be likely to still incur a caffeine headache when you finally quit, though it’s likely to be a lot less severe.
Some people with caffeine addiction themselves through this process by supplementing with magnesium before they start weaning off their caffeine. The theory is that since caffeine can rob your body of magnesium, supplementing with extra magnesium will minimize the headaches. Magnesium is also a natural energizer, while at the same time being calming, relieving headaches and treating insomnia—all things that are the opposite of coffee’s effects.
If you have access to a sauna, steam room, or a hot bath, these can help sweat the caffeine out of you and detoxify your body. Epsom salts (which is actually magnesium, not salt) in a foot bath of hot water is also helpful.
Other supplements you can use are Tyrosine and Phenylalanine. Remember how Dopamine ends up working harder when the caffeine is hogging up your adenosine receptors? Dopamine is made from L-Dopa, which is produced from Tyrosine…which in turn is produced by Phenylalanine.
Using caffeine long-term leads to depletion of your Phenylalanine and Tyrosine reserves, because they are scrambling to make more Dopamine. Your brain responds to this depletion by reducing dopamine production, so that the Phenylalanine and Tyrosine don’t get used up.
If you supplement with either Tyrosine or Phenylalanine for a week or two, you may be able to reduce or eliminate the headaches, and build up your reserves again.
The best plan may be to combine all of the above suggestions. Start out supplementing with magnesium for a week or two, then start weaning yourself slowly off the caffeine. During that time, supplement with Tyrosine or Phenylalanine, and take some hot saunas or baths.
Don’t forget to hydrate. Caffeine is vey dehydrating, and most people are drinking their caffeinated drinks instead of water. So load up on water—as much as you feel comfortable with (up to a maximum of one ounce per two pounds of your body weight).
Get plenty of sleep while on your caffeine detox, and use lavender or peppermint essential oil regularly—it often works best if you take it before or at the start of any sign of headache. If you wait until the headache is in full force, the essential oil could take longer to work and may not be as effective.
If you can’t get your hands on essential oils, you may try pain relievers, if they work for you. It’s helpful to have your significant other ever-so-gently stroke the part of your head that hurts—it’s relaxing, and can relieve tension and help you fall asleep.
During the course of weaning off the caffeine, you should be reducing the amount of beverage you consume, while also slowly stretching the amount of time between “doses” of your caffeinated beverages.
You could also try rebounding, if you have access to a mini trampoline. That gets the lymphatic system going, which flushes toxins out of your body, and gets your whole system functioning better. If you don’t have a rebounder, going for a walk could help. It gets your blood pumping and your adrenaline flowing.
If you find yourself too tired for exercise, try to make yourself do it for just a short burst—maybe one flight of stairs on your work break, or a quick walk once around the block. Even doing a little bit here and there will make it easier to break your caffeine addiction help your energy levels, and ease your symptoms while your brain chemistry is recovering.
Finally, be sure to avoid caffeinated drinks for a minimum of at least two weeks, preferably a month or two, to be sure your brain is back to normal and you don’t rekindle the caffeine addiction. A beverage once in a while won’t hurt, after that.
But be warned…old habits die hard, and if you start relying on caffeine again, you may find yourself right back in the grip of your old addiction. So you should plan ahead, and have some natural alternatives waiting in the wings that are less addictive, when you need a little boost in energy.