Is It Time to Cut Back on Caffeine?

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK/POIKE

Raise your hand if you currently or ever have struggled with caffeine dependence. This year’s National Nutrition Month theme is “Put Your Best Fork Forward,” and as many of us know from experience, it can be hard to put your best anything forward without that morning coffee or tea. Every bite — or sip — plays a role, however small, in how you feel. Finding an appropriate amount of caffeine that works for you is an important part of overall wellness.  There’s no rule that says you have to give it up — in fact, it’s been shown to have some health benefits — but too much can have negative effects.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy adult can safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. That’s about three to five 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee per day. Keep in mind, though, that some brands can have as much as 200 milligrams per cup. A shot of espresso has about 75 milligrams of caffeine, and energy drinks range from 47 to 163 milligrams of caffeine per 8 ounces. Tea also provides caffeine, depending on the type and steeping duration. According to the Mayo Clinic, black tea, for example, contains anywhere from 14 to 70 milligrams per cup, and green tea has 24 to 45 milligrams.

Caffeine tolerance can vary from person to person, and many factors can impact how the body metabolizes caffeine, including smoking, some medical conditions and use of certain medications such as oral contraceptives.

Pros

A small to moderate dose of caffeine (20 to 200 milligrams) can make you feel more alert, focused, energetic and upbeat and has been associated with some neuroprotective benefits like enhanced short-term memory and reduced cognitive decline risk. Caffeine also has been shown to help the body perform better during physical activity. It can be central to many social gatherings, as well — think meeting a new person or reconnecting with loved ones over a cup of coffee or tea.

Cons

Some research indicates that a larger dose of caffeine (200 mg or more) can cause symptoms like jitters, increased anxiety, GI discomfort and changes in heart rate. It also may disrupt sleep cycles. Caffeine withdrawal is another drawback. Low-grade symptoms like sleepiness, headache and lethargy can occur, but some people even experience flu-like symptoms if they don’t get their fix. This can disrupt your overall daily function, and that groggy feeling that sends someone running to the coffee machine often is written off as lack of shut-eye or stress rather than addressing the underlying caffeine addiction. It's an easy cycle to slip into, but a hard one to escape.

It’s also worth pointing out that coffee and tea beverages often are a vehicle for sugar or may be paired with a sweet treat like a pastry, so be sure to take both caffeine and calories into account.

What To Do

If you suspect your caffeine intake is too high, make a plan to get to a more realistic level. Don’t pressure yourself to quit cold turkey if it’s not realistic for you (or medically required). Small changes add up to lasting changes, and setting smaller, measurable goals gives you a chance to appreciate your success and build on it. For example, if your long-term goal is to cut back from six cups of coffee to one, start with getting it to five for a week and gradually scale back. Some other tips:

State your goal clearly: Decide how much caffeine you want to get in the habit of consuming and decide whether a cold turkey or more gradual approach is right for you. Knowing how much of a change you need to make gives you a destination on which to base your roadmap and will help you be more successful than if you just vow to “cut back.”

Identify your barriers: Maybe you have some caffeine dependence but you also enjoy the ritual of a hot cup of tea or an afternoon iced coffee that gives you a reason to get outside or take a break. Maybe a caffeinated beverage is part of your morning “me” time before the rest of your home wakes up. Tune in to what role caffeinated beverages play in your life and brainstorm alternatives, such as changing your order from a large to a medium cup.

Be prepared for withdrawal symptoms: They’re unpleasant, but part of the deal. Knowing what to anticipate and that withdrawal symptoms are temporary can help you work through them. If feasible, plan tasks that require focus for times you have more energy, or give yourself a few breaks throughout the day.

Keep your nutrition game strong: Sugar cravings and a hankering for energy-dense, fatty foods often crop up when someone’s trying to cut caffeine. Talk down those cravings by acknowledging their cause and fuel yourself appropriately with well-balanced meals spaced throughout the day that provide a balance of protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. This will help keep up your energy. Even mild dehydration can make you feel fatigued, so drink up. Thinking about a coffee run? Have a glass of water or a cup of decaf coffee or herbal tea first, and then decide whether you still need coffee.  

Be physically active: The endorphins released during exercise can help boost your mood and energy. If you’re feeling too wiped for a trip to the gym, try a brisk walk or some other gentle movement you enjoy.

Establish a sleep routine: This is a great time to get a handle on your sleep routine. Aim to wake up and go to bed around the same time every day — even on weekends. Giving yourself an hour to “power down” at night can help you fall and stay asleep.

Set a caffeine curfew: Decide when to cut yourself off for the day based on your bedtime and how strongly you feel caffeine affects you.

If you’re really struggling, talk with a doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist to come up with a plan to help you meet your caffeine goal.

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Jessica Cording

Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a dietitian and writer based in New York City, where she works with a variety of private clients. She writes for a variety of media outlets and blogs at Jessica Cording Nutrition. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.