Quitting nicotine and thebean

Chained to cigarettes and coffee? Herbs can help you keep your resolution to break free

| January/February 2001

One morning in 1992, I looked in the mirror. I didn’t like what I saw. I saw a substance abuser. I couldn’t survive without my drug, couldn’t get up in the morning without it, couldn’t be productive, creative, or happy without it. Wherever I went, I had to have a source of my drug nearby. If I didn’t, I’d become anxious, frantic, impossible. Clearly, my need was out of control. I knew it was time to quit coffee. But how?

My wife felt the same way I did. She, too, was a java junkie who wanted to quit. We both loved the warm, rich taste of coffee, but the caffeine made us nervous and irritable and gave both of us insomnia. We decided to quit, cold turkey, and switched to decaf.

It was a very bad idea. We’d heard that quitting caffeine could cause a headache, but we had no inkling how severe and persistent the headache would be. Our withdrawal headaches lasted for days. In addition, we felt sluggish, constipated, befogged, miserable. We couldn’t take it. We ran back to the bean.

Life without java’s jolt

Quitting caffeine didn’t exactly turn me into Buddha, but it lengthened my fuse considerably. I had more patience, especially with my kids.

Shortly after our abortive attempt to quit, the first major study of caffeine withdrawal was published by The New England Journal of Medicine. Johns Hopkins researchers studied sixty-two healthy adults who drank an average of two-and-a-half cups of brewed coffee per day—about what my wife and I consumed. The participants completed a battery of physical and psychological tests and were then placed on a caffeine-free diet (no coffee, tea, coffee-flavored yogurt, caffeinated soft drinks, or chocolate; Excedrin and other over-the-counter drugs containing caffeine were also banned).

Some of the study participants were given caffeine pills in a dosage of 235 mg, the equivalent of about two cups of brewed coffee. The rest were given placebos. When retested after two days and after four days, the group taking the caffeine pills showed no changes in physical or mental function, but the poor suckers who got placebos experienced the same withdrawal effects that had plagued my wife and me: severe, persistent headache, fatigue, constipation, anxiety, and depression.

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