When I asked nutritionist Lindsey Kass how much caffeine I should be consuming, she told me to never exceed 540mg a day. When I tell her I’ve been drinking around 1,200mg – sometimes more – she directs me to a site that calculates how much will kill me… Thankfully, as it’s 10,000mg, it’s not looking like I’ll expire before I turn 22 next year – but I do need to drastically reduce my intake if I want to lower my risk of heart problems.
That’s why, I decided to go cold turkey. Instead of my usual 8,400mg across a single week, I consumed zero, and I hated every minute of it.
I measure out my life in caffeine hits. As a 5am riser, knowing a pre-workout energy drink is around the corner is enough to get me out of bed. And, as the drinks are low calorie, it saves me snacking or eating extra between meals as I’m filled to the brim with caffeine and fizz.
Between waking up and starting work at 9am I’ve already had 700mg – well over the daily recommended amount for adults. Most of it comes from my pre-workout drink, a powder that can be mixed with water to increase energy levels and exercise performance, and the rest from my first 160mg zero sugar Monster energy drink.
The remainder of the day is split up between my 35mg Coke Zero (a lunchtime pick-me-up), 160mg Monster Ultra (afternoon boost), 100mg iced coffee (a well done for finishing work drink) and a 50mg cup of tea (typical evening wind down). So could I kick it? Or at least get it under control?
The first day, I made it to gym although it felt much harder, and took at least an extra 30 minutes to be awake enough to actually move my legs. I replaced my pre-workout drink with a banana but I can’t say it was the same.
It was the following day I was really tested – and failed miserably. The warmth of my bed over the crisp air outside, the 10-minute drive to the gym, and then actually completing a workout, without my caffeine boost, it was a simple choice. I snoozed my alarm and slept for another three hours. The latest I’ve woken up this year.
Without the usual countdown-to-my-next-caffeine-hit, the hours and days went slower – much slower – except for my lunch break, during which I was forced to take a nap halfway through on one occasion. That seemed to go very fast. Tasks on my to-do list were moved to the next day, and then the next, and then just crossed off. Keeping on top of the washing? Nope. Keeping my inbox at 0? Not a chance.
Kass did warn me: “If you come off it suddenly, as your body is so used to it, you could find you’re more tired later on in the day.” She did explain why I needed to push through though. Caffeine can be damaging to our health, “it could make you unable to concentrate, you could get agitated”, she said. “You could get the jitters, headaches. If you’re drinking a lot of it long-term it could leach some calcium from your bones.
“Caffeine can interrupt the signals that the body sends out. You might get the jitters as it affects the amount of adrenaline and affects your nerve pathways. If you take a really high amount, you’d have a fast heart rate and could get heart palpitations. If you take an extreme amount [10,000mg she says] or have underlying heart problems, it could cause a heart attack.”
She’s right. Last year, a 21-year-old with a heart condition died after drinking a highly caffeinated lemonade at a sandwich shop in the US. It called into question the safety of energy drinks – and how much caffeine is too much.
It is recommended that healthy adults consume no more than 400mg per day – the equivalent of five espresso shots, 2.5 energy drinks or one Starbucks venti coffee. Those aged between 12 and 18 to stay below 100mg. Kass says up to six times people’s bodyweight in kilogrammes is fine but more than that could become unsafe, so as I weigh 60kg my limit is 540mg.
According to her, I’m one of the 10 per cent of people that can drink caffeine without any noticeable side effects – I could happily drink a huge mug of coffee before going to sleep and you wouldn’t hear a peep from me until my morning alarm. That’s why, I’d naively assumed that kicking it would be pretty easy. Because I don’t feel the effects anyway – or so I thought. Those first 72 hours proved me very wrong indeed.
My usual workouts were sluggish, I was weaker, I was in a bad mood, and I only moved twice a day – from the sofa to my desk and from the desk to bed. When a plate was left unclean in my sink I went on a rampage – even blaming my poor puppy at one point – before realising I’d left it there the night before when I’d dragged myself to bed at 8pm. I was like living as a hormonal teenager again – constantly tired and in a mood with everyone.
By day four, the symptoms had calmed down and living with caffeine-free me was not such hell. My sleep, although never really much of a problem before, was better, and I woke less in the night and felt more refreshed in the mornings – until around 2pm anyway.
I can’t say I’ll be sticking to a decaffeinated life. And Kass does say that “caffeine shouldn’t be completely slated” and has a range of benefits too, including a balanced gut and a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. She gives it to athletes, particularly endurance ones like runners or ball-based players, 90 minutes before exercise to give them a boost and says it can work wonders. “Most supplements and drinks are a waste of money but the one you can get a good effect from is caffeine.”
Now I’ve heard that, I’ll be heading straight to Starbucks for an Iced Americano – black with caramel syrup. I will be halving the amount I consume going forward but for now I’ll live with being a self-proclaimed caffeine addict. Besides, I need the boost to finish last week’s washing pile.