I’m trying to quit coffee (and caffeine in general) but specifically coffee. I’m dreading the caffeine withdrawal. Is there an easy way to give it up? — Chris, 34

Caffeine is so common it’s easy to forget it’s a drug.  But, of course, it is.

When you regularly flood your brain with caffeine molecules, your brain changes in an attempt to maintain the “status quo.”  That’s why you won’t get the same level of stimulation from your morning mug-O-Joe or tea or cola that you did when you first started drinking.  Those brain changes also explain the withdrawal symptoms that serious users face if they go without their caffeine hit. Withdrawal symptoms are always opposite from the effects of the drug in question, so, for caffeine, you’ll feel sluggish, your concentration will suffer, and you may feel mildly depressed.

You can kick your habit two ways: cold turkey or slowly.  Since we’re not talking about life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, going cold turkey is a reasonable option.  True, the symptoms will be more intense and possibly disabling than if you taper slowly, but the worst effects should be over in a couple of days and your brain should basically return to normal within a week.

The key to going cold turkey is planning: take some time off from work and don’t expect to get a lot done, in general.  Take naps.  And avoid alcohol–that will just make it harder for your brain to recover.  The benefits of kicking caffeine are that your sleep quality should improve significantly, you’ll avoid the possible stomach upset from the acids in coffee, tea, and colas, and you won’t experience the kinds of spikes in mood and energy that can come from heavy caffeine consumption.

Dr. Harry Fisch is a board certified urologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Each week, he’ll answer reader questions in an effort to get guys to ‘man up about health.’


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