Medicating Mood With Caffeine

I’m still on my caffeine-free plus coffee-free experiment. This is Day 21 without coffee and Day 15 without caffeine. My goal was to go 15 days without caffeine. I’ll hit that milestone in a few hours, but I’m planning on extending this test. I’m still experiencing symptoms, which tells me that my body is still healing.

This month my mood has been terrible. Things are slowly getting better though. Prior to the experiment, I was consuming 3 or 4 espressos a day plus a few mugs of tea. These beverages were all high quality and tasty. I would spread out my enjoyment of these drinks from morning to early afternoon. Last week a thought came to me that these experiences were little pockets of joy. No matter how I was feeling at the moment, I could always rely on caffeine to improve my mood.

Photo by Kristina Alexanderson

Going caffeine-free has removed all these pockets of joy. Turns out I am not a happy camper. In addition to having a great love for coffee and tea, I now can see that my habit was also my unconscious way of dealing with feeling down. The fact that coffee can improve mood is well known. My concern now is that my addiction to coffee has kept me from addressing the root causes of my low mood.

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I continue to wake up most mornings between 3 AM – 4 AM unable to return to sleep. The energy surges and amazing recoveries that others have experienced after going caffeine-free has not happened to me yet. The experiment continues.


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  1. After posting this, I thought about how overweight people often use food as a way to improve mood. Caffeine was my equivalent of emotional eating.

  2. As someone who has had to fight depression most of my life, I say you are very lucky if you can improve a poor mood with caffeine. It is one of the least harmful substances one can take. You are not lucky that you are suffering with a low mood, but if there is something legal and relatively harmless that helps, then go for it! Early morning awakening is a symptom of depression. Don’t let this get away from you. We are entering the time of year where light is reduced and depression accelerates. Your comment about emotional eating is also true of a lot of people who abuse drugs; they are self-medicating. Did you ever try Rhodiola?

  3. @Becky – Thanks for the comment. I would say that caffeine doesn’t fix my mood, but it acts as a interrupter. I don’t want the blog to get too personal, but I think you understand what I am going through.

    I haven’t tried Rhodiola yet. I am heading to the supplement store later today. I’ll pick some up.

  4. I never had a energy surge after quitting caffeine, neither this time nor the last.

    It may seem that way because after quitting you often experience significant lethargy until your system rebalances. So you feel a lot more energetic than withdrawal lethargy.

    Most studies also show about same energy for habituated caffeine user on caffeine, and the same user (post withdrawal) off caffeine.

    I am not having mood issues either.

    The main thing I find is that I have a harder time getting motivated for exercise. Often if I didn’t feel like exercise, I would grab a cup of coffee to boost motivation for exercise and it usually worked for me. It may have been largely placebo, but it worked. Now I am exercising less.

  5. Another thing is my afternoon Circadian rhythms kick in stronger, making more dopey in the afternoon than I was caffeinated. Evenings is the reverse. Not really a good thing.

  6. Glenn Whitney

    Oct 22, 2012 — 1:13 pm

    Hi MAS,
    A few things:
    1 – Did you get a chance to read Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman?

    Also, Mark Williams gives a good lecture, available on YouTube (at the School of Life – good name, isn’t it?)

    2 – For the past 3-4 weeks I did a bit of a bio-hacking experiment in consuming a huge amounts of coffee everyday, all at once (about 14 ounces), around 2 p.m.

    It made my head hurt, interrupted my sleep but made me feel happy all afternoon afterward.

    I’m on Day Three of my no coffee abstention and I’m surprised (shocked even) how quickly I seem to have become “dependent” on that afternoon boost

    3 – On Friday I did my first truly barefoot run. It was about 5 minutes around the neighborhood. I’ve now run four days in a row. I’m up to about 10 minutes. I find in both exhilerating and very grounding (literally).

    (Of course by barefoot I mean a foot that is bare; i.e. nothing on it)

  7. @Glenn – I ended up listening to the MP3 version. I got some great ideas from it, which I should revisit. 🙂

    I need to do an updated headache post. Prior to the caffeine experiment, I was actually able to make some progress. I located 2 more culprits. The power of spreadsheets!

    I ran once a month ago and hurt my back. I may have over done it, but it was only 4 uphill sprints. But it was after taking the entire summer off.

  8. Glenn Whitney

    Oct 22, 2012 — 5:21 pm

    For Mindfulness to be effective, I think the practitioner needs to do it for at least 10 minutes at least twice a day. It’s only 20 minutes of a 24-hour day, but most of us (myself included) struggle to “find” the time.

    On the running – was this really barefoot? I’ve been exercising in “barefoot style” shoes for about four years. But that only took me about 50% of the way to truly barefoot…

  9. It’s too early, too soon to heal after years of abuse. Relax. Things will fall into place when the time is right for them to do so.

    Also, the assessment needs to be more balanced. Coffee is a drug, sure, but its influence (or lack of) only goes so far.

  10. @Glenn – I am all in favor of others running barefoot, but it isn’t for me. Hell, I don’t even know if running – even a block or two – is for me.

    @Txomin – Thanks. I still remember your comment from last year.

    It was motivating for me to get this far.

  11. Mood and caffeine. I couldn’t go off it completely so initially gave up coffee but had a little choc each day. I wonder if long term caffeine use affects serotonin levels. I started using coffee and chocolate in my early teens. I am now having half to one cup of coffee a day. That’s about as much as my body can cope with. Ideally I would like to do without it but I don’t live in an ideal world. The other side of things that caffeine has done for me I think is overworked my adrenals. So now I am experimenting with raw adrenal support in pill form, it works but you must be very careful, too much as you feel like you are in overdrive. I have done research over the last year or two and have supplemented with thyroid, armour thyroid didn’t work long term (over a year) for me. After some research I think I needed some adrenal support, so now I have started to support my adrenals (start on low dose) and use lowest dose thyroid for me and it gives me the energy that I used to have but seemed to have lost without needing more and more coffee to keep me charged. Late night eating. I wake up now in middle of night if I have any carbs too close to bed time but I go back to sleep quickly, so I just think that’s how it is at the moment. Low mood is hard. I am reading some of Albert Ellis rational emotional behaviour therapy the originator of CBT, powerful stuff if you are an idealist in an imperfect world and expect a lot of yourself.

  12. I am wondering if the early morning waking is low blood sugar? caused by meal before bed ie it gets you to sleep but your adrenals wake you up because blood sugar has gone too low, I recall reading this somewhere?

  13. @Pauline – It is probably not blood sugar related, as my eating habits have not changed in many years. Testing this would be harder than giving up coffee, as I can not sleep without eating first.

  14. I was reflecting on this issue – and I know what I’m about to say is purely anecdotal, but I know that all four of my grandparents drank coffee pretty much all day and all afternoon and possibly with dinner too.

    Certainly three out of four of my grandparents drank coffee *during* meals as their main beverage.

    I’d guess they each had an average of six or seven cups of coffee per day

    And yes – I know that coffee is very different now to what it was in the 1960s, 70s, etc. However, I’m pretty sure that the coffee they drank (Maxwell House made by a Mr. Coffee machine) was actually *higher* in caffeine content than espressos today.

    As you know, filter coffee has less flavor but more caffeine than most espresso coffee.

    Of course your expecting me to say (and it’s true!) that all four of my grandparents were relatively happy and successful people who all lived into their 80s – with an average age of death of 87.

    They were all (at least when I knew them from their 60s onward) quite mellow, generous, contented people.

  15. @Glenn – I wonder what it is about old-timers that makes them so resilient to caffeine? Maybe they were trained at a younger age? I didn’t really start drinking coffee until about age 19 or so. It does seem to be a common characteristic with that generation.

  16. I feel like I know you somewhat from reading your site for so long. Have you considered using recreational drugs after work? I think light narcotics may help you. A lot of people smoke pot before going to bed. I don’t do drugs because I have no problem going to sleep or anything, but billions of people and world history rather than “current” laws may be of some guidance. You may also consider getting a dog or cat. They bring tremendous joy and peace with their mere presence.

  17. @Thomas – I would love to get a cat, but my apartment doesn’t allow for pets and I am not ready to move at this time.

    As for drugs, it’s not for me. I can get to sleep no problem. It is staying asleep that is my challenge.

  18. Glenn Whitney

    Oct 23, 2012 — 8:27 pm

    On Ben Greenfield’s recommendation I’m experimenting with listening in the middle of the night to a 3HZ Binaural Pure Sine Delta Wave recording for deep sleep enhancement – available on iTunes for $2.00. The results of from Night 1 are encouraging…

    It’s a two-hour track. I’ve copied it four times on a playlist for my iPod and listen to it with earbuds.

  19. @Glenn – I will listen to that podcast. Last night I did a quick test where I put a 15 minute clip on my iPod. When I woke up at 4:30 AM, I reached over and plugged int that track. It didn’t help me return to sleep. More experimenting is needed.

  20. Glenn Whitney

    Oct 24, 2012 — 8:26 am

    It’s not a podcast – it’s a track of sound that lasts 2 hours. It has to be purchased from iTunes. I copied it three times on my iPod playlist so that there is a continuous track for 8 hours.

    Experimentation from Night 2 was also encouraging.

  21. i stumbled across this site randomly but after reading your post, look into the habits of how we people used to sleep versus how we do now. Getting up in the middle of the night with a little burst of energy is not really that big a deal, humans have been doing that for thousands of years It’s only been since the advent of street lighting in the last few centuries that we have convinced ourselves that we need to sleep X amount of hours in a row, to wake up and feel wonderful. Maybe a better fit for you is some now, some later. I do this sometimes, sleep from 10ish to 2, wake up, take a leak, read, have a cookie, whatever, and fall asleep an hour later to wake up again at 6:30/7. I wish I could do that every day.

  22. I was going to say something about the “two sleeps”, but b covered it. I’d like to add, though, that, once, long before I found out it’s normal to have two sleeps (away from artificial lighting), I measured my body temperature every hour or two (including whenever I woke up at night) for a few days and plotted the days over each other. We normally wake an hour or two after our temperature bottoms out, and mine bottomed out early (midnight to 2am, vs 4-6 am in normal people). You could do this as an experiment at some point, see what your temperature cycle is, and see if it varies according to diet. Personally, I have no idea if I have a short circadian cycle (as I originally thought) or whether I’ve just been doing the two sleeps for a while. Someday maybe I’ll repeat the experiment on a proper paleo diet, see if food changes anything.

    I want to say something about the “pockets of joy” thing but I can hear Halloween candy calling my name and it’s drowning out any intelligent thought. I think we’d all rather not be addicts, but addictions have their place at times.

  23. Mmm…no drugs huh? Do you have a GF or a friend/roommate that you can talk to on a daily basis? Relationships are the core of life and everything in life is based on this concept are facilitated to communication/validation.

    Religion is just a way to connect with other people cuz there is no such thing as god, work/careers are just a way to connect with other people and get positive reinforcement rather than to buy stuff that depreciates or becomes outdated, internet forums are just a way to connect with other people and escape loneliness, etc. Maybe you just need to have meaningful conversations with people rather than “coffeeshop conversations” or internet chat.

    Based on your age, I believe this would be helpful. I know I feel much better talking to people rather than texting, phone conversations, etc. But on the other hand, it is hard to find people to connect with.

  24. Oh…btw since I don’t really have a lot people to talk to for prolonged periods, one thing I do is listen to Howard Stern. He covers a lot of topics and is both serious and funny. It is very pleasant and it is somewhat like having a conversation with him as I know him well from listening to him for many years. Maybe find a radio guy you like whom you can listen to daily or semi-regularly which will fulfill your conversation needs.

  25. @Thomas – Thank you for your concern. I’m OK. I do not want this blog to get too personal. I just wanted to share my observation that I was interrupting my low mood with caffeine. Many claim coffee is an anti-depressant. Now I get why they say that. It is what I am calling the “pockets of joy” theory.

  26. @B + @Anemone –
    I have very high doubts that segmented sleep would work for me, BUT we are getting towards the season of very short days and I’m having this issue, so I’m willing to try it if the situation surfaces.

  27. @Charles – Not sure you realize, but INeedCoffee is my site. In fact the article you linked to was written by me way back in 1999 under a pen name. 🙂

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