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Life After Coffee

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Josh Simmons
Josh Simmons

I love coffee. More accurately - I love the memory of coffee. I have explored most preparations methods and even some roasting techniques over the years of my love affair with this beverage. Even after ceasing to consume coffee, I still have a drawer crammed full of Aeropresses, a Chemex, and various paraphenalia for weighing, measuring, grinding, and otherwise processing coffee.

At the height (depth?) of my coffee drinking career, I was consuming upwards of a liter of coffee a day. This was, understandably, while I was in grad school. My daily routine began with a 500ml french press immediately upon waking and certainly before speaking. This brew was naturally made with raw beans I had procured from an excellent vendor in Anaheim, then roasted in a modified hot-air popcorn popper - a fresh batch each week to ward off staleness. After lunch, afternoon sleepiness would set in, but there was still work to be done! Around 1PM I would prepare and consume another 500ml french press. Generally, I held meetings with students or colleagues later in the afternoon which would of course require more caffeine fortification in the form of a coffee from the local cafe.

I realized I "Had a Problem" after I finished grad school and colleagues at my office job made comments about the alarming amount of coffee I was consuming. I scaled back to a cup in the morning and a cup in the afternoon. This was extraordinarily difficult in terms of the withdrawal effects. I had headaches and was generally grumpy for the first month. My energy levels didn't recover until 2-3 months after scaling down. Regardless - I maintained and kept up this routine largely unchanged until recently.

I finally caught COVID in the Winter of 2021. I generally recovered but lost much of my taste. Suddenly even a week after recovering, IPA beers tasted like tomato soup, chips tasted like styrofoam, and coffee didn't taste like anything. I first realized that this specific taste had gone when my wife brought me coffee in the morning. I was still sleeping so she set it on the nightstand. I downed the cup when I finally woke up, not tasting it much - not a massive surprise, she makes weak coffee. I thanked her for the cup of coffee when I came downstairs at which point she informed me "That wasn't coffee, that was hot water."

This lack of taste made it pretty easy to quit. I liked the caffeine jolt that coffee gave me, but as a true glutton, I loved the taste of it. There were some withdrawals but this time they were easily tolerable. I still generally felt low energy and headachy following my bout with COVID so who knows which caused which.

Post Coffee Effects

So here is the payoff - what I've noticed since quitting coffee.

Flexibility

Although I don't have a set routine, I generally have some green tea most days. I have a cup in the morning and sometimes another cup in the afternoon. That's about 30mg of caffeine per cup compared to coffee's 100mg per cup. The great thing about this routine is I no longer have to wander the 7AM streets of wherever I'm traveling like a crack addict looking for a fix. I was recently traveling in a country where tea is pretty uncommon. I simply didn't have caffeine most days and didn't feel crappy. If it was available at breakfast I had a cup, but I could take it or leave it, and I certainly didn't need it first thing in the morning.

Sleep

Sleep has never been a friend to me. I have always been extremely careful to not have caffeine after 3PM so I assumed it wasn't affecting my sleep at all. This assumption was very wrong. I track sleep using an Oura Ring. Quantitatively I noticed that (omitting COVID-infected/recovery numbers) my sleep was drastically improved after quitting coffee. Two domains in particular enjoyed a significant improvement - total sleep time improved by about a half-hour on average, and time spent in deep sleep doubled. Everyone's caffeine metabolism is very different but I'd encourage you to track sleep with and without caffeine to see how it affects your numbers.

Calm

Along with the previous point, I am an anxious person. Always have been. The details of this could take up multiple other posts but aren't relevant here. Any anxious person will know there are many different flavors of anxiety - there's worrying, dread, feeling of impending doom, etc. I found that when I stopped consuming coffee - I stopped having the "feeling of impending doom" flavor of anxiety randomly during the day. It seems silly to never put two and two together but coffee was such an integral part of my life I never really examined it as a partial cause of some of my anxiety - I assumed that I had habituated enough that it wasn't a concern for me like those with more ordinary caffeine tolerances.

Tea doesn't seem to produce the same negative feeling as coffee did despite the fact that it still contains caffeine. My hunch is that this is because green tea contains a compound called L-Theanine which has been found to reduce stress and anxiety. I don't get jittery from tea and it doesn't make me feel as though a bomb is about to go off.

No Edge

There is a downside to not consuming coffee. It gave me a certain edge in a couple of areas that I haven't been able to replicate - one might be a placebo, but the other is inarguable.

I felt like I was on fire when coding while drinking coffee. It was like code was shooting out of my brain into my editor. It felt like some kind of transcendent hyper-productive state. Reflecting on this now, I don't actually think I was much more productive, I think I just felt more productive. It was some kind of strange placebo. The best example I can give is when you've had a bit too much to drink at karaoke night. You might feel as though you're the next Frank Sinatra while singing but the reality is probably very different. Caffeine is like that but for "productivity self-esteem". In the end, it is a masturbatory act.

My edge was missing in workouts. I would have my coffee immediately before strength training or cardio and it would ward off fatigue, allowing me to bike further and to lift more reps. I don't think this phenomenon was merely perceptual as it was with productivity - I could measure it. Of course, there may have been some lingering circulatory effects from my COVID infection, but there is a significant amount of research that demonstrates caffeine's role in increasing endurance. I miss this edge but it's a small price to pay.

In a Pinch

The best perk I've gotten since quitting is that coffee actually works when I drink it. I recently moved to a new city and I wasn't sleeping well leading up to the move. I was exhausted after driving to my new place. I decided to make an exception and have a coffee. It was how I imagine meth-lite might be. It slammed me into a positive upbeat mood and I wasn't sleepy again until well after my head hit the pillow that night. I've since used this strategy in similar situations - especially while traveling - to ward off sleepiness as a "one-off" hack. Most performance-enhancing drugs (which caffeine most certainly is) don't have continuous effects when used chronically, they are best as a now-and-then helper.


I do still miss the taste of coffee. My taste for it has come back slightly. I hope that more artisanal roasters start to create a larger diversity of decaf beans and roasts but I'm not holding my breath. Until then, for me, the negative effects of not drinking it far outweigh the benefits.