You could make the case that caffeine has had the biggest impact on modern society compared to every other drug.
According to 2020 data, 62% of Americans drink coffee daily (1). And 90% of adults in the world consume some form of caffeine every day.
But that’s only the surface. As Michael Pollan discusses in Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World, the drug allowed workers to work longer hours with fewer breaks, accelerating industrialization.
As he says, “Caffeine helps us to cope with the world caffeine helped us to create.” From the steaming cups of coffee that grace office desks to the energizing sips of tea that punctuate afternoons, caffeine is deeply ingrained in our societal fabric.
Michael did a nice short video on this for Wired.
However, amidst this widespread embrace of caffeine for daily use, I’ve found myself intrigued by an unconventional approach: an intriguing concept is gaining traction: caffeine cycling. This practice challenges the norm of daily caffeine consumption, and views caffeine not as a friend or foe, but as a tool. It’s not about eliminating caffeine entirely but rather about strategically timing its intake. The goal? To maximize its benefits while minimizing dependence and tolerance.
Caffeine cycling involves strategic alternating periods of caffeine use. By alternating periods of caffeine use with intervals of reduced intake or abstinence, you can reset your caffeine sensitivity. This method promises not just a return to those initial, potent effects of caffeine but also a deeper understanding of how this powerful stimulant interacts with our bodies.
In my personal experience, it has led to some of my best workouts, most productive writing sessions, and experiences (like drinking 3 cups in Bologna, Italy) that bring up nearly as much happiness as anything I’ve ever experienced.
As we embark on this exploration of caffeine cycling, we invite you to reconsider your relationship with this familiar yet potent compound. Whether you’re a seasoned coffee aficionado, a tea enthusiast, or simply someone curious about optimizing your health and performance, the journey into caffeine cycling offers a path to not just better energy management, but also to a more harmonious balance with one of nature’s most popular stimulants.
Caffeine, a natural stimulant most commonly found in coffee, tea, and cacao plants, works its magic by interacting with our central nervous system. At the heart of its mechanism is its ability to mimic a neurotransmitter called adenosine.
Under normal circumstances, adenosine binds to receptors in the brain, promoting relaxation and sleepiness. However, when caffeine enters the scene, it competes with adenosine for these same receptors.
By blocking adenosine, caffeine prevents this neurotransmitter from causing drowsiness. This blockage leads to increased neuronal firing in the brain, which the pituitary gland perceives as an emergency, thus stimulating the release of adrenaline. This adrenaline rush is what gives you the familiar caffeine boost – increased alertness, heightened awareness, and a burst of energy.
As with many substances, regular consumption of caffeine can lead to tolerance. This means that over time, the same amount of caffeine will have a diminished effect. The science behind this is quite straightforward. With consistent caffeine intake, the body responds by increasing the number of adenosine receptors in the brain. This adaptation means that more caffeine is required to block a significant proportion of these receptors and achieve the desired stimulating effect.
Caffeine dependence can also develop, characterized by a reliance on caffeine for normal functioning. If you suddenly reduce or stop caffeine intake, you may experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. This dependence signifies the body’s adaptation to regular caffeine exposure.
The crux of caffeine cycling is to reduce caffeine intake to help reset the body’s response to it, maintaining its effectiveness as a stimulant and minimizing the risks of tolerance and dependence.
Even for those who have developed a dependence on caffeine, its consumption in the evening can still significantly disrupt sleep patterns and still keep people awake in the mornings. Caffeine’s ability to block adenosine receptors doesn’t diminish with dependence. Therefore, consuming caffeine later in the day can prevent the natural buildup of adenosine, which is crucial for initiating sleep. This disruption can lead to difficulties in falling asleep, reduced sleep quality, and shorter sleep duration, even in individuals who consider themselves tolerant to caffeine’s effects. The impact on sleep is particularly important to consider, and generally not talked about enough in my opinion.
One of the significant hurdles in fully understanding caffeine’s effects is the widespread caffeine dependence among the general population, which extends to research participants. This prevalence presents a unique challenge for researchers aiming to study caffeine in its purest form and its true impact on the human body.
Despite having hundreds of studies on caffeine it’s still unclear whether performance improvements are a result of caffeine, or because the participants are dependent and can’t function normally without it.
I make this point because caffeine cycling and its benefits are still mostly unknown. I will be relying on my personal experience as much as the research because of this phenomenon.
I also bring this up for any scientists reading this, because it makes caffeine cycling an interesting area of study. By examining how periods of abstinence or reduced intake affect caffeine tolerance and response, researchers can gain insights into the adaptability of the human body to this stimulant.
Such studies could also inform guidelines for optimal caffeine use, balancing the benefits of this popular stimulant with the need to minimize dependence and maximize health.
Alas, we’re not there yet.
With this in mind, here are some of the compelling benefits of caffeine cycling.
One of the most immediate benefits of caffeine cycling is the restoration of caffeine sensitivity. When you take a break from caffeine, your body’s adenosine receptors reset, reducing your tolerance. As a result, when you reintroduce caffeine, you experience a more pronounced effect.
This heightened sensitivity means you feel more focused and energized with smaller amounts of caffeine. Personally, I’ve found that my best workouts and most productive writing sessions occur when I’ve cycled caffeine and then had a deliciously caffeinated cappuccino or latte.
Oh boy, I feel heightened just thinking about how I feel drinking coffee after 4 days of NOT drinking it. I save my coffee days for Friday and Saturday mornings, which are my blocked-out writing days.
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Regular caffeine consumption, especially later in the day, can interfere with sleep patterns. By cycling caffeine and incorporating caffeine-free periods, you can significantly improve your sleep quality.
If you drink caffeine regularly and use some kind of sleep tracker, I challenge you to take a break from caffeine and look at your sleep numbers to assess this for yourself.
Caffeine cycling helps in breaking the cycle of dependence. During off-cycles, your body adjusts to functioning without the stimulant, reducing the risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms like headaches and irritability in the future. This reduced dependence is crucial for those who wish to use caffeine strategically without being bound to it daily.
There’s also a mental health aspect to consider. Regular and high consumption of caffeine can sometimes exacerbate anxiety and stress. By cycling caffeine, you can help moderate these effects. Additionally, when your body is not constantly exposed to caffeine, the stimulant’s cognitive-enhancing properties, such as improved concentration and alertness, become more effective when you do consume it.
This study suggested that it takes about 8 days to reset adenosine receptors. This is from 1989, but I think it holds up as a good framework.
I read elsewhere that it can take up to two months to get full tolerance, but to be honest, who wants to only drink coffee six times a year? This isn’t MDMA we’re talking about here.
Based on my personal experience, I find if I have 1-2 days per week of higher caffeine intake 125mg-250mg and ease back the other days, I still get the full effect.
Keep in mind, I’m not one of those psychos who takes pre-workout with 300-400mg of caffeine, ever. If I have more than a cup of coffee, it’s spaced out over the morning.
Again, this is personal experience, but research has shown over and over that tolerance builds progressively. I’ve found that day 2 is worse than day 1, day 3 is worse than day 2, and after that, I’m not getting the euphoric feeling I did. So this is not science-backed, but I think 3 is a good number.
Okay, now let’s get into actual protocols.
I’ll start with my preferred protocol.
In this protocol, my week is divided into distinct phases of caffeine consumption. From Monday to Thursday, I opt for green tea (~25mg of caffeine). Green tea provides a milder caffeine boost compared to coffee, which I find sufficient for maintaining alertness during the workweek. It’s a gentler stimulant, so it keeps me focused without overstimulation. I also love that it has l-theanine in it for a sense of calm.
The choice of green tea isn’t just about the caffeine content. Green tea is renowned for its health benefits, including high levels of antioxidants, potential fat-burning properties, and contributions to heart and brain health. I talk about all of this in this article on green tea extract supplements. This makes it an excellent choice for those looking to combine the benefits of caffeine with other health-promoting properties.
On Fridays and Saturdays, I switch to coffee (~125mg of caffeine). As I said, I do this on my writing mornings, my favorite days of the week. I just feel like life couldn’t get better on these days. It makes me really love my weekends.
Sunday is my caffeine-free day. This day of abstinence is crucial in resetting my caffeine sensitivity. It’s a day for my body to rest from any form of caffeine stimulation, allowing me to start the next week refreshed and ready to benefit fully from green tea’s milder effects.
This Green Tea Protocol strikes a balance between enjoying the benefits of caffeine and avoiding the pitfalls of tolerance and dependence. It’s a sustainable, health-conscious approach to caffeine consumption that can be adapted to suit various lifestyles and preferences.
Could I get more from keeping the green tea out? Or having only one day of coffee? Yes, I could. However, this allows me to consistently get the good parts of caffeine, without suffering from withdrawal or dependence.
I only do this 3 weeks in a month. I often take a week each month to have zero caffeine to fully reset. This is me following the ~8-day adenosine reset as mentioned in the study. In practice, sometimes I still use green tea if I need a little boost. I’m not a perfect person.
This protocol is designed for those who prefer to reserve their caffeine intake for weekends or specific days when they need an extra boost. This is the protocol for those who like to party. That’s because you can stay out late, wake up, have your caffeine, and still get your weekend back.
The downside of this one is… Monday might be tough.
Monday to Friday: No caffeine. These days are caffeine-free, allowing your body to reset its caffeine sensitivity and reduce dependence. This period is ideal for focusing on hydration, balanced nutrition, and perhaps herbal teas that do not contain caffeine.
Saturday and Sunday: Caffeine consumption days. On these days, you can indulge in your favorite caffeinated beverages, like coffee or energy drinks. This timing is particularly beneficial for those who have high-energy activities planned for the weekend, such as workouts, social events, or intensive work projects.
Going cold turkey off of daily high caffeine intake is a miserable idea. It’s much smarter to taper off. This one is ideal for those looking to gradually reduce their caffeine intake without going cold turkey.
Week 1: Start with your regular caffeine intake.
Week 2: Reduce the caffeine amount by one-third. For example, if you usually have three cups of coffee a day, cut down to two.
Week 3: Halve your initial caffeine intake. Continuing with the example, this would mean going down to one and a half cups of coffee per day.
Week 4: Limit caffeine to a minimal amount, like a single small cup of coffee or tea per day.
Week 5 and Onward: Alternate between minimal caffeine weeks and caffeine-free weeks. This approach helps in gradually reducing dependence while still allowing for occasional caffeine enjoyment.
This protocol involves alternating caffeine consumption weekly. It does split up your life into “good weeks” and “not as good weeks.”
Week 1: Consume caffeine as per your usual routine.
Week 2: Completely abstain from caffeine. This week allows your body to reset and reduces tolerance.
Repeat: Continue alternating between caffeine consumption and abstinence weeks. This pattern can help maintain caffeine sensitivity and prevent the build-up of tolerance.
This protocol is ideal for those who want to kickstart their workweek with high energy and gradually taper down their caffeine intake as the week progresses, taking weekends off to reset.
Monday: High caffeine day. Start your week with a strong cup of coffee or your preferred high-caffeine beverage. Maybe you’ll train legs on this day. This boost helps tackle the challenges of the workweek with maximum focus and energy, making it perfect for those who have demanding Mondays.
Tuesday to Thursday: Gradual reduction. Each day, slightly reduce your caffeine intake. For instance, if you start with two cups of coffee on Monday, go down to one and a half on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and half a cup or a weaker tea on Thursday. This gradual reduction helps in maintaining focus throughout the week without over-relying on caffeine.
Friday: Minimal caffeine. On Friday, opt for a very low-caffeine beverage, like a weak tea or a decaffeinated coffee. This helps in preparing your body for the caffeine-free weekend.
Saturday and Sunday: Caffeine-free days. Completely abstain from caffeine during the weekend. This break allows your body to reset its caffeine sensitivity and reduces dependence. It’s a time to enjoy other aspects of life, ensuring a well-rounded approach to work-life balance.
The “I Love Mondays” protocol is particularly beneficial for career-driven individuals who need that extra push at the beginning of the week. It aligns caffeine intake with the typical workweek’s demands, ensuring peak performance when it’s most needed, while also promoting a healthier approach to caffeine consumption.
During off-cycle periods of caffeine cycling, or for those times when you want to avoid stimulants altogether, some several natural substitutes and supplements can help maintain focus and energy. One particularly effective category is nootropics.
Nootropics, often referred to as “smart drugs” are compounds that can improve brain performance. They are particularly useful for enhancing focus, memory, and overall cognitive function.
I look for caffeine-free nootropics which are an excellent choice for those looking to stay productive without the stimulating effects of caffeine.
Afternoon Use: I find nootropics especially beneficial in the afternoons, specifically between 2-5 pm. This is often when the post-lunch slump hits, and you need to stay on top of your game without resorting to caffeine, which could disrupt your sleep cycle.
Types of Nootropics: There are various nootropics available. I cover like 20 different kinds in this article on the best nootropics.
Adaptogens: These are natural substances that help the body adapt to stress and exert a normalizing effect upon bodily processes. Examples include Ashwagandha and Holy Basil.
Herbal Teas: Herbal teas like peppermint, ginger, and chamomile are caffeine-free and can be soothing, helping to maintain a calm and focused state.
L-Theanine: Often found in green tea, L-Theanine can be taken as a supplement. It promotes relaxation without drowsiness, making it a great partner to caffeine or a standalone supplement for focus and calm.
B Vitamins: These are essential for energy production in the body and can be a good supplement during off-cycle periods to maintain energy levels.
Consider your overall health, lifestyle, and any specific goals you have. For instance, if you’re looking for stress reduction, adaptogens might be your best bet. For cognitive enhancement without stimulation, nootropics would be more suitable.
While caffeine can be a beneficial stimulant when used correctly, it’s important to approach its consumption with mindfulness and responsibility.
This includes understanding safe consumption levels and being aware of the environmental and ethical implications of caffeine sourcing.
Moderation is Key: The general guideline for caffeine consumption is up to 400 milligrams per day for most healthy adults, roughly the amount in four 8-ounce cups of brewed coffee. However, individual tolerance can vary, so it’s important to listen to your body.
Understand Your Sensitivity: Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others. If you experience jitteriness, anxiety, heart palpitations, or insomnia, you may need to reduce your intake.
Timing Matters: Avoid caffeine late in the day, as it can interfere with sleep. A safe rule of thumb is to avoid caffeine after 12pm. I know this is an aggressive curfew, but it plays it safe.
Watch for Hidden Sources: Caffeine isn’t just in coffee and tea; it’s also in chocolate, some soft drinks, energy drinks, and certain medications. Be mindful of all sources to avoid unintentional overconsumption.
This one matters a lot to me for several reasons. My dad’s home country, El Salvador, has a dark history of exploitation by colonizers getting rich by growing coffee on the labor of the locals.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you choose and consume your caffeine.
Sustainable Sourcing: Coffee and tea are among the most heavily traded commodities in the world, and their production can have significant environmental impacts. Opt for brands that prioritize sustainable farming practices, such as shade-grown coffee, which preserves biodiversity.
Fair Trade and Ethical Practices: Support companies that ensure fair wages and good working conditions for their workers. Look for certifications like Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance.
Organic Options: Whenever possible, choose organic coffee and tea to avoid pesticides and chemicals that can harm the environment and your health.
Reduce Waste: Consider the environmental impact of your caffeine consumption habits. Using a reusable cup, avoiding single-use pods, and composting coffee grounds are small steps that can make a big difference.
Being a conscious consumer means not only being aware of how caffeine affects your body but also understanding its broader impact on the world. By choosing sustainable, ethical products and consuming caffeine responsibly, you contribute to a healthier planet and a more equitable industry. Indeed, one small decision won’t save the world, but by demanding the industry leaders to be better and with collective action, we can.
That’s all I got for you today.