I drank one cup of coffee, and then…

January 17, 2021

This morning, my girlfriend and I walked over to a coffee shop, ordered coffee, and walked back home. And from this seemingly everyday activity, I learned something valuable.

For much of the past seven years, I drank coffee daily. It started when I was working as an analyst at Cornerstone Research, a litigation consulting firm, and had a lot on my plate. Some days, I worked from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. There were even weeks when I repeatedly stayed past midnight. To make it through those busy days and weeks, I resorted to coffee. One cup a day at first, then two, then sometimes three.

In 2016, after I had quit that job, I settled into a routine of drinking two cups of coffee a day, one at home and the other at home or at a coffee shop. I used a fancy hand grinder to grind the beans and then I made a cup of pour-over coffee using my Chemex or my AeroPress. I enjoyed playing around with the coffee-brewing variables to get the cup to turn out just right.

Eventually, I realized that drinking coffee late in the afternoon hurt my sleep. So I set a rule: no coffee after 2 p.m. That helped a bit, but I still slept poorly on many nights.

Fast forward to 2019. My poor sleep was bothering me more and more. I wasn’t 100% sure that coffee was the culprit, but science suggested it was, so I cut my second cup of coffee each day. From now on, I would only drink coffee in the mornings. I could still make a delicious cup by hand-grinding my beans and pouring the water with care—but only one per day.

Cutting back on coffee seemed to improve my sleep. But was that just a coincidence?

About half a year ago, I was truly tired of not feeling rested after waking up. Usually, I felt that I should have slept for at least two more hours. (And I sleep eight hours a night or more.) So I resolved to avoid caffeine entirely for a while, as an experiment.

The first few days after I stopped drinking caffeine—I replaced my morning cuppa with rooibos tea—I didn’t notice much of a difference. My sleep was about the same. But after a week or two, I found myself sleeping longer and deeper. I didn’t wake up as much at night and I even slept in until 10 a.m. a few times—unheard of for me.

Moreover, I felt more at ease throughout the day, especially in the morning. Whereas I had often felt jittery in the hours after breakfast, I now felt relaxed and clear-headed. Before, I wasn’t truly awake until after I had my morning cup. Now, I felt awake ten to fifteen minutes after getting out of bed.

While I missed the ritual and the taste of my morning coffee, I couldn’t argue with the results.

But as time passes, it is easy to forget. I’m now many months removed from drinking coffee daily and I am still not sleeping 100%. Perhaps, I wondered, I had just imagined the beneficial effect on my sleep? Maybe there was a correlation there, but no causation.

So this morning, when we arrived at my favorite coffee shop, I didn’t order a decaf cappuccino with soy milk, as I normally do these days. Instead I got a proper cup of caffeinated pour-over coffee. I thought of it as an experiment: I knew I might sleep worse tonight, but I wanted to see how much the coffee affected me in the moment.

A few weeks ago, I read an article by someone who had also given up coffee and then drank one cup, just to see what it would do to him. He was amazed. It was like taking a drug, he said; the caffeine completely overpowered his brain. So I thought a knew what to expect. Not so.

Just half an hour after drinking my coffee, I felt incredibly jittery. It was like the caffeine was coursing through my veins. My legs felt unstable, my mind couldn’t stop racing, and I just wanted to run, run, run! Walking the rest of the way home was pretty uncomfortable. I thought: how did I ever enjoy this stuff?

With time, it’s easy to forget how things used to be. But as I had that one non-decaf cup today, I vividly remembered how restless I used to feel, how on edge. If only I had stopped drinking coffee sooner, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration.

Now, this is not a public service announcement against caffeine. Perhaps you are not as affected by coffee as I am. (Then again, maybe you are…) It is, instead, an illustration of the value of experimenting. The small change of no longer drinking coffee has had a big, positive effect on me. Which things are available for you to change, that might make your every day noticeably better?

Lesson learned. If I had any doubt that avoiding coffee is better for me, those doubts were dispelled today. Caffeine really does mess me up; I was just used to that state of being on edge, so I didn’t really notice it. Next time, I’ll order my decaf soy cappuccino again.

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