Archive for June 2nd, 2007

Three years ago, I gave up caffeine in all forms. I’m convinced I’m healthier for the decision, and that it gives me a certain edge over people. However, it constantly proves socially inconvenient.

Until I made the decision, I never imagined that I could do without caffeine. Like many people, I practically ran on it, drinking a cup of tea first thing in the morning, and two or three cups of coffee during the day – and, more often than I care to admit, a coke or chocolate on top of that. When I was teaching at Simon Fraser University, I was notorious for showing up to an early class nursing a large cup of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. And for years, I thought a couple of coffees at Starbucks was a perfect way to spend a late Saturday morning (although never with my laptop; that would be pretentious). Similarly, in my days of office servitude, I thought sipping a cup of coffee first thing in the morning an ideal accompaniment to planning my day.

But my family has a history of high blood pressure and a couple of experiments showed that I was becoming so sensitive to caffeine that I could feel one hundred milliliters of coffee for over fourteen hours afterwards. In other words, not only was I gambling with my health, but I effectively lived with a perpetual buzz. Under these circumstances, quitting only made sense.

The first days of caffeine withdrawal quickly convinced me that I was physically addicted to the stuff. I had perpetual headaches, and I was unable to shake a listless irritation. But I was convinced that I would be better off, so I persevered, and eventually got the craving out of my system. Once the withdrawal symptoms stopped, I started feeling stronger and more alert. Aside from minute quantities of chocolate, and the occasional cup of tea to be polite – usually left unfinished – I’ve been clean ever since.

I miss the caffeine, and the sugar, if anything, even more so, but I discovered that what I really wanted in my day was a hot drink. An herbal tea like chamomile or peppermint does just as well, and helps relaxes me, rather than making me tenser.

This sacrifice on the altar of health has all the benefits that I expected. My blood pressure remains fine, thanks – in fact, it’s considerably lower than when I was a two-fisted coffee drinker. As a side benefit, I also sleep better, because my body isn’t constantly hyped up and I can relax more easily than I could before. Also, I can actually function on less sleep than previously, because I’m not whiplashed by the highs and comedowns of caffeine addiction.

However, there are other advantages, beyond what I expected. For one thing, when you live caffeine free, the artificial sense of urgency that many people seem to have simply vanishes. I can still respond to an emergency, or recognize the need to hurry, but I’m not constantly on edge.

Moreover, a caffeine-free body doesn’t lie; I know when I need sleep, and can make the effort to get it. Notoriously, most people in our society run on too little sleep, and, according to at least one study, every hour short of what they need robs them of a few IQ points. That means that, by the end of the week, a normal person can be operating at the level of a mentally challenged person. They take coffee to counteract their lack of sleep, but, just as caffeine after alcohol only makes a wide-awake drunk, caffeine on top of sleep deprivation only makes for an alert dullard.

If that’s true, then by foregoing caffeine and being aware of when I need sleep, I have an intellectual edge on many people, especially on Thursday and Fridays. And, even if that’s not true, I still have the energy to make those days as productive as earlier days in the work week.

The biggest problem I’ve had with my new diet is socially. When I’m away from home, finding a snack that isn’t chocolate is often next to impossible, even though my sugar addiction is still as strong as anyone’s.

But the real problem comes when I meet with someone, or attend a social event. People are used to vegetarians, or people with allergies, and will nod sympathetically when someone mentions these limitations. Even not drinking alcohol is socially acceptable these days in many places.

Yet, for some reason, many hosts are uncomfortable with someone who doesn’t use caffeine. They will constantly offer it, and, many times, even after I explain my preferences, the only way to calm their anxiety is to take a cup and then not drink it. Refusing caffeine almost seems an insult to your host’s hospitality, and many can’t rest easy until you accept some. If I ever fall off the wagon altogether, it will probably be because I’m tired of resisting the constant offers and want to be left alone. Modern society runs on caffeine – a fact that’s never more apparent than when you don’t.

However, I don’t think I’ll ever revert. Like most ex-addicts, I don’t want to go through withdrawal again. And, like many ex-addicts, I can be nastily smug when watching those still addicted when they’re struggling to get their fixes. So far as caffeine is concerned, a sizable portion of the population are actually functional addicts. Whenever I’m tempted to slip back into the habit, all I have to do is observe the fact to realize that I’m well out of it.

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