I love coffee. Since my days as a writer, before I became an acupuncturist, I’ve loved the scent, taste, and ritual of morning coffee. I drink my coffee black—so black that I’ve been told my coffee is more like stout than coffee.
Over the years I’ve quit coffee for short stretches, particularly in acupuncture school, when I began to think critically about how food impacts my health, but for most of my adult life, coffee has been a part of my morning routine.
Recently, I was talking to an acupuncturist friend, and I mentioned my morning coffee.
You still drink coffee?
She said this as if coffee were something we had all given up years ago.
Yes! I love coffee!
I felt she should have mercy on me the way I do all of my clients who eat too much sugar or can’t give up smoking. The problem is that we were also talking about a health issue I was having that is typically made much worse with coffee.
She was right. As much as I wanted to justify why I still wanted coffee, it was obvious that it was aggravating my health in a way I could no longer deny.
Coffee in Chinese Medicine
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, coffee contributes to a number of unwanted health conditions. Here are just a few:
- Migraine headaches
- Menstrual cramps
- Uterine fibroids
- Ovarian cysts
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Chronic UTIs
Coffee—even decaf—is an irritant. Its energetic properties are hot and acidic. Your stomach and intestines bear the irritating intensity of coffee, but it’s your heart that has to work the most with that cup of java, especially if it’s caffeinated. Coffee also opens your pores, makes you sweat, and causes you to urinate, all of which contribute to chronic dehydration.
But it’s not just the coffee itself that is so bad for us; it’s the other stuff we put in it as well. For example, sugar.
Sugar is a highly inflammatory food. Whenever we ingest sugar, it triggers all the systems in our bodies that are already inflamed (think arthritic joints, any site where infection may be present, and the lining of your gut).
The combination of coffee and sugar first thing in the morning creates an amazing buzz, but that buzz comes with a price. It spikes your blood sugar while aggravating your liver. Over time this spike/crash cycle depletes the body of water, agitates the heart, and contributes to insulin resistance. It can also lead to hypertension, a condition millions of Americans are already diagnosed with.
The female reproductive system is particularly sensitive to coffee. Coffee worsens breast cysts and cycle-related breast tenderness, uterine fibroids, menopausal hot flashes, ovarian cysts, and PMS.
There are actually very few “medicinal” uses for coffee, although it has been shown to help with cognitive function in older adults. This makes sense. As we age our natural yang qi diminishes and coffee mimics the effects of yang qi, encouraging us to move and remain alert. But for younger and middle-aged people, especially women, coffee is really nothing but trouble, even if it tastes great.
So, after years of clinging to my one cup of coffee, I decided to give it up.
Now I want to help you do it, too.
Giving up Coffee is Not as Hard as You Fear
Coffee does different things for different people. Like alcohol at Happy Hour, morning coffee is a ritual. Rituals mark special junctures in our days, weeks, and years. Honoring these turning points is important. Just because you’re giving up coffee does not mean you need to give up that delicious twenty minutes of snuggling your dog or talking with your partner. Keep all of that!
To start your conversion from coffee, take what you normally consume in one day—say, two mugs—and cut it in half for one week. After one week, cut that mug in half. Now you’re drinking a half-mug every morning. At the end of week two, switch to one mug (with one tea bag) of black or green tea, no more.
If you are a heavy coffee drinker (3-4 mugs a day), give yourself more time to cut down. For example, if you drink four mugs a day, cut that down to two the first week, one the second week, and a half-mug the third week.
As long as you’re diligent about cutting your consumption in half every week, it does not matter how long it takes. Eventually, you’ll be off coffee.
Why the Slow Withdrawal?
Why not just stop completely? Or switch to decaf?
Here’s why this method works better than all of those approaches: it gives your body time to adjust to the withdrawal.
For most people, coffee is a mild addiction. Your body is used to the rush it gives you and will probably be cranky when you withhold the goods. That feeling of being robbed will wreck havoc on your mind and body, making it much harder to quit. This gradual process will give you plenty of time to counteract withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, constipation, and fatigue, all of which usually trigger us to go back to drinking coffee.
Many people use coffee as a laxative, so reducing your consumption could reveal you have slow bowels. Two easy things you can do beginning the week before you start lowering your coffee intake is to up your fiber (think fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) and increase your water consumption—a lot.
Start your day by drinking a glass of warm water, and keep this going throughout the time you’re weaning off coffee. If you continue this habit once you’ve switched to tea, it will make an enormous difference in your elimination.
Constipation comes in a couple of different forms: hot and dry or slow and stagnant. Hot, dry constipation will improve greatly with additional water, fruits, and vegetables. Slow and stagnant bowels also benefit from these additions, but you should also up your exercise, especially walking. Walking aids the digestive tract in elimination through rhythmic movement and gravity. Sitting will make constipation worse, so make sure you’re getting your body moving.
Caffeine-withdrawal headaches are rotten, but they can be lessened through drinking more water, getting additional exercise, and switching to black tea at the end of your coffee conversion, at least to start out.
But why not decaf coffee? Many people switch from caffeinated coffee to decaf and call it good, but I am not a fan of this approach. Decaf coffee is still coffee, which means the energetic qualities of heat, acidity, and irritation are still there. Also, decaf drinkers still tend to load their mugs with sugar. Not good!
Black tea is healthier than coffee and green tea is even better. Just make sure you don’t go over one mug a day when you are weaning off coffee. This will help your body adjust to having less caffeine. If you replace your one mug of coffee with three mugs of green tea, you won’t get past the caffeine-addiction withdrawal, especially the headache.
If your goal is to kick caffeine all together, keep your tea consumption in check.
Fatigue is a common side effect of getting off coffee, but I promise, this is short-lived.
Once you’ve transitioned from coffee, your energy will level out. The post-coffee crash will be gone, and your body will adjust to getting its energy from food, exercise, and sleep. You will feel better than you ever did on coffee. Just give it a little time, usually one to two weeks.
Cutting caffeine altogether
Cutting caffeine entirely is the next step, although if you’re only drinking one mug of caffeinated tea a day, that is much better than one mug of coffee. Tea is easier on your gut than coffee. It creates less inflammation and is less addictive, but nonetheless, it is caffeinated, which can lead to insomnia, agitation, and excess sweating.
Shifting to caffeine-free beverages is a great goal and one I encourage you to try once you’ve kicked coffee completely. There are a variety of coffee substitutes out there, including roasted dandelion, chicory root, and certain varieties of mushrooms. Or you may just decide to go with something totally different, like peppermint tea or a custom herbal blend.
Getting past coffee is the hardest part. Go slowly and give yourself the time it takes to make the switch gradually. Your body will thank you, and you’ll find coffee has much less power over you than you imagined.
P.S.—Searching for photos of lattes, espresso, and steaming mugs of coffee for this post was brutal for me, the ex-coffee drinker. This delightful photo with a blank journal was nearly enough to send me down Coffee Lane. But I resisted! I wish you the best of luck in quitting coffee, too.