How to reset your caffeine tolerance

by | Jan 28, 2020 | Energy, Podcast

Takeaway: When you consume caffeine habitually, you’ll need to consume more and more to experience the same energy boost. This makes occasionally resetting your caffeine tolerance worth the effort and the struggle. To do this, slowly lower the amount of caffeine you consume each day, or go “cold turkey” if you don’t consume a lot to begin with. Invest in your energy at the same time to counterbalance withdrawal symptoms. Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 59s. Podcast Length29 minutes, 49s (link to play podcast at bottom of post).
It’s worth resetting your caffeine tolerance every once in a while. The reason for this is simple: as your body becomes accustomed to consuming caffeine, you need to consume more and more of it to experience the same energy boost.
When you go from consuming zero coffee a day to drinking a single cup, you feel a big energy boost. But soon, your body adjusts, and you need two cups to experience the same effect. Then three. And then maybe even four. You get the picture.1
This idea of caffeine inflation can be dangerous. Setting aside the fact that it’s never fun to rely on drugs to feel a proper amount of energy, consuming too much caffeine can also lead to anxiety, exhaustion, and can disrupt your sleep, among many other factors. Plus, large energy crashes can obliterate your productivity.
I fell into this trap a couple of months ago when, during the holidays, I found myself drinking far more coffee than usual—the equivalent of five cups of coffee each day, in the form of coffee, tea, and espresso.
There’s nothing wrong with consuming caffeine for a productivity boost, especially when you drink it strategically—like before working on important tasks—so you can actually make use of the energy boost. But it’s worth performing a caffeine reset whenever you find yourself consuming caffeine habitually, or when you’re consuming more of it to experience the same energy sensation. A caffeine reset can be a struggle, but it’s worth it to get out of a downward spiral.
You can reset your caffeine tolerance in one of two ways:

  1. Slowly reducing how much caffeine you consume each day, if you rely on it heavily to experience a passable amount of energy. I’ve done this by drinking the same amount of tea or coffee, but substituting more and more of it with decaf, until I’ve cut out caffeine altogether.
  2. Going cold turkey, and not consuming caffeine until your energy rebalances. I’ve found this method helpful in the past during times when I’ve been drinking a couple cups of tea per day, or a single cup of coffee. I actually prefer this method—I can feel the effects of going without caffeine, and watch the effects diminish over time.

espressorzThe toughest part of writing about caffeine is that everyone is wired differently. Just as everyone responds to caffeine differently, a caffeine reset may have a different effect on each person. If you consume caffeine habitually, you’ll almost certainly experience symptoms as you reduce your tolerance—in the past, I’ve experienced headaches, mood swings, sadness, an inability to focus, brain fog, and even flu-like symptoms. While this may make resetting your caffeine tolerance seem like more trouble than it’s worth, consider that you’re experiencing these symptoms because you’ve grown reliant on a drug for energy.
Thankfully, while you’ll probably experience some withdrawal symptoms, there are many ways to mitigate them:

  • Starting on the weekend. This will give you an excuse to veg out, and will minimize the impact the reset has on your productivity.
  • Treating your worst symptoms. If your headaches and other withdrawal symptoms are bad, aspirin or ibuprofen can help relieve them, until they go away in a week or so (depending on how much caffeine you regularly consume).
  • Investing in your energy levels. Eating clean-burning foods that provide lasting energy, getting exercise (which rebalances your brain chemicals), drinking plenty of water, and getting enough rest can minimize the amount of energy lost as you cut back on caffeine. You may even find that you have more energy than before.

Caffeine is a drug—a popular and usually delicious one, but a drug nonetheless. I’m personally a big fan of caffeine—and consume it most days, especially before working on my most important tasks. But because the costs of caffeine can be so great, it’s worth consuming it strategically, rather than habitually.
Resetting your tolerance to caffeine can be a pain—but once you get over your withdrawal symptoms, you’ll be able to consume it a lot more deliberately and productively.

  1. Here’s why: caffeine binds to a chemical in your brain called adenosine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel tired. Your brain normally reabsorbs this chemical and loses energy by itself—not so after you consume caffeine. Your brain even grows more and more adenosine receptors as you drink greater amounts of caffeine, meaning you need to consume more and more of it to feel the same effect. This also leads to larger energy crashes—once the caffeine in your brain dissipates, your brain absorbs a whole whack of adenosine at once. 

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

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