February 17, 2023
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Photography by Juan Moyano/Stocksy United
I had to push through waves of fatigue and weakness, but in the end I had more energy and fewer UC symptoms.
I’ve had ulcerative colitis (UC), an autoimmune disease that affects the colon and digestive tract, for nearly 15 years. For nearly all of that time, I have faced varying degrees of fatigue.
To compensate for this fatigue, I depended heavily on caffeine to keep me functioning and doing all the things I wanted to do.
I needed a pre-workout drink to get through my morning workout, and then an energy drink to avoid the afternoon slump. I even ignored all the signs that caffeine was doing more harm than good when it came to my UC — like my upset stomach and worsened anxiety, to name a couple.
Three months ago, I made the bold decision to give up caffeine, and it was the best decision I could have made for myself. I’m excited to share with you my reasons for giving up caffeine, how I cut it out of my diet, and the results I saw.
Since 2008, I relied on coffee, whether it was to get me through exams in college or through the workday in my 20s.
Despite battling flares from UC, I was never willing to give up coffee. It felt like my lifeline.
However, in my late 20s, I noticed that coffee exacerbated my UC symptoms, not just during flares but even when I was in remission. I tried several different types of coffee — decaf, cold brew, pour-over, etc. — but every kind made me feel sick for the rest of the day.
After seeing this connection, I made the decision I knew was best for my health and I gave up coffee completely.
I wasn’t quite ready to give up all caffeine, so I tried switching from coffee to matcha lattes (made with powdered green tea leaves).
However, matcha wasn’t enough to keep me alert throughout the day, so I began increasing my daily caffeine intake again through other means. Instead of drinking matcha, I switched to a morning pre-workout powder mixed with water, which gave me a 150 milligram (mg) boost of caffeine, and “healthy-ish” energy drinks in the afternoon, for a total of 300 mg a day. That’s a lot of caffeine!
As a reference point, one cup of coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine and the recommended limit of daily caffeine intake is 400 mg.
While I was in the phase of drinking pre-workout and energy drinks, I was also fighting an ongoing UC flare, feeling extremely bloated, anxious, and still fatigued. So I did a little research and found that anxiety is common among people with IBD, and that anxiety can lead to a recurrence of IBD symptoms.
Caffeine definitely wasn’t helping with this.
Three months ago, I made the plunge and committed to going caffeine-free. Here’s how.
Because my body was accustomed to drinking such a high amount of caffeine each day, I decided to reduce my intake gradually so I could avoid withdrawal symptoms.
For the first week, I cut my pre-workout powder in half and kept my afternoon energy drink. This brought me to 225 mg. I didn’t notice much of a difference in my energy level — or in my stomach or anxiety level, for that matter.
The next week, I cut my afternoon energy drink in half and kept the same half scoop of caffeinated pre-workout powder as the week before. This got me down to 150 mg. This is when I started noticing a drop in energy. I felt pretty sluggish in the afternoon without my usual amount of caffeine to keep me going.
My anxiety was still noticeable, but my stomach was beginning to feel more normal.
I began to allow myself to feel tired instead of immediately trying to fix it. It sounds so simple, but it created a profound shift in my life.
I continued at this level for the next couple of weeks, until my energy level felt stable. Then, I eliminated my pre-workout and energy drinks entirely and switched to one black tea or matcha latte per day. This brought me down to around 60 mg of caffeine and I stayed in this phase for about a week.
At this point, I noticed a serious decrease in energy and struggled to work a full day. Since I am fortunate to work from home, I allowed myself a midday nap to overcome some of the fatigue.
From here, I decided to switch my one remaining morning caffeine drink to herbal tea with honey. This helped me to continue to enjoy my morning ritual of drinking something hot in a mug while reading and journaling.
In preparation for eliminating that last jolt of caffeine, I bought several herbal teas that I was interested in trying. It helped to have hot tea options that I was excited about before I tried to replace my hot matcha in the morning.
I put a greater focus on drinking water throughout the day. Since I wasn’t using caffeine for energy, I needed to make sure I was giving my body everything it needed to thrive, including water.
One thing I realized during this process was that previously, I never allowed myself to feel tired. The second I felt a wave of fatigue, I would reach for the nearest caffeinated beverage to fix it, so I could continue on with my day. Once I realized this, I began to allow myself to feel tired instead of immediately trying to fix it.
It sounds so simple, but it created a profound shift in my daily life that allowed me to sit with how I was feeling, physically and mentally, rather than trying to find a quick fix.
Without caffeine, I still struggled to exercise, accomplish my daily tasks at work, and even cook dinner. However, I just leaned into the fatigue and rested when I needed to rather than fighting it with caffeine, knowing that it is temporary.
My caffeine-free journey has been anything but easy. In each phase of becoming caffeine-free, I struggled with massive fatigue and had to take it easy. Instead of masking my fatigue with caffeine, I allowed myself to rest more than usual and have a lighter schedule.
On top of fatigue, my workouts also suffered for a couple of weeks. I felt physically weaker and unable to exercise as intensely as I normally would have with the assistance of pre-workout caffeine.
I simply decided to accept that my workouts would be a little lighter, and eventually, my energy and strength returned to normal.
Also, I would occasionally slip and drink an energy drink when I felt like I couldn’t function from the fatigue and withdrawals I was experiencing. I didn’t want this to become a habit, so I realized I had to make a commitment to myself at the beginning of each day that I was not going to drink any caffeine.
Most days I stayed strong and overcame the craving, and some days I slipped up and had caffeine.
While it wasn’t an easy process, it was well worth the effort.
After a couple of weeks of going caffeine-free, I started to experience a couple of positive shifts. The first was that I started to feel natural energy for the first time in over 15 years. I woke up feeling refreshed and never felt like I needed coffee or tea to get my day started. Plus, my energy didn’t crash in the afternoon the way it did with loads of caffeine.
Also, my gastrointestinal symptoms began to subside. I felt less urgency and bloating, and my GI tract felt like it was back on track. With coffee, I was constantly rushing to the bathroom — giving up caffeine reduced the number of urgent trips I make to the bathroom.
For me, caffeine was a habit that exacerbated my UC-related fatigue and bloating, so I made the hard choice to give it up completely.
While it wasn’t easy to cut out of my life, I can say for certain that going caffeine-free was the best decision I could have made for myself and has resolved much of my fatigue and bloating.
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