In April 2011, I quit drinking coffee. This was an unexpected move for me because I loved coffee. Back in the mid-1990s, I had a blog and many posts were about the art and pleasure of coffee making and drinking. My espresso machine was my most beloved appliance. I wrote my whole PhD dissertation by waking up at 5 a.m., pouring myself a double shot, and sitting down to write by 5:04. I really enjoyed the taste and culture of coffee, it was a pleasurable part of my life, and it helped me write. Why quit coffee now?
Content warning: This post discusses miscarriage.
In this very personal post, I will share the reasons why I quit coffee, what happened to me after I did, and why I continue to live coffee-free to this day, 10 years later. I will also raise some questions you may want to ask yourself about your own coffee consumption. I am not suggesting that you should quit coffee, but I do believe that we should all be more mindful about what we consume in general – including coffee.
Trying to conceive
In 2010, when I was 32 years old, my husband and I decided it was time to start a family. As a pro-active, Type A person, I found a family doctor who specialized in working with new families and shared our intentions with her. I had no particular health concerns, so she just told me to stop the hormonal birth control, and start trying to conceive. Shortly after, I took my last pill. A month later, I was pregnant. Yippee!
My doctor was pleased to see me back in the office so quickly, and sent me off to get an ultrasound to date the pregnancy more precisely. Unfortunately, by the time I lay down in the dark with cold jelly on my tummy, the embryo that had started growing in my uterus had failed. The radiologist’s verdict: “Blighted ovum.” My doctor’s wisdom: “It happens all the time, don’t worry about it. Just try again when you are ready.” We can do this!
In the following six months, I had two more early pregnancy losses. Becoming pregnant was never a problem, but our embryos weren’t “sticky.” Our hearts were broken. What was wrong?
Could coffee be the cause?
After three losses, my family doctor referred us to the local hospital’s fertility clinic for investigation, but there would be a delay before we could see a specialist. Again, the Type A in me was keen to take action. We spent a lot of time researching what could possibly be happening to us. Were my husband and I somehow incompatible? Was there something wrong with my uterus? Was there anything in our environment that was preventing the pregnancy from unfolding as it should?
Across everything I was reading, the question of coffee came back regularly, and most scientific sources were reassuring: drinking a cup of coffee or two every day shouldn’t be a problem. But then I stumbled upon another study suggesting that a very small number of women may be highly sensitive to caffeine, causing their bodies to struggle to establish a connection between the mother’s vascular system and the embryo’s. (Don’t ask me for the reference, but this article has some more recent references.)
Could I be one of them?
Why quit coffee? Why not!
Since there was nothing else we could do while waiting for an appointment at the fertility clinic, I thought: why not quit coffee as an experiment? What’s the worst that can happen anyway?
I had just miscarried in late-March 2011, and we were spending two weeks on Maui in early April. Not a good time to quit coffee! I decided I would enjoy my last cup – brewed from Hawaiian beans – before leaving the island. Once back home in Vancouver, I would drink only decaf – which has a small amount of caffeine – for a week. Then, I would go down to zero.
I also decided that I would not have tea. That would be quite the challenge for me since sharing a pot of green tea with coworkers was a daily ritual.
The worst two weeks of my life
The decaf week wasn’t bad, which makes me wonder how much caffeine is really in it.
Going down to zero coffee, however, was hell. Quitting coffee was one of the most challenging things I did in my life.
It hurt. My brain felt like it was swelling into my cranium, trying to get out. I felt tired, had no energy. Two weeks passed in a fog.
Then I was free.
In late-April, I became pregnant again. On May 12th, for the first time, we saw a flicker – a heart beat! – on the screen of the ultrasound machine. A few days after Christmas, our first child was born.
Why quit coffee? Maybe it was just a coincidence.
There are many more miscarriages than most people hear about, as much as 20% of known pregnancies. The abundance of cheap pregnancy tests means that women can now know they are pregnant within days after conception, leading to more miscarriages being noticed than ever before. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the fourth, coffee-free pregnancy turned out to be “sticky.”
Or maybe not.
We’ll never know.
I could have started drinking coffee again, but we wanted another child, so I thought I would definitely wait until our family was completed. The pain of quitting coffee was just too great to make it worth it to start again.
Plus, about five months after my daughter was born, on Mothers’ Day, I managed to sneak out of our home on my own for the very first time. I went for a bike ride and stopped at a favorite coffee shop. I ordered an espresso.
The coffee tasted great, but I felt an immediate “high” so strong that I wondered if I should really bike back home, or walk instead.
There are people who are more sensitive to caffeine than others. Maybe I am one of them – and simply didn’t know.
My unexpected benefits from quitting coffee
This is not a scientific study, only a personal experiment with a single test subject: myself. But here are a few of the unexpected benefits I experienced within a few months of quitting coffee:
- Steadier energy: I used to need a while (or an espresso) to get started in the morning, and feel very low energy in the two hours after lunch. Whenever possible I’d have a short afternoon nap, or at least another cup of coffee or tea. Not needed anymore! Keep in mind this happened while tending the needs of a baby who didn’t sleep more than 45 minutes in a row until age 3 or so.
- No more morning headaches: Previously, if I didn’t have my first cup of coffee by 8 a.m., a virtual vise would tighten around my head and stay there all day, even if I had a cup of coffee later. After those first, awful two weeks, I didn’t experience this anymore. Ever.
- One less thing to do in the morning: Previously, getting coffee in my body was as much a pleasure as a task that needed to be done every day. When traveling and away from home, securing coffee in the morning was often on my mind. Now I just don’t have to worry about that anymore and I can get out of the door faster if needed.
- No more timing that caffeine: As a runner, I found that I had to carefully plan my caffeine intake due to the possible gastrointestinal side effects, especially when racing. Now I can just lace up my shoes and run.
- Less waste: Coffee means packaging and spent grounds to deal with. Quitting coffee has meant reducing my footprint a little bit.
- Fewer expenses: Gourmet coffee isn’t cheap, and having it every day, even if mostly at home, adds up. I estimate that we are saving at least $15-20 per week, or almost $1,000 per year.
Substituting the ritual after quitting coffee
Most people find that the coffee ritual is just as important as the beverage itself in their lives. I get it! But I also wonder how much of the ritual is made necessary by the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal experienced in the morning.
Personally, my substitute ritual is to pull out a bottle of refrigerated tap water from the fridge. I have a favorite reusable glass bottle that I love drinking from. I get up early and read a book or write in my journal while drinking the fresh water, and it feels great.
When it’s time to write, I enjoy a hot beverage just as much as the next person. My favorite is homemade pineapple-ginger tea from my dehydrator. (The ginger helps with muscle soreness from hard workouts, too!)
Recently, I discovered purple tea and I enjoy a cup poured from my special teapot, but I am cautious not to do it every day, choosing fruit and herbal concoctions instead.
Why quit coffee if it has health benefits?
My go-to resource on nutrition and health, Dr. Michael Greger, is generally coffee-friendly and has highlighted the benefits of the bean-based beverage, which is a source of antioxidants, in a few videos. In particular, there is reasonable evidence that coffee decreases the odds of liver disease.
Personally, considering the release I have experienced once I quit coffee, I prefer to avoid getting liver issues in the first place. In particular, I choose to consume very little alcohol and eat a healthy plant-based diet.
My personal experience is that the benefits of drinking coffee do not outweigh the unpleasant side effects I feel. Miscarriages aside – because really I’ll never know if there was causation or coincidence there – I find that my body reacts strongly to caffeine. The literature examined by Dr. Greger also shows that the benefits of coffee do not apply to everyone. Perhaps I’m a slow metabolizer?
Don’t quit coffee, do this instead
Personally, I prefer not to feel controlled by a substance. The idea that I must have coffee in the morning to be my best no longer sits well with me.
In addition, I am uncomfortable with the scale the coffee industry has grown in the past 100 years. Between 1990 and 2020 alone, production worldwide has nearly doubled. The amounts of land and water required are mind-boggling. Is growing coffee the best use of natural resources for the people, diversity, and environment of exporting countries, and for the planet? It’s hard to find a truly nuanced discussion of such an important question.
If you feel that you cannot function without coffee, maybe reconsider your relationship with the brew?
Perhaps do a one-month coffee free experiment and decide whether you want to bring it back after that period… on your own terms?
If you enjoy coffee, but do not feel dependent upon it, consider these tweaks to your coffee experience
- Drink it for pleasure. Make it a small event, and savor your cup. Pay attention to the experience. Don’t just grab a coffee and throw it down your throat.
- Choose your beans carefully. Get the nicest coffee that your money can buy, preferably one that comes from a tiny company with its own plantation, or at least a direct, one-to-one relationship to the farmer.
- Aim for zero waste by buying beans in bulk and brewing them with an espresso machine or French press (the cafestol shouldn’t be a concern if coffee is only an occasional treat).
- No reusable cup? No coffee. Have you coffee “to stay” or BYO reusable mug. (And, while you are at it, say no to drive-thru.)
My coffee supplier
Although I haven’t started drinking coffee again, I still love the smell of freshly-roasted beans. I get my husband’s beans from Invito Coffee, a Vancouver-based small coffee business that is fully integrated and responsible: they own the Costa Rica plantation, privately import the green beans, roast them here in Vancouver, and make them available package-free to customers. (For those who need a package, it’s compostable.) My husband loves the resulting brew from his coffee machine, and I find the smell divine. And the owners are vegan! (I am not affiliated, just a really happy customer.)