Saturday, October 13, 2012

Why I'm Caffeine-Free

Let me tell you about the worst, most abusive and dependent relationship I ever suffered through - my love affair with caffeine.

We met when I was very young, through our mutual friends Tab and Diet Coke. We had an on-again, off-again thing for a few years, but then it became serious. By the time I was fourteen, we were living together full-time.

I was drinking a 12-pack of Diet Coke a day, at least. Interestingly, around that time I was first diagnosed with migraines and cluster headaches. The doctor prescribed Cafergot (a medicine that includes a dose of caffeine) without ever asking how my caffeine relationship was. (I also started to show strong symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Recent research has connected over-consumption of caffeine with an increase in fibromyalgia pain.)

For the next several years, I struggled through a cycle of getting headaches if I had too little caffeine, treating that with caffeine, then feeling crummy from having too much caffeine. It was a constant struggle to find a balance in our relationship. Finally, I decided I'd had enough. I decided it was time for us to break-up.

I won't kid you: that was the worst two weeks of my life. I have never been sicker (and this is from a woman with two autoimmune diseases). The headaches, fatigue, and all-over aching I felt were miserable. I thought I might die.

But I got through it. You can guess what happened next - the headaches disappeared. No more cluster headaches, fewer migraines. More energy, less fatigue and general malaise. So there's my happy ending, right? I moved on to healthier relationships and never messed around with caffeine again? Hardly.

Caffeine is as addictive as any other drug, but here's the dangerous thing about drugs: even breaking the physical addiction is not enough.You have to be convinced that it's poison for you. If you think there's anything redeeming about it, you'll go back. It only took one bad enough day with too little sleep the night before and I would run right back.

I've been off the stuff for several years now, because I finally realized that it is a drug and it is poison for me. Here are some things you may or may not know about caffeine:

  • According to the Mayo Clinic, caffeine has interactions with certain common antibiotics (such as Cipro) and herbal supplements (echinacea). In the years of caffeine addiction, I certainly used both of those and was never told this by my doctor or pharmacist. Were you?
  • Are you one of those people who says "caffeine doesn't affect my sleep" just because you don't have a problem falling asleep? Caffeine can also affect the quality of your sleep, or because of its diuretic properties, cause interrupted sleep.
  • For women, caffeine has been linked to a higher risk of 1st trimester miscarriage. There is also some reason to believe it may have an effect on endometriosis and fibrocystic breast pain.
  • Caffeine can compound the symptoms of many common health conditions, such as acid reflux, high blood pressure, irritable bowels, anxiety, and (surprise!) headaches and fibromyalgia.
  • Important for vegans and those with anemia or bone density issues, caffeine can inhibit the absorption of iron and calcium from your food.
This isn't to say that caffeine doesn't have any positives. For example, it's been shown to have a positive effect on asthma. But of course, it makes sense that there would be genuine medical benefits... since it's a drug. Drugs do have uses in the treatment of disease. But what's the difference between a drug and a poison? Very often, the only difference is when you use it and how much. If you're using caffeine for something other than the treatment of a condition it's known to help, how is that different from prescription drug abuse?

I'm sure there are people out there with appropriate caffeine intake (generally defined by the medical community as 1-2 doses per day) who can experience the benefits without any significant consequences. Just  like there are people who can have a glass of red wine every day for the health benefits and not become alcoholics. But just because some people can use these drugs responsibly doesn't mean there's not a risk for the rest of us. If you're a caffeine addict - a person who just can't manage to limit themselves to 1-2 doses a day - consider whether you need to go in for a lifetime of 'caffeine sobriety.'   

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