It’s just after 10pm, 2nd January. Post bed-time. There is peace in the house.
I just wanted to take a few minutes to write some notes on the start of another January of no sugar, alcohol or caffeine.
Can’t remember how many times we’ve done this now – possibly the fourth dry January for me, so I knew what to expect. I knew the first week is the hardest as the residue of caffeine and alcohol drain from the body.
It was. Although for a while on the first day of the year I thought I had avoided the worst.
I’d drunk a few glasses of wine the night before, but awoke with only a sense of woolly headed-ness.
It took another 4 hours or so before the piercing caffeine headache began to onset. I was sluggish and achy. I played badly at football in the afternoon, not helped by the fact my feet were damp and frozen. I missed loads of shots, gave up the ball and scored an own goal. Just dreadful.
The headache persisted. That’s what it does. In almost an automatic way I reached for the kettle for some respite. But in spite of drinking multiple hot brews, there was no relief. The special ingredient was missing: caffeine.
The next day was worse. Compounding the headache were muscular and joint aches from my exertions on the football field the previous day. Damp, chill weather didn’t help. Even though I have a long list of things to do having recently moved house, I was overcome with lethargy.
It was like having a mild bout of flu, and the only thing to do was to surrender to it. I plumped up the cushions on the couch, lay back, and caught up on some TV specials, in between catering grumpily to the demands of my kids. Or I turned on the yule log, and dozed.
On the second evening I took Tylenol. It didn’t really alleviate the headache. On further reading, I thought I had unwittingly ingested caffeine but – although similar over-the-counter analgesics contain caffeine to speed pain-relief – Tylenol says its products have no caffeine in them.
Just as well for me, but that might explain why it had little effect on my headache.
Over the worst
Writing on the evening of day 3, the worst seems over already. The caffeine headache has subsided and I feel more energetic.
Today, there were still caffeine cravings at breakfast, afternoon and evening time, usually around meal time. I missed the sensation of sudden alertness and clarity of mind that comes from a strong cuppa after I came in from a walk or bike in the rain. In its place was a natural sense of uninhibited fatigue. To which the natural response was to lie down for a nap.
That’s a good reason why I pursue this abstemiousness in the dark, winter month of January, when hibernating is a primal impulse. It feels like a rest because I literally am resting much of the time.
A month ago I was busy moving into a new home, and I found myself sleeping 4 to 6 hours each night. Caffeine kept me going. Now I comfortably sleep 7 or 8 hours each night. I might not have as many hours to do things, but I expect to become more productive and healthy.
On the fifth day, after a good sleep, I awoke with more of a spring in my step. The hardest thing about quitting the trifecta is the fatigue, so it’s encouraging to feel a fresh rush of vitality that doesn’t come from a shot of caffeine-induced dopamine to the prefrontal cortex.
The aches and headache are still there, but slipping into the background.
I don’t consider myself a serious caffeine user. I typically have a large mug of French pressed, dark roast coffee in the morning and several black teas throughout the day.
So 120mg (coffee) plus 200mg (four 50mg cups of tea) for a total daily caffeine intake of roughly 320mg.
I don’t drink carbonated, sugary drinks like coke (30mg, to 46mg if it’s a 355ml/12 oz can of Diet Coke), nor energy drinks (40mg to 250mg per can) and my chocolate intake is occasional.
Not a serious caffeine user? The pain in my head says otherwise.
The medical profession calls it “coffee withdrawl syndrome”. A paper published on the National Library of Medicine website says:
“Withdrawal from caffeine causes mild to clinically significant distress and impairment of normal functioning. The severity of symptoms vary from individual to individual, and most commonly include a headache, fatigue, decreased energy/activeness, decreased alertness, drowsiness, decreased contentedness, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and feeling foggy/not clearheaded. The severity of symptoms varies from mild to extreme. The incidence or severity of symptoms increased with increases in the daily dose. Still, abstinence from low doses, such as about one small cup of coffee per day, also produced symptoms of withdrawal.”
But what of the other two vices, I hear you ask. Sugar has not been too arduous (for the adults in the family, at least). Sugar is a tricky thing to “give up” for January as it’s in so many foods, but generally speaking we removed the sugar bowl, sweet treats, candy, sweetened desserts, sugary snacks like granola bars, and such like.
From Halloween to New Year there’d been just a constant flow of sugary foods, it had almost become habitual (our youngest’s sack of candy hauled at Halloween is still unfinished in 2024).
While it was easy for us adults, it was less so for the kids (15 and 10 years old). It was difficult to watch their friends scarfing down the candy day in day out. They complained about our diet becoming “boring”.
We introduced the concept of break days for special days like birthday parties so that they could celebrate with friends by eating birthday cake and treats at friends’ parties so long as they added an extra day in the first week of February.
I also cooked several apple crisps. There was no sugar, ice cream or cream added. We didn’t need to. The apples had a very satisfying natural sweetness when baked with buttery oatmeal. Our youngest loved it.
Another naturally sweet staple was crepes and blueberry or raspberry sauce for breakfast every day (compared to lemon and sugar every day).
For me, alcohol seemed easier to abstain from for a month. Alcohol is still considered the lubricant of social interaction. It was an adjustment to be drinking chamomile tea in the bar with my soccer buddies while they were draining pints, but “dry January” is a thing now and everyone was supportive of the idea.
Unlike caffeine you know where you stand with alcohol. Drink too much and you’ll feel terrible the next day. The caffeine hangover is more insidious.
It’s sometimes difficult to discern how much is in your food and drink, if you were bothering to pay attention. And why would you? Caffeine advertises itself as being the get-up-and-go drug. Caffeine has been linked to deaths, but most likely the worst thing that can happen to you is a case of jitters.
In contrast, too much alcohol gets you messed up, can lead to fatal decision-making, and put you behind bars.
The Year Ahead
I’m writing on 11th February with goals in mind. We got through the rest of the month, plus four extra days to make up for the sugar-breaks. The family plan is to remain on a longer term course of a sugar-lite diet and be more assiduous about limiting our sugar intake.
We were trying to do this before, but good intentions gradually slip and it was important for us after the season of binging to reset.
Sugar is only part of the story as far as diet is concerned and we’re conscious of the fact that we have to improve other aspects of our food intake. It’s difficult. With the exploding cost of living and ravenous, vegetarian boys our food bill is probably now bigger than our rent (which is saying something for Vancouver). The goal is to eat less white flour and junk, and to prepare more food. But that usually requires time, which is in short supply.
We’ll be continually experimenting with packed lunches to make them healthy and interesting (as far as the kids are concerned).
Likewise, on the caffeine and alcohol front, I’m in no rush to undo the benefits accrued from the past month. I dusted off the Bodum and had my first coffee in a month on 1st February. I made too much and it was too strong. I felt hyper alert and woozy, almost to the point of nauseousness.
I’ll be sticking to one coffee a day, drinking booze only occasionally in social situations and maybe having a herbal beverage instead of a beer or espresso every now and then.