We’re now in the third week of Ramadan, which means those of us who are fasting, have diligently eliminated coffee from their lives for a good 15 hours every day. If you’re someone who’s used to waking up and smelling the coffee every morning but have locked away your instant coffee in the recesses of your kitchen drawers, go on, give yourself a pat on the back. You deserve it. Ditching caffeine is no walk in the park. That UAE residents on average consume 3.5kg of coffee and tea a year is a window to the addictive nature of coffee’s active ingredient.
And like other addictive central nervous stimulants (alcohol and nicotine), coffee comes with a swarm of withdrawal symptoms – think headaches, irritability, restlessness, fatigue and upset stomachs – severe enough to merit caffeine intoxication a place in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Which makes Ramadan a great time to pump the brakes on your coffee dependence altogether. It’s a chance to detox your system and lick your self-restraint into shape – the holy month is after all about cleansing the soul and body.
Mina Shafik, a psychologist at Dubai-based Thrive Wellbeing Centre, tells us how to manage the withdrawal symptoms associated with caffeine addiction and explains how it’s not “all in the head”. Caffeine is, in essence, a psychoactive substance – substances that alters the brain chemistry. And the fast-track to overcoming any addiction is understanding how it affects your body.
When caffeine is released into the bloodstream, it blocks natural molecules in the brain called adenosine, which are responsible for feelings of fatigue and drowsiness, explains Mina. “Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors and creates alertness. It also triggers the release of adrenaline, which is responsible for increasing alertness, heart rate, focus, etc.
“Over time, the brain starts to create more adenosine receptors since the existing ones are blocked most of the time. Thus, you need more coffee to block the extra adenosine receptors created and [this tolerance you develop becomes] your ‘Caffeine Fix’.”
For a brain used to functioning on a fixed amount of caffeine, that becomes the new normal and anything outside of that framework – such as eliminating coffee from your diet – creates a state of addiction.
Now you know how your brain is on caffeine and the struggle to manage withdrawal symptoms isn’t indicative of your will power. Here are some effective tips to quit the brown stuff for good.
1. Tapering trumps going cold turkey: Bringing your fix of daily grind to a grinding halt is setting yourself up for failure, says Mina. “Decrease the caffeine amount daily.” A lot of people try to stop all at once, or what we call ‘going cold turkey’.
But all it does is intensify symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, and you tend to give into cravings. This continues being stuck in the belief that you’re not strong-willed enough and you’re trapped in a vicious cycle.
2. Reduce and replace: Instead, wean yourself off it gradually and substitute it with less caffeinated alternatives. Cut down your daily intake from three cups to, say, one. Then, substitute your cup of joe with decaf or green tea, which has half the amount of caffeine of a cup of coffee. If you absolutely do need coffee, opt for cold coffee which packs half the caffeine hot coffee does, explains Mina.
Be mindful of not guzzling aerated drink or energy drinks – they may look like different roads, but they all lead to caffeine city.
3. Timing is key: During Ramadan, spirituality will buoy your resolve to lay off the java all through the fasting period. But come iftar and then suhour, you’re probably going to scan the table laden with a cornucopia of delicacies for that precious flask of coffee. That, says Mina, is counterintuitive and your pick-me up will actually drag you down with insomnia and dehydration. Agreed, coffee in the form of ghawa is an integral part of the Middle Eastern iftar. But Mina recommends skipping coffee during suhour as it will prevent you from sleeping and cause dehydration. “Have a coffee during iftar, but use a small cup.”
For those who aren’t fasting, switch up the routine to confuse your system. “If you’re used to drinking coffee in the morning, drink your allotted cup of the day at noon,” adds Mina.
4. Track the symptoms: Caffeine withdrawal includes headache, stomachache, feeling shaky, difficulty concentrating, nervousness, flu-like nausea and muscle pain, and these symptoms begin 12 to 24 hours after the last caffeine intake, and can last from two to nine days. While these symptoms may feel endless and excruciating, they always pass. Keeping track of when the headache starts and stops will help you realise these symptoms are temporary instead of reaching for a cup of coffee.
5. Exercise: A sweaty workout releases adrenaline just like your favourite brew does. Mina recommends doing small exercises such as 10 push-ups, or a 15-minute run to combat the exhaustion that sets in with caffeine withdrawal.
6. Breathing through it: Not having your fix of caffeine can leave you feeling wound up and tetchy, which is where deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques can save the day, Mina says. “Try progressive muscle relaxation, which plays on the mind-body connection and involves tensing and relaxing different parts of the body under the premise that relaxing the body will relax the mind.”
Another method is relaxed breathing (also known as abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing) that involves expanding the belly while inhaling and contracting the belly while exhaling. It lowers your heart rate, blood pressure and reduces stress.
7. Mindfulness: “We can also practice mindfulness,” adds Mina, “which is about staying present in the current moment and letting the surrounding environment anchor you.
“Practice activities such as colouring or anything else that requires focus and energy and pulls you into the present moment, rather than focusing your craving, stress, anxiety, or worry.”
More about Ramadan in the UAE
- Indian expat’s cookbook serves up fresh inspirations for Ramadan cooking
- Ramadan: Dos and don’ts for fasting children during coronavirus pandemic
- Ramadan comfort food: 5 soup recipes for iftar
- Ramadan decoration ideas to give your home an understated glow
- Stay-at-home iftar delivery options for Ramadan 2020