Here’s how to reset your caffeine tolerance

Takeaway: When you consume caffeine habitually, you’ll need to consume more and more to experience the same energy boost. This makes occasionally resetting your caffeine tolerance worth the effort and the struggle. To do this, slowly lower the amount of caffeine you consume each day, or go “cold turkey” if you don’t consume a lot to begin with. Invest in your energy at the same time to counterbalance withdrawal symptoms.

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It’s worth resetting your caffeine tolerance every once in a while. The reason for this is simple: as your body becomes accustomed to consuming caffeine, you need to consume more and more of it to experience the same energy boost.

When you go from consuming zero coffee a day to drinking a single cup, you feel a big energy boost. But soon, your body adjusts, and you need two cups to experience the same effect. Then three. And then maybe even four. You get the picture.1

This idea of caffeine inflation can be dangerous. Setting aside the fact that it’s never fun to rely on drugs to feel a proper amount of energy, consuming too much caffeine can also lead to adrenal fatigue, exhaustion, and can disrupt your sleep, among many other factors. Plus, large energy crashes can obliterate your productivity.

I fell into this trap a couple of months ago. My girlfriend and I moved to a new city, and we were both exploring several of the local coffee shops. Following those visits, I noticed myself consuming more and more coffee with each passing week. I was drinking two or three cups a day out of habit.

There’s nothing wrong with consuming caffeine for a productivity boost, especially when you drink it strategically—like before working on important tasks—so you can actually make use of the energy boost. But it’s worth performing a caffeine reset whenever you find yourself consuming caffeine habitually, or when you’re consuming more of it to experience the same energy sensation. A caffeine reset can be a struggle, but it’s worth it to get out of a downward spiral.

You can reset your caffeine tolerance in one of two ways:

  1. Slowly reducing how much caffeine you consume each day, if you rely on it heavily to experience a passable amount of energy. I’ve done this by drinking the same amount of tea or coffee, but substituting more and more of it with decaf, until I’ve cut out caffeine altogether.
  2. Going cold turkey, and not consuming caffeine until your energy rebalances. I’ve found this method helpful in the past during times when I’ve been drinking a couple cups of tea per day, or a single cup of coffee. I actually prefer this method—I can feel the effects of going without caffeine, and watch the effects diminish over time.

espressorzThe toughest part of writing about caffeine is that everyone is wired differently. Just as everyone responds to caffeine differently, a caffeine reset may have a different effect on each person. If you consume caffeine habitually, you’ll almost certainly experience symptoms as you reduce your tolerance—in the past, I’ve experienced headaches, mood swings, sadness, an inability to focus, brain fog, and even flu-like symptoms. While this may make resetting your caffeine tolerance seem like more trouble than it’s worth, consider that you’re experiencing these symptoms because you’ve grown reliant on a drug for energy.

Thankfully, while you’ll probably experience some withdrawal symptoms, there are many ways to mitigate them:

  • Starting on the weekend. This will give you an excuse to veg out, and will minimize the impact the reset has on your productivity.
  • Treating your worst symptoms. If your headaches and other withdrawal symptoms are bad, aspirin or ibuprofen can help relieve them, until they go away in a week or so (depending on how much caffeine you regularly consume).
  • Investing in your energy levels. Eating clean-burning foods that provide lasting energy, getting exercise (which rebalances your brain chemicals), drinking plenty of water, and getting enough rest can minimize the amount of energy lost as you cut back on caffeine. You may even find that you have more energy than before.

Caffeine is a drug—a popular and usually delicious one, but a drug nonetheless. I’m personally a big fan of caffeine—and consume it most days, especially before working on my most important tasks. But because the costs of caffeine can be so great, it’s worth consuming it strategically, rather than habitually.

Resetting your tolerance to caffeine can be a pain—but once you get over your withdrawal symptoms, you’ll be able to consume it a lot more deliberately and productively.

  1. Here’s why: caffeine binds to a chemical in your brain called adenosine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel tired. Your brain normally reabsorbs this chemical and loses energy by itself—not so after you consume caffeine. Your brain even grows more and more adenosine receptors as you drink greater amounts of caffeine, meaning you need to consume more and more of it to feel the same effect. This also leads to larger energy crashes—once the caffeine in your brain dissipates, your brain absorbs a whole whack of adenosine at once. 

  • Mike

    I’ve noticed my caffeine consumption rise lately. You’ve inspired me to reset it. I too subscribe to the cold turkey method.

  • My Am Stout

    Everyone is indeed different. I have never experienced this caffeine inflation. I’ve never experienced withdrawal, either, or if it did give me a headache it was impossible to know that because of the allergy headaches.
    My problem now, as I age, is that after about twenty to twenty-four ounces, coffee starts to taste bad. So unfair!

    • feelthebern

      Interesting – do you drink it black? Not a huge fan of it, probably have drunk it maybe twice in my entire life. I love mine with milk and sugar, never gets old, although I rarely drink more than one cup a day.

      • My Am Stout

        I started drinking it black more than thirty years ago when I got allergic to milk, and soon realized I didn’t need the sugar either. Prefer it that way, but my parents both lived in New Orleans for several years, where most people, at least then, drank it both ways.

        • My favorite is black, with a teaspoon or two of coconut oil mixed in. SO good!

  • DeAnn Beasley

    Hi— I have a question: How long do you need to stick with no coffee to accomplish a reset. I don’t drink much coffee, but I also drink a lit of tea and diet colas. Haven’t felt any effects from caffeine for as long as I can remember (in years if ever). I drink it because I like the taste.

    • The best suggestion I can give is to go without caffeine of all types—swapping out for non-caffeinated versions of the drinks if you love the taste—until you no longer feel the withdrawal symptoms :-)

  • Xaris

    I totally agree that drinking coffee is a great daily habit, so as a serious chronic coffee lover (4-5+ cups daily), I’ve noticed that it affected drastically my polyphasic sleep schedule, mostly in terms of the quality of sleep.

    The solution was quite obvious but counter-intuitive…just keep up drinking coffee!
    Seriously, I had had only to swap the pleasure of drinking normal coffee with decaffeinated one and…boom!

    In less that 3 days, I’ve noticed 50% increase in the quality of sleep, sleeping better in less time and falling asleep almost instantly many times! I never actually quit drinking coffee, while realizing at end that I love the habit of drinking coffee while working instead of the caffeine boost itself. A great factor for the popularity of the coffee is also the socializing effect, we drink it usually with company to escort our discussions (very, very popular habit in my country)

    So now, whenever I need the caffeine boost to stay awake at specific days few days per month, I drink 1-2 cups of coffee at once and immediately I rip benefits of the caffeine in my body and brain.

    I highly recommend to everyone to try it for couple of weeks to realize the obviousness of the truth, that it’s not the caffeine that most people want, but the coffee drinking habit itself!
    Since there are tons of brands that offer all kinds of coffee and flavors in decaffeinated versions, there are no excuses any more!

    I hope the best to all of you and
    God bless you all

    • That’s so very true :-) I used to feel weird ordering a decaf coffee at coffee shops, but now I do it about half of the time (and still feel a little boost, because there’s some caffeine left!)

  • feelthebern

    Great post. I recently went cold turkey on coffee after noticing how tired I became throughout the day after drinking it (not sure if it was the coffee per se that caused it but still, decided to experiment). It certainly helped in that I had better self-control and self-discipline, my ability to say no improved (yes, some people will persist with making you drink coffee), and I didn’t become dehydrated as easily and instead drank juice, milk, and the best drink in the world, water! It’s certainly all about moderation but I feel that for many of us it’s tough to keep a balance, especially with the rise of coffee shops and a Starbucks on every corner.

    • So true—it’s so curious how tied coffee has become to our busyness. Yet another reason to step back to do a reset!

  • Cyrup

    What do you think about drinking DECAFFEINATED habitually? I really love the flavour of coffee, but I don’t want to give it up entirely.

    • If I remember correctly, it takes your body 8-14 hours to eliminate caffeine from your system (though this figure differs for everyone, naturally). So given this, though I’m not a scientist, consuming caffeinated coffee a few times a week shouldn’t lead you to develop a tolerance, because your body will have flushed out the caffeine for a good day before consuming your next cup, which will prevent more adenosine receptors from growing! Whew. Science.

      • Cyrup

        Thanks heaps! That’s enough information for me to make an informed decision. I’m also nearly done reading your book and loving it!

  • Hey boss. Read your book and loved it, so subscribed to your newsletter.

    I get to your site via the link on your newsletter, but every time I am totally interrupted by the effing full screen popup asking to subscribe to the newsletter. Fix the referral so the pop up doesn’t to a visitor that came from a newsletter link.

    You may not be aware this occurs so I wanted to bring it to your attention.

    Keep up the great work.


    • Sounds like a pain in the ass. Will look into it—thanks for the heads up!

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