Quitting Caffeine the Headache-Free Way

A dietitian shares tips for avoiding caffeine withdrawal as you ease out of the habit
young woman with mug of coffee

Coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks… caffeine comes in a variety of forms, but they all have one important thing in common: They can be incredibly difficult to quit.

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If the best part of waking up is all that caffeine in your cup, it may be time to scale back — but how? Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, MS, RD, CSOWM, LD, talks about safely scaling back your caffeine consumption.

How much caffeine is too much?

The Food and Drug Administration says healthy adults should have no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, which amounts to four or five cups of coffee. But the American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs recommends no more than 250 milligrams (or about three cups of coffee) per day.

“If you’re doing a cup of coffee every morning, it’s not that big of a deal,” Czerwony says. “But if you’re doing espressos every day throughout the day, that’s more of a problem.”

If you’re pregnant, you’ll want to be even more careful with your caffeine. The American Pregnancy Organization recommends you limit your caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day (including food with caffeine). And children and adolescents should stay away from caffeine and other stimulants entirely.

The effects of too much caffeine

Although caffeine is generally considered safe, consuming as little as 300 milligrams per day can increase your risk of negative side effects, including:

  • Nausea.
  • Anxiety.
  • Sleeplessness.
  • Restlessness.

The more caffeine you consume, the more likely you are to experience negative side effects, including neurologic and cardiac issues and even death.

And even people who are drinking safe amounts of caffeine may be doing so for unhealthy reasons. “Any time you’re trying to manage stress with a substance, that’s something to pause and think about,” Czerwony says.

If you’re trying to quit your caffeine habit, here’s where to start.

Do a caffeine audit

Before you make moves to quit, assess your current caffeine intake: How much are you actually having each day? Figure out how much caffeine is in the beverages you drink each day, then think about where you can cut back.

“So many patients tell me they can’t sleep at night if they drink coffee after 2 p.m.,” Czerwony says, “so this step is really about assessing how caffeine is affecting and interfering with your everyday activities.”

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Although caffeine amounts depend on what you’re drinking — and not just what kind of drink but what brand — these estimates can guide you in your assessment:

  • Mug of filtered coffee: 140 milligrams.
  • Mug of instant coffee: 100 milligrams.
  • Canned energy drink: 80 milligrams.
  • Mug of black tea: 75 milligrams.
  • Can of soda: 40 milligrams.
  • Mug of decaffeinated coffee: 12 milligrams.
  • Mug of hot chocolate: 9 milligrams.

But it’s not all about what you’re drinking. Caffeine also lurks in foods such as chocolate and coffee-flavored ice cream, as well as in many pre-workout powders, protein drinks, water flavor enhancers, and even medications.

“It’s very important that you read the labels and be observant of what those labels are telling you,” Czerwony advises.

Skip the caffeine headaches

Caffeine withdrawal is exactly what it sounds like — withdrawal from a substance.

“Caffeine is very addictive, so your body is literally going through withdrawal symptoms, as if you were coming off of any other substance,” Czerwony says. “Because it affects the central nervous system, you’re going to get shaky, irritable and headachey.”

To avoid these undesirable side effects, including the agonizing headaches associated with withdrawal, go slowly and don’t expect to give up your caffeine habit overnight.

In fact, quitting caffeine cold turkey can actually further your reliance on it.

Caffeine is a vasodilator, which can help relieve headache pain, making it an ingredient in many over-the-counter pain relievers. Taking a caffeine-laden painkiller for your caffeine withdrawal headache, then, will help your pain but will only continue your caffeine dependence.

“You’re not really helping yourself; you’re just feeding your addiction in a different way,” Czerwony says. “Instead, you want to start weaning yourself down.”

If you’re taking a prescription medication that includes caffeine, speak with your doctor about the possibility of alternatives — but know that they may not be an option. If not, you’ll have to reduce your caffeine intake in other ways.

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Drink more water

Another key to beating caffeine withdrawal symptoms is water, water, water. And staying hydrated will energize your body, which may negate the need for caffeine in the first place.

“People often drink caffeine because they can’t seem to stay awake, but dehydration is often the reason they don’t have energy to begin with,” Czerwony says. “If you can get hydrated, you’re going to perk up and not need that caffeine as much.”

Slowly back away from the caffeine

These tips can help you incrementally stop your caffeine intake.

  • Set a time limit: Set a time by which you stop your caffeine intake each day. Medical professionals recommend 2 p.m., so as not to interfere with your sleep.
  • Substitute a lower caffeine drink: Start with small changes. If you usually drink light roast coffee, switch to a dark roast, to start. If you usually drink black tea, try green or white tea instead.
  • Lean on decaf: If you typically drink espresso or dark-roast coffees, which have more caffeine than other caffeinated drinks, start by cutting it with half or even a quarter decaf coffee. Then, every few days, cut it down further, slowly reducing your intake over time.

And don’t rush it. “Slowing ramping down is the best way to go about it,” Czerwony advises.

Make swaps that soothe

If you delve deeper into your own psychology to identify your consumption habits, you may find that the caffeine itself isn’t as important to you as the feeling of consuming it.

Consider how you can maintain your caffeine routines in caffeine-free ways.  

  • If you love sitting down in the morning with a warm, cozy cup of coffee, try replacing it with a warm, cozy mug of tea.
  • If you crave the fizzy carbonation of a soda, see if a bubbly, sugar-free seltzer does the trick instead.
  • If you want to join in the fun of getting Instagram-worthy drinks from the coffee shop with friends, go for brightly colored but unsweetened teas, such as dragonfruit and passionfruit.

Have faith in yourself

As with any substance, caffeine can be tough to quit — but maybe not as tough as you think, Czerwony says. And it goes a long way.

“If you’re trying to hit the reset button on your health, cutting down on the caffeine while increasing water take is one of the simplest and most beneficial things you can do for yourself.”

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