Giving up caffeine and alcohol

Andrew Webb
by Andrew Webb  |  22 April 2013  |   14 comments

After watching Charlotte go vegan, live on £1 a day, and try the cereal diet, editor Andrew thought he should go without something in the name of journalistic research. Here's what happened.

Giving up caffeine and alcohol

How hard could it be, dear reader, to give up possibly two of my favourite things in the world? Caffeine and alcohol - my sun and my moon, beverages that bookend my day. How hard I say? Very hard, as it happens. 

The Table Comes firstAdam Gopkin in his brilliant book 'The Table Comes First' talks about the relationship between coffee and wine in restaurants and cafes. Caffeine, he says, opens you up, gives you energy, and brightens the senses. Alcohol on the other hand draws you down, makes things more intimate, and relaxes you. "It closes us off and isolates us - that is its odd charm… we read while we drink coffee, romance while we drink wine. Coffee is a flow drink, wine a focus drink. Wine takes us from the world, and coffee restores us to it, in-between we eat". 

That sounds like most of my days. My average consumption is as follows: one cup of tea first thing, coffee with breakfast, coffee at work, Early Grey tea in the afternoon, and then a G&T or beer when I get home, followed by wine with dinner or a nip of whisky in the evening. When you stop and think about it, I've had at least three cups of tea or coffee everyday since I was about 15; I'm now 37. Also, I enjoy a drink most days too (parenthood putting the kibosh on greater indulgence).

Coffee shop UK

It's amazing how caffeinated Britain has become in the last 10 years. Coffee is everywhere. We might think we're now serious coffee drinkers, but just like Eurovision we're actually waaaay down the list, with top prize going to Finland. Still, when you can't have something, that's when you see it everywhere: shops, M&S, train stations, the office, and practically every other shop on what's left of the high street. According to Kantar media, 800,000 British adults visit a coffee shop at least four times a week. Booze is ubiquitous too. What pubs are left open all day, supermarkets offer BOGOF deals, and even the local corner shop sells wine and beer. So are we a nation of junkies? Do we need coffee to get us going, and alcohol to unwind? And what happens when those things are taken away? Only one way to find out… go cold turkey.

Day 1

It started ok, as these things do. I was powered by optimism, by journalistic zeal. Then I tried decaf tea. "This tastes of soap," I said to my wife. Lovefood HQ has decaf instant coffee available, which is indistinguishably foul as caffeinated instant coffee. I opt for a cup of that. By 4pm I'm utterly exhausted. I feel like I'm moving through a fog. The worst bit comes when I get home; normally I'd have a glass of beer, or a G&T, but that's not an option so I go for a 'fake & tonic', which sees elderflower cordial replace the gin. It's refreshing, but a bit boring. At dinner I try Fitzpatrick's blood tonic - Fitzpatrick's in Rawtenstall, Lancashire is the last remaining temperance bar in Britain (though the owner was caught drink-driving last year, oh the irony). Temperance bars were popular at the turn of the last century as spaces for men who'd 'taken the pledge'. It's actually rather nice over ice and topped up with tonic water, thought I can't help thinking a shot of vodka would improve it. I'm so tired I fall asleep at 9pm in front of a Tony Robinson programme on the telly, and crawl into bed at 10pm.

Day 2

Men's teaA night of weird dreams followed by a sluggish morning. I've had no booze or caffeine for 24 hours, plus 8.5 hours sleep. I'd imagined at this point I'd be a God of freshness and energy; as it is, I've barely the strength to boil an egg for breakfast. I've ditched the decaf tea for decaf instant coffee at home. Other changes include my taste buds going all weird. At dinner I eat half a jar of lime pickle - my tongue's like an old sock. I try Yogi Men's tea. The box says 'a cup or two of Men's tea are enticing companions for daring endeavours!' But instead of being some sort of tantric yogi Lothario, I end up in bed listening to the radio at 8:42pm - I think I was eight-years-old the last time I went to bed at this time. Asleep by 10pm. 

Day 3

Decaf coffee is helping a bit, but strangely I feel fatter and more bloated. I can't stop thinking about beer, ice cold beer, a gentle tear of condensation weeping down the side of the glistening glass. For tea I made a tomato soup, which tasted fishy. I also eat more lime pickle. What's going on with my taste buds? I'm knocking back the blood tonic like nobody's business. 

Day 4

Bavaria 0.0% lagerCrazy dreams! What's all this about? I wake up feeling like I've sat through a really long art film of my life. I'm stiff and in need of fresh air but don't feel quite as groggy as previous mornings. Things reach a nadir when at 4pm I make a decaf coffee with skimmed milk. There is no joy in this simulacra, this vapid liquid pretending to be coffee. Interestingly today's the first day I've had a headache - it's like little lines of pain radiating out from the centre of my head, then it gets worse, so by tea time it's stabbing. I 'enjoy' another glass of blood tonic with dinner, before popping out to the supermarket to pick up a six pack… of Bavaria 0.0% lager. It's drinkable, but not enjoyable.

Day 5

Beer happyTwo cups of decaf coffee in the morning is starting to become the norm. But it's not a norm I'm particular happy with. By late morning on Friday I crack, and have a cup of tea, followed by a beer in the pub. You can see how happy this makes me. Saturday morning I have a really strong cup of coffee. My arms and neck begin to tingle. "It feels like I've got four arms!" I say to my wife who laughs, and my world returns to normal.

Conclusion

So, after a mere four-and-a-half days off caffeine and alcohol, what have I learned? Well I thought I'd miss my nightly G&T or glass of red, but in fact I missed caffeine much, much more. I was perhaps lucky that I didn't have to attend any social functions like parties, nights out or events (I'm wild me!), so the temptation wasn't there to drink. Overall the physical effects were startling - I don't think I've ever felt so tired.      

I'm left with a sense of what we'd be like as a society if we weren't so reliant of these two substances - would we be as 'productive'? Or would we be more at peace? Tea and beer were the substances that fuelled the industrial revolution; coffee likewise the information age. Who knows what substances we'll rely on to get us through the day in the future. As for me, I'm really looking forward to my morning cup of tea again. 

Have you ever given up caffeine? Or something else that you love? What (legal) substances do you rely on to get you through the day? Talk to us in the comments box below...

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