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Health Q&A: Kickin’ the caffeine addiction

Mountain Don'tDear Sean,
I drink about a dozen Mountain Dews during every shift…it’s my one addiction and I know it’s not healthy but I just can’t shake it. What do you recommend to wean myself?

– Love My Caffeine

Dear Caffeine,
Walk onto any hospital floor and ask, “Who here consumes caffeine? Anyone? Anyone?” (I’d be the first to raise my hand).

Let’s briefly take a look at caffeine use among nurses:

Nurses rank #1 among coffee drinking professionals

According to a 2010 survey commissioned jointly by Dunkin’ Donuts and CareerBuilder®, nurses rank #1 among the nation’s professionals “with the highest proportion of workers stating they are less productive without coffee”:

  1. Nurses
  2. Physicians
  3. Hotel workers
  4. Designers/Architects
  5. Financial/Insurance sales representatives
  6. Food preparers
  7. Engineers
  8. Teachers
  9. Marketing/Public Relations professionals
  10. Scientists
  11. Machine operators
  12. Government workers

How coffee is used in the workplace

The press release also provided some intriguing details about the way coffee is used by nurses (and other professionals) in the workplace:

  • Working professionals need coffee to perk up. More than two-in-five American workers claim they are less productive without coffee. Geographically, workers in the Northeast stated they are the most dependent on coffee, with 48 percent of people claiming they are less productive without coffee, compared to the South at 45 percent, West at 44 percent and Midwest at 34 percent.
  • Younger workers more dependent on coffee fix. Forty percent of American workers aged 18 to 24 admit they can’t concentrate as well without coffee. Forty-three percent of workers aged 18 to 34 stated they have lower energy if they don’t drink coffee.
  • Keep the refills coming. Thirty-seven percent of American workers drink two or more cups of coffee during their workday.
  • Convenience matters. Seventy-five percent of American workers who buy coffee during the workday only travel a quarter mile or less for their daily brew.
  • Coffee equals congratulations? Twenty-four percent of American workers aged 18 to 34 buy coffee as a way to treat themselves for a job well done.

Also, some startling well-known facts about caffeine that bare repeating here:

  • It is the only LEGAL psychoactive stimulant (drug) sold on the market today
  • It stimulates the central nervous system to temporarily ward off drowsiness and increase awareness
  • American adults­ consume more than 300 mg of caffeine daily (8 oz cup of coffee = 100mg)
  • it operates using the same mechanisms that amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin use to stimulate the brain
  • Almost all of your so-called energy drinks utilize the effects of caffeine to sell their product
  • Caffeine can increase anxiety, stress and food cravings, in addition to inhibiting sleep
  • Some medical experts claim the addiction to caffeine is a ‘mental disorder’

How to kick the habit

Now I ask, “Who here admits to being addicted to caffeine?” (I bet you’re met with silence. I’ll just guess that no one is fessing up).

If you think there’s a chance you may be addicted to caffeine, first of all, congrats for having the fortitude to be honest with yourself. You’ve admitted to a potentially dangerous addiction and in the long run you’ll be glad you took the time to seek the information you needed to improve your well-being.

So once we figure out we are addicted to our caffeinated product (mine is coffee), how do we kick the habit?

First of all, don’t try quitting ‘cold turkey.’ Stopping your possibly excessive consumption of caffeine is only going to make you want to drink more. In fact, it will make you miserable. There is such a thing as caffeine withdrawal. Any nurse who has worked in surgery knows all about this. Heck, anyone who consumes caffeine and has had surgery has experienced this first hand:

  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Depressed mood
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle pain and stiffness

Don’t forget, caffeine is in more than just your coffee. It’s in just about every drink concoction out there! Check the label, check the ingredients. Just off the top of my head it’s found in coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, chocolate milk, most other chocolate containing products, some flavored water products. It’s also in some medications you take – No Doz, Vivarin, Anacin, Excedrin. Be careful.

I guess we all should re-evaluate what we drink and eat, huh?

As a former ‘addict’ and current excessive consumer here’s how I would approach this animal. You have two choices. Either consciously or unconsciously start to ‘wean’ yourself off your total dosage. You need to do it in small increments. The other decision you have to make is, are you eliminating it completely from your lifestyle? Or are you just getting rid of the dependency?

Consciously:

Be honest with yourself: Start taking stock of how much caffeine you are really consuming. Keep a journal or a running total of how much caffeine you consume. Start small, really small. Try either cutting back on the number of servings you have, or try to ‘dilute’ the dosage (dilute the strength of your coffee – water it down some). Do this over a long period of time. Start by decreasing your total consumption by 10% / week. Once you have a handle on that and you aren’t feeling any of the ill-effects of withdrawal, knock down another 10%.

Always be sure that you are feeling well, and not having withdrawal symptoms before you take the next step.

Try substitutes. Instead of drinking that cup of caffeinated coffee, try half a cup of decaf mixed with half a cup of regular. If you have to ‘doctor’ up the taste. While you may gain a few more calories with the flavor, you’ll benefit with kickin’ this habit in the end.

Unconsciously:

I for one had to ‘trick’ myself. I had to subtly start to cut back on the amount of coffee I mixed. I also started to use a non-labeled container. This way my mind did not know what the heck I was preparing -was it decaf or regular? (Yes this means you actually have to buy decaf!)

Have friends and family help. Get them to start making the ‘switch’ without you knowing. Once again this all has to be done gradually.

Here are some other ways to attain the benefits of caffeine without actually consuming the dastardly substance:

Eat an apple when drowsy. The apple gives you the carbs your body needs and desires over a longer period of time without the ‘drop off’ or ‘crashing’ effect that caffeine has. Besides, you know what they say about an apple a day.

Get your blood pumping. Go for a brisk walk, take the stairs, walk a few laps around your building. You’d be surprised how ‘awake’ you will feel once you excite those muscles, increase the air in your lungs and get your heart pumping a ‘lil bit faster

Last but not least, a lot of the addiction to caffeine is in the ritual and the taste. The ritual of having that hot cup o’ joe, or that cold soft drink, or holding onto the can of your favorite energy drink has a way of playing tricks on your psyche. Just by seeing or smelling that favorite product of yours convinces you that it’s ‘waking’ you up or ‘energizing’ you – when it most cases it’s doing none of the above. If you are like most, your tolerance for caffeine is so high that you would have to consume almost double what you normally consume to get that ‘jolt’ you so readily desire and think you are getting.

In the end, no one can get you to kick the habit but you. Caffeine is a dangerous and life-altering product. Be honest and be careful.

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7 Responses to Health Q&A: Kickin’ the caffeine addiction

  1. Erika Rick, RN-BC

    Hi Sean,

    I work in PACU II which, fortunately for my professional growth, is physically a section of PACU I of a trauma center. I discharge Same Day Surgery patients who were intubated and I recover and discharge the IV Sedation patients who come directly from OR to me. Thanks for mentioning the fact of caffeine withdrawal. My patients could be doing pretty well as far as tolerating po and having a <3 pain post-operatively but then comes the c/o a bad headache. IV Fentanyl won't even touch it so forget po oxycodone. The only substance that will bring relief of a caffeine withdrawal headache is, well, caffeine. It's one of those things you learn by experience after caring for hundreds of post-op patients and then finally read confirmation of your suspicion. There are a lot of subtle things you learn as a nurse by working in the real world that wasn't mentioned in text books. I love learning something new every day!

  2. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Erika I’ve been in your shoes, of working in the PACU! So I know the feeling. Glad you stopped by and commented. :)

  3. Julia Hess

    Okay guys…please tell me you don’t believe the spider web examples above!! They are part of a joke that circulated at least 5 years ago. Not stating that is misleading to readers. As a psychiatric RN and substance abuse couselor, I have seen these and many others used as humorous ways to make a point.

  4. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Julia Ahh yes all in fun.

  5. cynthia

    hi Sean,
    i’m trying to kick an Anacin habit in order to go into hospital [not til april tho] for a throat operation. i’m substituting imitrex and extra-strength tylenol, and got thru the first day just fine, but today was really grim. i’ve taken 3 imitrex and 4 tylenol, and since i cant tolerate too much tylenol i’m stuck at this point with a low grade migraine, wondering if this low grade misery will end, and if so, when. any helpful thoughts?

  6. Sean Dent Scrubs Blogger

    @ Cynthia Sorry for your pain – this subject is a bit over my head and I can’t say I have much experience with migraines. My only suggestion would be to consult your PCP and also a specialist. I do know there are specialist out there that deal with migraines specifically.
    Best of luck with your challenges.

  7. Dawn Hadland

    @Cynthia…you are most likely having Rebound Headaches, otherwise known as Medication Overuse Headaches. You have to wean off the Tylenol/Anacin, but you’re still going to suffer a bit unfortunately. The only reasonable way to quit cold turkey is to be hospitalized for IV Headache meds, such as DHE.
    I’ve never had Rebound Headaches, but I do suffer from Chronic Migraines…I’ll get them 24/7 for as long as it takes my Headache Doc to admit me for IV. I go to a specialist in Headache Medicine at a Headache Center.

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