Saying Goodbye to My ‘Best Friend’—Getting Rid of My Caffeine Addiction

There was a time when coffee and I were inseparable. Friends caricatured me always holding a cup of the brown brew, and stops to a coffee shop were mandatory during any outing. At one point, I was clocking in about five cups a day—all in the name of staying awake during lengthy lectures or late nights finishing up papers. If I could not get coffee, I almost always resorted to chugging down cans of soda.  Inevitably this nasty habit caught up with me, resulting in trembling hands, jittery speech, and two seizures that were enough to send me to the emergency room. I soon realized that caffeine—or at least excess amounts of it—was a factor in my seizures. It was time for the coffee and the soda to go.

Now a caveat: Caffeine in small doses can be a good thing. It has been touted as a way to manage some kinds of headaches. Coffee is in itself said to be an antioxidant. However, caffeine in excess is another thing altogether, whether from coffee, soda, or other sources. Also, there is no nutritional benefit in ingesting soda, which is full of additives such as food colors and acids.

So how does one get rid of a caffeine habit? Many people trying to get rid of a caffeine addiction choose to cut back on their caffeine intake, by gradually reducing three cups of coffee a day to two, then one. Another strategy for cutting back is to reduce the size of one’s caffeinated drinks by a fourth to a half of a cup each day. Using low-caffeine substitutes such as ‘herbal coffees’ is also said to help get rid of a caffeine habit, but the use of such caffeine substitutes must be done carefully especially with persons who may have adverse reactions to some herbal preparations.

Other people choose to go ‘cold turkey’, as I did. The first three or four days without a drop of coffee or soda were nothing short of trying. I was cranky and felt as if my eyes were half-closed as I walked through glue. I wanted to just lie down and sleep off the hours, but I had to will myself to stay awake; at that time I was reviewing for a licensure exam and there was much ground to cover. Fortunately, within a week, my body finally found some equilibrium—or I had simply learned to adjust to a less frenetic pace once more.

What was also just as challenging was finding foods, as well as restructuring my habits, to fill up the role that caffeine once played.  I had relied on that substance to keep me alert and awake especially during lull hours. Now I had to literally find other ways to keep my eyes open.

One thing I made sure NOT to do was to switch out caffeine for sugar in the form of sweets, pastries, or other quick fixes. I also eschewed other non-caffeinated energy drinks as well as other stimulants. Instead I used these strategies:

-Eating smaller meals a day instead of 3 large ones: This was to prevent that dreaded post-lunchtime sleepiness. Also, breaking down 3 large meals into 5 small ones helps ensure a steadier blood sugar level, preventing ‘crashes’ that may actually be dangerous to one’s health.

-Hydration: I cannot stress this enough. That 8 glasses a day piece of advice is the bare minimum. Drinking more water not only helps keep one awake, but also does wonders for skin, hair, breath, and just overall health.

-Power naps: Instead of forcing myself to stay awake to the point of non-productivity, I learned the benefits of snoozing for just five minutes, in order to relieve eye strain as well as give my brain a break.

It’s been nearly a year since that last cup of coffee. To this day I still miss the taste of a hot, deep and dark brew, but I’ve learned that the health benefits of limiting caffeine far outweigh the jolt and exhilaration. I consider this change as kicking ‘my best friend’, caffeine, to the curb, in favor of taking care of my other best friend: my body. And that is something always worthwhile.

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Epilepsy Bite by Bite

When one thinks of diseases that necessitate food restrictions, among the first things that come to mind are food allergies, or ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Not many people would immediately put ‘epilepsy’ at the top of the list, owing to the fact that it’s not always a readily apparent condition. Yet according to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people worldwide live with epilepsy, and each year 2.4 million more people are diagnosed with it.

What exactly is epilepsy? Actually the term ‘epilepsy’ refers to a whole range of diseases that manifest as recurrent seizures, oftentimes without other underlying causes or diseases. A seizure may be described as an abnormal electric impulse in one part of the brain. In a sense it can be likened to what happens to some gadgets when plugged in during a power surge. Fortunately the brain doesn’t burn or fizzle out the way gadgets do, but instead it triggers changes in a person’s behaviour ranging from brief lapses of attention that resemble daydreaming, or outright convulsions. The Filipino word ‘tirik´ sums up the experience of a seizure quite aptly.

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Credit to: 123RF

Since epilepsy is such a diverse disorder, there are no specific foods or ‘triggers’ that people living with epilepsy need to avoid. What may worsen a seizure for one person may have little to no effect on another. However some of the more common triggers include stress, sleep deprivation, and alcohol consumption. Other persons are triggered by sudden noises or the presence of flashing or strobe lights.

It has also been thought that caffeine, as well as food additives such as preservatives and artificial colourings, can be implicated in some seizures. One frequently blamed additive is the infamous MSG (monosodium glutamate), an often used flavouring in processed foods as well as some recipes. Other foods may not necessarily trigger seizures, but they may have unwanted interactions with the anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) that most people with epilepsy take in order to control their seizures. For instance, taking some fruit juices such as grapefruit may change the levels of an AED in a person’s blood, thus worsening side effects such as dizziness or drowsiness.

Considering all these possible dietary pitfalls, a ‘lifestyle change’ is often easier said than done. For yours truly this meant saying goodbye to a number of comfort foods from my student days. It was bye-bye to chips, instant noodles, fried luncheon meat and even some types of bacon. Instead of going to parties at bars or clubs, I had to content myself with more mellow cafes and coffeeshops. Then when it became apparent during my medical training that caffeine was not helping my condition either, I had to also give up coffee.

It was not easy. Suddenly it felt as if I could not eat anything I liked, much less be sociable in the company of other foodies. I could bring food from home, but what if I wanted other options or wanted to be with friends who were bent on eating anything they wanted? So what was next? Wide-eyed me, clutching a cup of hot chocolate, and wondering what on earth I could still munch on, without breaking my budget.

Fortunately I wasn’t exactly alone in this struggle. And so the Team Glasses Blog’s journey began with two foodies (one with Heartburn and me with Epilepsy) to help people with the same health conditions about making their own foodie trips in the Metro.