Crazy for Caffeine

How addictions are spilling out into life

Ahhh, that intoxicating smell of brewing coffee first thing in the morning. For the java lover, the sound of automatic drip alone is enough to stir us awake in anticipation of that first enchanting swallow.

Or maybe it’s the flip of the pop can lid, releasing exploding sparkles and a carbonated lifeline to the day.

Whether you’re craving exotic-tasting, steaming-hot coffee to jump-start your lagging morning or need a soda to deliver a kick of caffeine to your day, caffeinated beverages are akin to a drug not unlike narcotics or alcohol.

Many believe they need the stimulation that caffeine delivers to get their day started. It's no wonder. Caffeine is a drug, plain and simple. It's a stimulant that taps the central nervous system. When the craving for caffeinated coffee or soda stretches beyond one or two cups or cans per day, those who partake become addicted. And if you think you can't live without it, you're not alone. It's estimated 90% of adults have a dose or two, or three of caffeine each and every day.

Nikki: Back “on the sauce”

"I have been addicted to diet soda for at least the last 15 years," says Nikki Shaubel of Billings. "I have quit a few times, but I always end up back 'on the sauce.'" Nikki calls her Diet Coke consumption ridiculous, never being without it.

I don't drink anything else, except wine,” she says, “and when I drink wine, I have a Diet Coke with it.”

Nikki begins her day with a soda in hand within 30 minutes of waking, and will have a can sitting on her nightstand before falling asleep.

"I always have one with me," she admits, "usually in my hand and a spare in my bag. I have a sign on my desk that makes a joke about prying my Diet Coke out of my cold, dead hands, and people comment about it to one another or on my Facebook page about how much Diet Coke I drink. If someone wants to surprise me with a treat, they bring me Diet Coke. My friends and family all tease me about my addiction and say that they're going to stage an intervention."

In doing the math, Nikki estimates she drinks more than 100 ounces of soda per day, as she buys up to four 20-ounce Diet Cokes before work, drinking them on the way to and while at work. If she runs out, she goes to get more, because she says she needs some for the drive home as well. Nikki admits to having up to 12 20-packs of soda in stock at her house at all times.

"My husband and family give me grief because I always have 'empties' lying around in the car because before I leave to go anywhere,” she explains. “I always have 'an heir and a spare.' In other words, I have a Diet Coke ready to open and another one with me in case there aren't any wherever we are going."

Nikki has worked in the justice system and in social work, so she says she's educated to some extent about addictive behaviors and admits her behavior is in line with any other addiction, but says she's fortunate her drug of choice is not illegal.

She has tried to quit.

"It is physically very difficult to quit," she says. "A miserable experience really. When I'm going through it, I swear that I'll never drink Diet Coke again because I feel so terrible. If I quit cold turkey, I will have a debilitating headache for at least three days, which will cause problems with my vision.”

Nikki says typical pain relievers will not help her headaches. She finds only temporary relief by substituting iced tea.

“I simply switch the drink,” she clarifies. “I don't cut down on the amount. I know I should drink water, but I don't. I have heard that Diet Coke makes a person crave sugar. I love sugar. I will eat frosting straight from the can with a spoon.”

Nikki has noticed her addiction has trickled down to affecting the balance of raising a family.

“I have heard that Diet Coke causes problems with memory,” she says. “I can forget what I am saying mid-sentence, but I'm a mother of two young boys who works full time and tries to balance work and family. It would be interesting to see if I could keep a thought longer or remember more after I quit.” (See sidebar for a 3-day account of Nikki’s diary to kick caffeine).

Karen: A family affair

Karen Sunderland and her husband, Jason, were so in the throes of a love affair with soda, they talked about it — at length.

"In 2008, we were discussing our love of soda," Karen recalls. "I mean, we really love soda! I love the carbonation, the flavor, and the caffeine. My drink of choice was Diet Coke. I could easily drink a six-pack every day! My husband had more varied tastes: Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, and Coke in a pinch.”

From that discussion came the decision for both Karen and Jason to quit soda altogether.

"That's right," she says, determinedly, "from 72 ounces of carbonated, caffeinated goodness to none. We bet on who could hold out the longest and decided to cap it at six months."

But a sobering thought hit Karen.

"No sooner had I agreed to this at the beginning of March," she laments, "I did the math and realized this challenge would take us through the summer: barbecues, picnics, poolside, and all the other places that an ice cold soda is necessary."

Karen and Jason told their children of their decision to ban soda from the house. She didn’t buy another can for their home at that time.

"We suffered,” Karen admits. “Caffeine withdrawal is awful – headaches bordering on migraines. Somehow water didn't ease my irritation. Jason turned to lemonade. I finally caved on the caffeine and began drinking unsweetened iced tea."

For six months, not a day went by that Karen says she did not crave the bubbly caffeinated drink.

"It's not the caffeine, as I'd replaced that,” she explains. “For me, it was definitely the carbonation and, I suspect, the sweetener. Those months were very long. The countdown was on for Labor Day, as that was our chosen end.”

By September, Karen says she had researched sweeteners and had decided that once soda was permitted, she wouldn't be returning to her Diet Coke habit, opting instead for sugar-sweetened soda only and less of it.

“Labor Day arrived and with it, much soda!” she admits. “My entire family rejoiced. I'm certain we overdosed on Jones Soda and Mountain Dew. And, just like that, we were soda drinkers again. It filled the bottom shelf of the fridge and the bottom shelf of the pantry. What I had missed for months immediately returned to standard fare. Ugh. But I loved it so.”

In a cruel twist, Karen happened to have an increase of migraines with the return of soda.

“My neurologist put me on a prophylactic medication with a quirky side effect,” she says. “It makes anything carbonated, including soda, taste so badly that it becomes undrinkable.”

As a result, she says she quit soda again, this time not by choice.

Several years later, Karen says she no longer takes that medication but admits they do have soda in the house but tries to limit it to special occasions, and she is proud to say she hasn’t purchased a diet soda in six years.

“Iced tea has been my go-to drink since the bet, but Jason now hates lemonade and chooses to drink water when soda isn't an option. By the way, neither of us caved (in that earlier bet) so it was a draw.”

Karen knows she'll always have the cravings.

“Giving it up entirely isn't easily done and isn't likely to happen again in our household,” she says. “My approach here is to limit its presence in our home, choose the least chemically-laden options when we do have soda, and hope that this shift helps my children choose better for themselves.”

Nikki's Diet Coke Diary:  A 3-day attempt to call it quits

February 3, 2014: Day 1 of the Great Diet Coke Cut Down of 2014: 1. Don't talk to me. I had estimated that I drink at least 100 ounces of Diet Coke every day. "Gradually," they say. "Don't go cold turkey. Wean yourself off the stuff." I get the logic, however, I am generally an all or none kind of girl. That would be the case with this too, except last time I quit Diet Coke cold turkey I was sick in bed for ....three days.

So. I chose the gradual approach.

I thought.

I have had only 64 ounces of Diet Coke today and I am parched. And crabby. 64 ounces seems like plenty, right?

Well. It's not.

For your information, it is only TWO McD's fountain drinks. TWO. I have been up for more than 12 hours. That is less than 6 ounces per hour. Clearly, 100 ounces per day was a significant underestimation. For all I know, this could have been the goal amount for my first day of cutting back.

My colleagues have been warned and I have signed all the necessary releases. Physical restraint may be required.

February 4, 2014: Day 2 of the Diet Coke Thing": Cut down to 40 ounces. Lived. Also had cocktails — after work of course. I know I need to drink more water and I totally would if only it had sugar or caffeine in it.

February 5, 2014: "This is my one and only diet coke today. Opened around 4p.m. Had some iced tea, some water and enough carbs to stuff an elephant. Not sure this thing is gonna work out in my favor."

How Much is Too Much? 

When it's a good time to cut back

If the statistic holds true that 90% of Americans rely on at least one caffeinated beverage a day, when is enough, enough? Nine times out of ten, your body will let you know. Over consumption of caffeine leads to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, stomach upset, even a fast heartbeat or palpitations.

Dr. Jeff Mitchell of Vitality: A Creating Wellness Center in Billings says that while the amount of caffeine in a drink is often targeted, many times, it is the other ingredients that can cause major health problems. He says, "The research that I've seen indicated that young women or girls that consume carbonated drinks have a 100% chance of getting osteoporosis when they're older." Dr. Mitchell also adds, "Those that drink diet soda are 41% more likely to become obese than those who do not."

Energy drinks are another threat. With one drink packing in as much as 300 milligrams a day, that's one person's safe daily allowance before severe side effects start to set in.

Doctors say everyone's caffeine tolerance differs. Some may only be able to handle one cup of coffee or one Diet Coke before the jitters set in. Many experts will tell you, if you are drinking so much that you end up scatter-brained or anxious, it's time to put the coffee cup or can of soda down.


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