Do you need to cut back on caffeine?

How much is too much and how to scale back.
Published September 12, 2018

For many of us, coffee is routine, sacred even. And there’s nothing wrong with that – coffee (and caffeine) do have some benefits and can safely be consumed daily in certain amounts. But, as with anything, there is such a thing as too much. We asked around for some advice on how much is too much, how to know if you should scale back your caffeine consumption and, more importantly, how to do it, if you need to.

“For the average person, up to 400 milligrams of coffee a day, or three to four cups of the average brewed coffee, is a moderate amount that isn’t harmful,” says registered dietitian Carol Aguirre. “But once you hit more than four cups, you may experience less than desirable side effects.” 

She explains that caffeine may not be a good choice for people who are highly sensitive to its effects or who take certain medications, and consuming more than 500 milligrams every day can induce anxiety, insomnia, and muscle tremors and can even lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure, headaches, and digestion issues.

Registered dietitian Dafna Chazin says other red flags indicating a high caffeine intake include migraines that occur if caffeine is not consumed upon waking up, as well as shaky hands, and frequent urination.

If you suspect your caffeine intake is too high, plan to reach a more ideal level by making small changes at a time, Aguirre says.

“For example, if your goal is to cut back from six cups of coffee to one, start with five for a week and gradually scale back. Maybe you have some caffeine dependence, but you also enjoy the ritual of a hot cup of tea or an afternoon iced coffee that gives you a reason to get outside or take a break.”

Be mindful of the role the caffeinated beverages play in your life, she says, and brainstorm for alternatives, such as changing your order from a large to a medium cup.

Chazin advises assessing all sources of caffeine in your day – remember it’s not just coffee that’s the culprit. Look at pop, chocolate, energy drinks, and even some medications to see what your total caffeine intake adds up to.

Chazin recommends matcha and yerba mate as healthier caffeine sources that offer “a more calm-yet-alert feeling, as opposed to the jittery feeling we get from coffee or energy drinks such as Monster and Red Bull.”

“To cut back on coffee, I would also suggest alternating coffee with sipping hot beverages that are decaffeinated naturally, such as herbal teas,” Chazin says.

Aguirre says you will have to be prepared for some withdrawal symptoms as you scale back.

“They’re unpleasant, but part of the deal. Knowing that these withdrawal symptoms are temporary can help you work through them,” she says.

To help yourself get through it, try to plan your day so the times you need the most focus are when you have the more energy, and give yourself a few breaks throughout the day if possible.

Getting consistent exercise and sleep will also help.

“One of the best ways to conquer caffeine-withdrawal symptoms is to get some sort of exercise for 20-25 minutes,” Aguirre says. “The natural endorphins released during exercise can help boost your mood and energy. Try a brisk walk or some other gentle movement you enjoy.”

She adds, “Establish a sleep routine. Ideally, try to wake up and go to bed around the same time every day. Giving yourself an hour to wind down in bed can help you fall and stay asleep.” 

Despite caffeine’s potential downsides, Chazin says it is also important to note studies have shown moderate caffeine intake (in the realm of 200 to 400 milligrams a day) can aid liver function and protect against Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.