Saturday, February 14, 2015

In Which Rebecca Eats Crow, As Long As It's Decaf

I have been known to say things like, "Never trust people who drink decaf coffee, nonalcoholic beer, or who have fake tattoos."  We can talk booze and tattoos some other time, but today I'm coming clean on caffeine.

I've been drinking coffee almost as long as I can remember, definitely going back to high school, maybe even 7th or 8th grade.  As a young adult I was drinking strong coffee all day long, convinced that the caffeine had no effect on me because, after drinking a few pots of coffee a day, if I tried to drink even MORE coffee to pull an "all-nighter" it would make me so ill that I had to go to bed anyway (and would fall immediately asleep). 

I have also "not been a morning person" for as long as I can remember.  I thought I was just an outlier on the bell curve, someone whose body needed 10 hours of sleep to feel rested...  Except that I never did wake up feeling rested and energetic, no matter how long I slept.  When my alarm went off, my subconscious would harness my imagination and use it against me in a desperate plea for more sleep-- I have had so many dreams where I am standing in front of my home security system panel, trying to shut off the alarm, and I can't remember the code so the alarm is blaring away...  Or it's the smoke detector going off and I'm on a step stool trying to smack it with a baseball bat and it keeps going off anyway.   Sometimes the dream is a little more honest, and I'm standing in front of the alarm clock and can't find the button to turn it off.  But eventually I wake up and realize that the alarm clock actually has been going off for an hour and I am still in bed.  And no matter how long I did sleep, I would wake up groggy and irritable, looking forward to that first cup of coffee that would make me feel sharp again and get me going.

Rebecca With Latte
Aside from the caffeine-free interludes of pregnancy and breastfeeding (I developed a strong aversion to coffee with both boys -- go figure!), the caffeinated coffee cycle continued for years.  When I was juggling my interior design business with home and family, I was drinking an average of eight to ten shots of espresso per day, stopping at Starbucks once or even twice every time I got in the car.  My kids thought that I-485 was a toll road and that the Starbucks drive-through was the toll booth.  My husband added up the Starbucks charges on my American Express statement and we decided that we would SAVE money by installing a commercial espresso machine and a commercial coffee grinder in our kitchen so I could make my own lattes at home.  Bernie even hooked the machine up to the plumbing so I would be spared the inconvenience of ever having to fill the water tank.  And I discovered Lavazza, a strong, intensely flavored Italian espresso that makes Starbucks coffee taste like wet cardboard.
My Crazy Espresso Machine

So a few months ago I was annoyed that my jeans were fitting tighter than I'd like, and after adding up the calories in those four or five lattes per day (130 calories in each Starbucks grande nonfat latte), I decided to cut back.  First I cut off the coffee after 3 PM, then pushed it back to noon and allowed myself two double-shot lattes each morning -- one when I first woke up, and another as I headed out the door.  I didn't notice any kind of caffeine withdrawal or anything -- so again, I felt that the caffeine did not affect me, that the nice, hot lattes in the morning were more of a comfort ritual than a true need for caffeine to wake me up, and that I was drinking "high test" coffee instead of decaf because the decaffeination process strips too much flavor and makes the coffee taste bad.

Meanwhile, I finally listened to my father and joined our church choir at Christ Lutheran this past Fall.   I have been having some difficulty with the upper range of my singing voice for the last few years for whatever reason, so my plan was to hide out in the Alto section and blend in.  I did not know about the choir hazing that happens at our church, whereby new choir members are randomly assigned to sing solos.  There are no auditions for solos, no calls for volunteers -- Mark just passes out the music and says "Rebecca please sing the solo" in the same tone of voice that my father used to say "Rebecca please wash the dishes" or "Rebecca please be home by eleven."  And so I find myself on the Internet, googling things like "performance anxiety" and "how to sing better in the morning."  And I find that not only is caffeine bad for singers because it dries out your throat and tightens your vocal folds, but caffeine has also been shown to relax the lower esophageal
sphincter muscle, which can lead to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) (Boekema, P. J., Samson, M., van Berge Henegouwen, G. P., et al (1999) Coffee and gastrointestinal function: facts and fiction. A review. Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology Supplementum, 230, 35–39):

This could explain the acid reflux diagnosis I got from my ENT doctor, who stuck a camera down my throat two years ago and informed me that stomach acids have been coming back up my throat while I'm sleeping, burning and inflaming my vocal folds.  Incidentally, I know of at least two other coffee-swilling Lutheran singers whose doctors attributed their voice problems to this same silent acid reflux disorder.  Hmmm...  And here I thought those ENT doctors were just getting really good kickbacks from the pharmaceutical company that makes Nexium!  Granted, one cup of Folgers every morning probably doesn't instantly cause GERD, but remember I was drinking four or five double-shot lattes per day for years, each one containing somewhere between 80-100 mg of caffeine.  Even when I cut back to two lattes in the morning, that was still probably close to 200 mg of caffeine on a daily basis.

But the thing that really got my attention was when I read about the connection between caffeine and anxiety:

"Clinically, caffeine may be involved in the precipitation, exacerbation or maintenance of anxiety disorders (Kruger, 1996). Sensitivity to caffeine is increased in people with panic disorder and social phobia, and administration of caffeine can provoke panic attacks in these individuals (Charney et al, 1985; Tancer et al, 1991, 1994). There are clinical reports of anxiety symptoms improving on caffeine withdrawal or limitation (Greden, 1974; Bruce & Lader, 1989), and people suffering panic attacks may benefit from a reduction in their intake (Charney et al, 1985)".  You can read the full text of that article here.

I do have some general social anxiety that escalates into full-blown panic just THINKING about singing a solo, especially when the song sits near the register shift where I've been having trouble with my voice cracking.  What if that happens during the solo, in front of everyone?  My heart pounds, my hands get sweaty, and my breathing is shallow -- I can't get enough air.  The muscles in my neck, shoulders and throat get tight and rigid.  I feel like I'm going to vomit.  None of this is conducive to good singing technique!  So now I'm thinking about my Sunday morning routine -- Get up, turn on espresso machine, feed dogs.  Guzzle down 100 mg of caffeine.  Shower and get dressed.  Make another double shot espresso beverage to drink while driving to church and imagining all the horrible things that could go wrong with the solo, and all of the nasty things people will probably think and say if I mess up the anthem for everyone.  Instead of "The Scream," let's call this "The Solo":

Der Schrei der Natur  or "The Scream," by Edvard Munch (1893)
Norwegian painter Edvard Munch wrote the following poem and inscribed it on the back side of a later pastel version of "The Scream":

"I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."  -- Edvard Munch, 1895

That's exactly how I was feeling about an upcoming solo entitled "Let There Be Peace On Earth."  How was I supposed to sing about peace on Earth while feeling anxious and terrified, and fighting the urge to flee the sanctuary?!  I figured it was at least worth experimenting to see whether cutting out caffeine might help with my anxiety.  I could always have a triple espresso as soon as I got home from church, right?

So I stopped by Rush Espresso CafĂ© with Bernie on a Thursday and rather reluctantly ordered a decaf nonfat latte, which tasted like a cup of warm milk flavored only weakly with coffee, but better than no latte at all.  On Friday morning I made myself a decaf skim latte, took one sip, and dumped it down the drain.  Then I made a half-caff latte by putting one scoop of ground Lavazza Dek decaf coffee and one scoop of Lavazza Gold regular espresso in the filter basket.  It didn't have that instant "zing" of a fully caffeinated latte, but it was tolerable.  I turned off the machine for the day.  And on Sunday morning, I didn't turn on the espresso machine at all.  The solo went better than the last one, but that could be attributed to the wonderful sermon about not listening to negative voices in our heads that say we aren't good enough, or maybe nerves just diminish on their own from getting up and doing the thing we're afraid of again and again. 

[NOTE: Interested friends and family can listen to the anthem and/or Kevin Vandiver's inspiring sermon on the church as the body of Christ by going to the Christ Lutheran Church web site's Online Worship page here, clicking "On Demand Video" and scrolling down to the Feb. 1st 2015 Traditional Service video.  Kevin's sermon starts about 22 minutes into the service, and the Let There Be Peace On Earth anthem with my solo starts around the 50 minute mark.] 

I couldn't be sure that caffeine was the sole culprit behind my anxiety attacks, but to my surprise, I wasn't experiencing any of the caffeine withdrawal symptoms I had expected.  And I had bought a whole bag of decaf espresso beans...  So I continued with my experiment, making just one half caff latte each morning and then shutting off the machine for the day.  And something really weird started happening to me, within just a few days.  I have been waking up EARLY in the morning, BEFORE the alarm goes off, feeling wide awake and CHEERFUL!  Between 5:30 and 6 AM!  Before having ANY coffee!  Me, who could sleep undisturbed until noon -- I am seeing SUNRISES every morning!  It turns out, I LIKE sunrises!

Winter Sunrise in the Carolinas
And I am dumbfounded.  My caffeine had not been keeping me awake at night.  I never had insomnia.  I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, and I was usually pretty good about getting at least 8 hours of sleep in each night.  Could all that caffeine have been messing with my sleep cycle somehow?  Back to the Internet, more research -- and I find studies showing that yes, caffeine inhibits our ability to develop and sustain the deeper non-REM stages of sleep.  So all these years that I thought I was just genetically wired to require 9+ hours of sleep, maybe caffeine was causing me to "sleep shallow" so that I never woke up fully rested no matter how long I slept.  Despite my late morning snoozing, I've been chronically sleep-deprived for decades.  This sounds bizarre, right?  But it has been two weeks now since I had a full-caffeine latte, and I am consistently waking up on my own, without an alarm, after only about 7 1/2 hours of sleep, and I have never felt better in the morning.  I don't drink any soft drinks or energy drinks, so my total daily caffeine intake is below 50 mg per day for the first time in probably 25 years.  And it is making such a huge difference for me that even my husband is cutting down his own coffee consumption -- and that man couldn't drink more coffee if he was hooked up to a coffee IV!

I'm not saying everyone should immediately stop drinking coffee or completely eliminate caffeine from their diet.  Most of the studies concede that genetic differences result in a lot of variation in the way that caffeine affects different individuals.  Apparently I'm one of those people who are very sensitive to caffeine, because most of the subjects in those studies did not have diminished sleep quality as long as they cut off their caffeine 8 hours prior to going to bed, and I didn't see this weird personality change (going from Oscar the Grouch to Ernie in the space of two days!) until I had almost completely eliminated caffeine consumption.  I plan to continue with my half-caff lattes while I experiment with different decaffeinated espresso roasts.  Hopefully I'll find one that tastes good enough that I can enjoy a decaf latte without mixing in any of the high-test beans.  And I'll take life one sunrise (and one solo) at a time.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!


Jenny K. Lyon said...

Interesting-I'm not a coffee drinker but your post has a lot of good info. I'm glad your solo went well! Your perseverance paid off! Great post-funny. You blog made me do a triple verify-check the box, then check all the coffees, then type the number in a photo-just making sure you wanted a triple verify!

Tammy Hutchinson said...

I'm a very heavy black tea drinker, never coffee, but get plenty of caffeine. I am very interested in all of this info and will do more research. Can you reverse the damage done so as not to have acid reflux, I wonder? Thank you!!

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Tammy! There is a lot you can do to minimize the reflux, like not eating late at night (so your stomach is empty by bed time), avoiding spicy and acidic foods especially in the evening. You can elevate the head of your bed so gravity helps keep those stomach acids down where they belong, but my husband won't agree to "sleeping on an incline plane." And I think I remember something about alcohol relaxing that esophageal sphincter thing, too, but I'm not ready to give up my wine!