In my last post, I showed how eating a balanced breakfast can lead to heightened brain function and sustained energy for several hours. I challenged those of you who are struggling with this to commit to having breakfast every day for 21 days. When eating breakfast becomes habitual, there’s never a need to kick-start the body with drugs such as caffeine, nicotine and large amounts of refined sugar.
In today’s world many of us are bombarding our body with ridiculous amounts of coffee, cigarettes and sugar laced energy drinks, not only as a meal substitute but also to fill energy gaps between poorly structured meals. Reducing or eliminating non-food stimulants from your routine will be the second stage in your habit change progression this year.
Habit # 2 Ditch the Caffeine, Nicotine and Energy Drinks
Caffeine containing beverages
Coffee, tea, colas, diet sodas, most energy drinks and other caffeine-containing drinks are the most popular beverages in the world. Over 1.7 billion cups of coffee are consumed everyday, worldwide. The average person consumes around three cups per day, with the average office worker consuming closer to four. It’s also been estimated that about 65% of coffee drinks are consumed during, or as an alternative to, breakfast. To say the least, people love their coffee. Of course, it’s the mood-altering drug caffeine that they really crave.
After drinking a cup of coffee (or any caffeine containing beverage), the caffeine within enters the bloodstream and stimulates the release of more glucose throughout the body. This produces a feeling of alertness and temporarily raises energy levels.
The problem is that this sudden rise in glucose causes the pancreas to over-secrete insulin resulting in a rapid drop in blood sugar levels. This why people crave another cup shortly after the first cup – to bring blood glucose levels back up.
Are you jump-starting your mind and body with caffeine instead of food?
Actually, caffeine isn’t all that bad. In fact, there are many known health and performance benefits when consumed strategically and in moderation. It’s only a problem when it’s abused (as defined by >400 mg or 4 cups/day for men or >300 mg or 3 cups per day for women). It’s also an issue for people who are naturally intolerant, who don’t drink enough water, who are generally unhealthy or frequently use it as a substitute over nourishing food to obtain energy.
For these people, even short term consumption of caffeinated beverages can lead to heartburn, acid reflux, headaches, anxiety, insomnia and dehydration. Long term abuse can lead to more serious conditions including addiction, increased cholesterol, depression, chronic fatigue and obesity. Many regular caffeinated beverage drinkers often abuse caffeine because over time they build up tolerance to its effects, which creates a need for more to get the same energy jolt.
The mood altering drug nicotine, contained within tobacco, can temporarily improve your memory, alertness and your capacity to learn. Much like caffeine, there are also plenty of problems associated with it’s use including raising blood pressure, reducing lung function and restricting oxygen uptake.
In fact it’s been said that a single cigarette can shorten your life by 14 minutes, or 6 to 8 years over the course of a lifetime.
Smoking cigarettes for an early morning boost inhibits appetite, leaving one out of touch with their natural hunger signals. The result is that your body does not get the nutrients it needs, when it needs them. Much like caffeine nicotine brings blood glucose levels up too high and the resulting drop in blood sugar signals cravings for sweets – or at least another cigarette. Nicotine also tends to blunt or dull the taste buds, which enhances the desire for stronger flavored foods (higher in salt and fat).
Nicotine replacement therapies (includes chewing gum, the patch, nasal spray and the inhaler) help reduce the severity of nicotine withdrawal and cigarette cravings to allow you time to establish your new behavior. For really heavy smokers, Zyban ( not an NRT) can be prescribed and affects your levels of dopamine and norepinephrine to produce a state of “alert relaxation”, much the same way nicotine does.
Few people ever successfully escape nicotine’s enslavement, but with more treatment options than ever before, more people are beating the odds.There are approximately 50% less people smoking today than 50 years ago, but we still have a long way to go.
Sugar Based Beverages and Energy Drinks
I think it’s safe to recognize sugar as a potent drug, the health effects of it’s consumption ( in even moderate doses) are comparable to caffeine and nicotine - some experts say it’s on par with heroine. I would agree, have you ever seen the child who was refused their dose of refined sugar? It’s pure mayhem for everyone as the child deals with the powerful withdrawal symptoms. Chronic consumption of high amounts of sugar are linked to diabetes, obesity and even cancer. This is what many parents have fueled their children with for years ( and continue to ) and we are seeing the effects of that abuse today. Chronic illness, physical and cognitive impairments commonly found in seniors are now showing up in our children.
Many of us start our day with food or drink, laced with high amounts of refined sugar. These include sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, energy bars and fruit juices. Much like caffeine and nicotine, these foods create a spike in energy followed by a rapid drop in blood glucose levels. Many people will alternate between caffeine drinks, cigarettes and sugar all day long to maintain some sense of control over their energy levels. In reality, there is no control and the damage to the body over time can be seen in the form of obesity, chronic fatigue and depression.
The American Heart Association currently recommends consuming no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar per day for women and 9 for men. This is less than half the sugar contained in a 20 ounce bottle of Coke. Consuming naturally occurring sugars, in their natural form (ie. fruits over fruit juices), provides only small amounts of sugar and enough fiber to sustain energy longer, without the energy crash and without the degenerating health impact.
How to Break Free From the Stimulants
The chemically induced highs you get from drugs like caffeine and nicotine only reinforce physical dependence and send you on energy roller-coaster that can be very difficult to get off. Abrupt withdrawal from any of these drugs can cause headaches, drowsiness, lethargy, irritability, nervousness and even mental depression. All of these only make the need for the drug even greater. For this reason, as you phase out some of the stimulants from your routine, including a cup of coffee (preferably black) with breakfast may help suppress these withdrawal symptoms. Changing to decaffeinated coffee is another option but still causes dehydration unless you follow it up with a couple cups of water.
Whether you decide to remove sugar based energy drinks, caffeine containing beverages or nicotine from your routine, do it slowly and over a long period of time. For example, it isn’t realistic to go from 8 cups of coffee a day to none. The withdrawal symptoms will simply be too overwhelming to endure. Focus on one at a time and scale back.
Seek lower dose alternatives such as herbal teas ( only if you like tea), decaffeinated beverages and nutritional supplements that yield a milder stimulating effect. My personal favorites are “Craig’s special blend” (green tea with a splash of lemon juice, honey with herbal pomegranate tea for extra color and flavor) and homemade hot cocoa. I also use Ginkgo Biloba, a well known natural botanical remedy, as a cognitive enhancer to boost my concentration for those early morning workouts.
Another trick is to add water to sugar based or artificially sweetened drinks. Gradually increase the amount of water you add with the end goal to acquire taste for less sweet foods. There are many other options out there to help you get off the stimulants if you take the time to research and experiment.
If you haven’t yet implemented breakfast into your routine, I’d recommend starting there first. This will make getting off the stimulants much easier by limiting cravings. So for the next couple weeks (or as long as it takes) commit to easing off the stimulants and supplying your body with a gradual release of glucose and a more consistent supply of energy with balanced meals and snacks throughout the day – everyday.
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