Quitting drinking: are the withdrawal symptoms I'm having from giving up alcohol, or caffeine?
March 22, 2009 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Quitting drinking: are the withdrawal symptoms I'm having from giving up alcohol, or caffeine?

I'm a female in my early 30s, and I've been drinking heavily for the better part of the past 10 years. Up until about 5 years ago, I would go out with friends around 5 nights a week, and drink a lot (enough to be heavily buzzed/drunk). When I moved to a new city, I still kept up the drinking, but not so much with the going out part, since I didn't know anyone in my new city. My drink of choice was always something mixed with cola (rum, usually).

I'd drink most days (6-7 days a week), skipping a day here or there if I had a really bad hangover. On normal days, I'd go through at least half a liter of rum, and a two liter bottle of cola. If I ever tried to go more than one day without drinking, I'd get a splitting headache that Advil couldn't touch.

I had my last drink this past Wednesday, and sure enough, last night (Friday) and today (Saturday), I had a splitting headache that a full night's sleep, advil, and lots of water didn't help (in fact, it just got worse). I took some Advil again this morning, but it didn't help much. This afternoon, while visiting with a friend, I had a cup of coffee, which I rarely drink - perhaps once a month. Before I was done with the small cup, my headache was gone. (And it still is, about 8 hours later.)

I can't help but wonder if the headaches I get when I don't drink are from alcohol or caffeine withdrawal. Apparently, cola has only around 1/6 the amount of caffeine of coffee, but since I was drinking so much cola every day (mixed with the rum), could this have been the real source of my headaches? And if so, why is quitting caffeine physically harder than quitting liquor? As far as I can tell, if the headaches are from caffeine withdrawal, then the only physical side effects from giving up liquor have been positive - restful sleep, more energy, etc.

(I know that drinking like that is Bad For Me, I know I'm still in the super super early steps of dealing with this (today is day 3), and I'm laying the groundwork to start working on the personal issues that I need to, and that alcohol addiction is more than physical, and that I need to be REALLY careful not to be all "wow, this is easier than I thought!!" BUT STILL...caffeine?? Really??)

(If you'd like to share your experiences, I'm at not.a.social.drinker@gmail.com)
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
IANAD. While caffeine withdrawal is possible, I doubt it. Caffeine is a vasodilator, so that would explain the headache relief.
posted by zerokey at 10:40 AM on March 22, 2009

Not really answering your question, but headache medicines like Excedrin have caffeine in them. Maybe taking something like that will help your headache where Advil isn't. I'm sure not having a splitting headache all the time will make quitting drinking at least a little bit easier, too. Good luck and congrats on your success so far!
posted by fructose at 10:44 AM on March 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Indeed some of the worst headaches I've ever had have been from caffeine withdrawl.
Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2009

Yep. Headaches are a common symptom of caffeine withdrawal. A 2 liter bottle a day of cola is a pretty substantial dose of caffeine - enough to warrant the headaches you've been experiencing. Only way to get past it is to tough it out, should only take a few days before the headaches go away. I, too, am quitting the alcohol habit and so far the only withdrawal symptoms I've noticed is missing the alcohol buzz. I just drink a glass of water whenever it hits and so far so good. Good luck with yours!
posted by torquemaniac at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2009

Can you just cut down on the alcohol now, and keep up with the caffeine? Once you've tapered off the alcohol, you can work on the caffeine, if that's what you want to do. No need to war on two fronts. Good luck!
posted by sweetkid at 10:56 AM on March 22, 2009

Seconding sweetkid. If you're worried that drinking Coke will just make you miss the rum, why not take up coffee or tea?
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:58 AM on March 22, 2009

Yeah, caffeine withdrawal will give you a monster headache. So have some cola without the rum for a while. You can only fight one battle at a time.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:00 AM on March 22, 2009

A two-liter bottle of cola a day? I think that would kill me! I'm impressed! You are almost surely experiencing real caffeine withdrawal.

Wow. Unless this was diet cola, you can probably look forward to some weight loss, also.

If I were you, I'd go to the nearest fancy-pants gourmet shop and find the most attractive tea you can. Get the fancy, loose stuff, and a nice tea ball to brew it with. Then, you can have some nice tea and calibrate the caffeine content as you wish (to a point; this is not an exact science). Get a pretty cup to treat yourself, too, if you like.

Or coffee, if you want. Me, I'm not so much into the coffee, but I hear it's easy to come by.

Sorry if my reaction above was abrupt, but really a 2-liter bottle per day is a lot.

Congratulations on changing your life. Take good care of yourself.
posted by amtho at 11:08 AM on March 22, 2009

Whenever I give up drinking coffee (and I only drink around two cups a day) I get a days-long headache, so kicking a 2-liter cola habit could definitely be the cause of the headaches. If you do chose to keep cutting out the caffeine, you should plan on having a headache for at least three or four days, but it won't last forever!

As far as I can tell, if the headaches are from caffeine withdrawal, then the only physical side effects from giving up liquor have been positive - restful sleep, more energy, etc.

I'm not so sure about this conclusion -- the positive side-effects might be from quitting caffeine, not from quitting the alcohol alone. When I've quit coffee, I've immediately noticed positive changes in my sleep & energy levels.
posted by footnote at 11:21 AM on March 22, 2009

You are awesome! Hearty congratulations for making such a monster change in your lifestyle. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I can tell you from experience that I had a significant problem with headaches for more than a year after I quit drinking. I'm not saying that to discourage you, it simply took doctors a long time to find the right stuff (child's antihistamine, of all things) to relieve my headaches. Years later, I also gave up caffeine, for different reasons and also had headaches, although not for as long.

It might be worthwhile pointing you to this narrative of my experiences with alcohol rehab. I think it is so wonderful what you are doing. Please know that there is always help readily available if you find yourself having difficulty. Easy to find at the top of page 1 of the phone book. Also, feel free to MeMail me any time, or email is in my profile. Yay you!
posted by netbros at 11:26 AM on March 22, 2009

Nthing caffine withdrawal. When I've gone off coffee in the past, I have a killer headache, like a knife behind my eyes, for at least a day or two.
posted by bitterpants at 11:29 AM on March 22, 2009

I have had some bad headaches in the past from caffeine withdrawal (coffee).

Since experimenting with my diet, I've also discovered that things with a lot of sugar are good for a mild buzz and subsequent down. If the cola wasn't diet, the changes in your blood sugar level might be adding an extra layer of discomfort too - there's a LOT of sugar in 2l of coke.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:29 AM on March 22, 2009

I quit drinking coca-cola recently, probably about 60 ounces a day. I switched to coffee because I didn't want to withdraw from the sugar and the caffeine at the same time.

The sugar withdrawl by itself was enough to give me a headache that lasted for about six days straight, advil was no help. Also my blood sugar was all out of whack, which led to some crazy mood swings. The combination of caffeine and sugar withdrawl would likely be even worse.

I suspected that I might also be dehydrated, since a good percent of my fluid intake was coming from the coke. Make sure you are drinking enough water.
posted by mai at 11:35 AM on March 22, 2009

Yow. I sympathize. I recently stopped drinking after losing my bicycle, keys, and memory the other night (about three days coincidentally enough). The headaches are probably from the caffeine. I drink a whole lot of coffee (a french press every morning) and if I go without it I get a killer headache that is totally incapacitating. Unless you were drunk ALL the time (i.e. being a gutter drunkard) then stopping alcohol shouldn't cause much problem. Just don't drink any more alcohol for a long while.

I would suggest stopping drinking cold turkey (depending on if you can 'just have one drink' or if you know the situations where you can 'just have one drink'. There are some situations where I can't 'just have one drink' and so in those situations I don't/won't touch alcohol) and stepping down the caffeine with a daily plan of some sort. It will probably be easier to stop drinking alcohol than drinking caffeine. Just don't drink any more alcohol for a long while.

Yes, tea seems to be a good way of doing that, as per what amtho said. Good luck to you. You will want to drink, but try yoga or bicycling or working out hard. Drinking so much is already abusing to your body (in several ways, my liver is probably in bad shape, but I've bruised ribs while wasted, and my knee is fucked up even today from the last time I drank too much and I don't even know what happened) so you (and me too) when you feel the overwhelming desire to drink should tire yourself out as completely as possible so you don't have the energy to drink or you are too tired and go to sleep. Just don't drink any more alcohol for a long while.

Best of luck to you. If you relapse, send me a mail and we can go get wasted and pass out on some train tracks and die.
posted by fuq at 11:39 AM on March 22, 2009

Alcohol and caffeine are two different beasties. I gave up a heavy coffee habit a few years ago. I did that by tapering down over about a month, Headaches? Yes, but not that many and not that severe. What was more noticeable was the change in my sleep pattern. I.e., I went from 5-6 hours per night to a solid 8. Only to be expected, I guess, and the people who said there's nothing like a good night's sleep are right.

You're trying to eliminate two dependencies in one go. And that's not counting all that sugar in the Coke.

So... try hanging tough with the no-alcohol regime until you've got that in hand. (Feel free to reward yourself, too.) Then, tackle the caffeine thing. You're doing something very good for yourself, and there's no harm in ingesting a bit of caffeine to ward off the ghost of Demon Rum. Better a cup of coffee and no booze than a cup of booze and no coffee.

There's a good chance you'll drop a few pounds, too. The sugar in the coke and the sugar metabolized from the alcohol add up.
posted by justcorbly at 12:27 PM on March 22, 2009

I am not a doctor / your doctor, but what you are describing sounds to me like caffeine withdrawal. Drink as much water as you were cola and that will help with dehydration.

Also I would strongly recommend a conversation with your doctor about alcohol withdrawal. Your body is used to .5 liters per day of liquor, and is now not getting it. Your doc should be aware of this so that they can monitor you and tell you what to look out for. Alcohol withdrawal can be serious.
posted by zippy at 12:35 PM on March 22, 2009

I stopped drinking last summer, but didn't give up caffeine. Like netbros said, I've had headaches since I stopped drinking over the last nine months. It's pretty typical.

I found that my body wass aching for ANYTHING to fill the gap where the alcohol was. Candy, cake, sex, cigarettes, coffee: early on, almost anything that filled that craving would clear up my headache. For me, starting off, it was a pint of Ben and Jerry's. And *poof* no headache.

That got old after I packed one enough weight.

Good luck, anonymous. Sobriety is a wonderful experience. And if you ever need someone to talk to who understands, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by greekphilosophy at 1:44 PM on March 22, 2009

Surprised this hasn't been mentioned yet and maybe not relevant here but just to be safe--remember that withdrawal from alcohol can kill you if you're not careful. Sounds like maybe you're past that but keep it in mind if you pickup again and try quitting again. Cold turkey can be very, very dangerous. I'm over 1 year sober myself . . .
posted by eggman at 2:03 PM on March 22, 2009

Headaches are a classic symptom of caffeine withdrawal, but caffeine withdrawal tends to be short lived I get real blinders if I quite caffeine but it only lasts a couple days. Caffeine is also a common component of headache cures: some peoples migraines are eased by a quick (at the immediate onset of warning signs) administration of caffeine; it is also included as an analgesic-boosting component in Excederin pain reliever, for example. It could be both. If the caffeine helps, take advantage of it.
posted by nanojath at 2:05 PM on March 22, 2009

Hey, congratulations on quitting drinking. This is a huge step this will undoubtedly improve every aspect of your life. I know you weren't asking about this, but I hope you'll reach out for help with this process if you need it.

I'm a little concerned about your headaches. Acute alcohol withdrawl can cause elevated blood pressure and seizures. Probably your headaches aren't connected with this, but possibly they are. Withdrawl symptoms may not peak until a few days after quitting. I'm not by any means an expert on this, but if you have a doctor you might consider making a same-day appointment for tomorrow to check in. If your headaches worsen, or don't respond to caffein or NSAIDs, I would urge you to get medical help.

Also, and again I know you weren't asking for this, I hope you'll consider getting help and support with quitting drinking if and when you need it. Like you intimated above, its probably going to be pretty rough at times, even if right now it feels good.

Again, I applaud your choice.
posted by serazin at 3:46 PM on March 22, 2009

Add my voice to the choir congratulating you on quitting drinking. Giving up booze was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done.

I am a drunk but IANAD so I will just stick to my experience. I found that my as much as body missed its regular daily dose of booze it also really missed the huge amounts of sugar that it was getting both from the booze and from the mixers. I went from being someone who rarely had sweets (other than booze and mixers) to someone who would actually add honey to Gatorade to increase the sugar content. As many other people have said up-thread giving up both the booze and the soda at the same time is probably asking a little too much of both yourself and your body. For the next month or so give yourself permission to have that sugar and caffeine. Alcohol is something that I had to (and still have to) abstain from completely - for someone like me, there is no such thing as "one drink," that is something that I am totally incapable of. Sugar, caffeine, soda however, I have been able to taper off and now I can take them or leave them. For the time being try adding the soda back in a while down the road try tapering off the soda. You should count yourself as lucky that your withdrawal has not been more severe - when I stopped drinking I could not sleep, I shook, had out-of-the-blue paralyzing panic attacks for the first few weeks, and it was months before my relationship with solid food began even approaching normality as well as the near constant headache. It probably would not be a bad idea to make an appointment with a doctor to have a complete work-up to ensure that you have not done any permanent damage. Also, if bad alcohol cravings do come at you try grabbing something sweet before having the drink, often a big shot of sugar would be enough to short-circuit a craving.

As many others have also said there is lots of help available out there should you choose it. Please feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Bango Skank at 5:56 PM on March 22, 2009

I don't usually get headaches, but when I stopped drinking coffee, not fun. Developed a sensitivity to it afterward. I don't drink coffee anymore.

Stopping the alcohol...probably be more worried about the shakes and blood pressure. Hold-out your hands, if they're shaking, it's not a good thing, there's medication that can help with this however, doctor supervision is (from personal experience) recommended.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 7:31 PM on March 22, 2009

No one has seemed to mention that alcohol withdrawal can kill you. Speak with a physician.

There's a selection bias here: most people here have probably experienced caffeine withdrawal and not alcohol withdrawal, so of course you're going to get more people saying the headache is due to caffeine. Either can certainly cause headaches. Speak with a physician.
posted by gramcracker at 5:49 AM on March 23, 2009

follow-up from the OP
First of all, thank you for our supportive comments and stories. I know I'm not alone, both online and off :)

I do know the dangers of alcohol withdrawal, and I have spoken to my doctor on the phone. Unfortunately, I'm without health insurance right now, so I can't have an actual physical (can't afford it at the moment), but I will as soon as I can - I somehow found a way to keep liquor in my house all the time, so I'll find a way to save up for a doc visit and the blood tests he said he wants to do. So far, it's still just a headache, and a small coffee from the deli has taken care of it for the past three days (Sat, Sun, and now today). If anything changes on that front, I'm not going to wait it out. I know debt is better than death/fucking myself up worse.

Yes, it was full-sugar Pepsi/Coke that I drank with (whatever was on sale that week), so I'm sure I'm dealing with sugar withdrawal too.

And greekphilosophy, your comment struck me because I was thinking about it, and I started drinking heavily right after I quit smoking. This was back when we could still smoke in bars, and right after I quit cigs, I noticed that my bar tabs were higher than they had been in the past. At this point, I was just going out with friends on Friday/Saturday night. I did realize that I was replacing nicotine with another drink, but I rationalized it at the time by thinking "well, at least I'm not smoking and I don't go out that much anyway, so no big deal." Yeah, we can see where that train of thought got me. But I'm conscious of it this time around, so that's good. Hopefully I won't be posting here in a few years with "So, I gained 100 lbs from eating too many cookies/sandwiches/pizzas after I stopped drinking! What should I do?" So yeah, maybe I do have an addictive personality, even though I don't know exactly what that means. Gotta figure that out.

Anyway, I don't know if anyone is still checking in here, but thanks again.
posted by jessamyn at 12:15 PM on March 23, 2009

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