What's the Buzz?

Every morning in Farmgirl kitchens all across America, tea kettles and coffee pots get fired up to start us on our way through the busy lives we lead. What IS this strange addiction we have to caffeine, and could there be something even better than the high-volt java-jolt that most of us have come to crave?  The Mountain Farmgirl thinks there IS, and …  she’s  found it!

As the ‘breakfast lady’ at our inn in the White Mountains, I’m greeted each morning by a  familiar sight as guests make a beeline each morning --  like lemmings -- for our French press coffee machine. Some make their way more slowly, staggering  and stumbling with eyes at half-mast, groping for the prerequisite jump-start. Others are totally uncommunicative until the effects of that first cup of caffeine – either coffee or tea -- takes hold and they can ‘officially’ start their day. Does this sound familiar to you?

I like the smell of coffee … but that’s as far as the attraction goes.  I never did acquire a taste for the bitter brew.  Tea has always been my drink of choice, and drink it I have for decades … by the gallon!  In fact, until recently I had come to rely on it to pick-me-up from morning till night. I might just as well have had an IV drip bag pumping tea into my veins! My son Noah used to joke that my blood type was Earl Grey!

As an innkeeper, I put in unusually long hours (16-18 hour days are the norm in  summer) and a mug of hot or iced tea had come to be a permanent extension of my right hand. I needed it to keep me going, especially when my blink-of-an-eye power naps didn’t quite cut the late afternoon fatigue.  I'm embarrassed to say that I have, unfortunately, even been known to take caffeine supplements on occasion ... frequently, in fact. I hate to admit it, but there you have it!

Like any addictive substance, our bodies build up a tolerance to caffeine which then require more and more of it to create the same amount of buzz.  Obviously over time that one or two cups of coffee or tea we’ve come to rely on are not going to pack the same punch that they originally did when we first started drinking it. This leads me to ask, “Is the effect of that mandatory morning cup partly – or even mostly – psychological?  Does it eventually become just a liquid placebo that powers us through the day?

The answer is both 'Yes' and  'No'. Yes, because after a while we physically need it; it’s a habit and we do become physically addicted; and No, it’s not boosting our energy levels as much as we think. But perhaps the more important questions are:  What is all this caffeine doing to our bodies, and is there something better that could give us even more energy (and with less of a negative impact to our systems?). The answer to that last one is a resounding YES!!! I have recently made a discovery --  quite by accident, actually -- and that’s  the secret I want to share with you today.

First, let me assure you that the addiction to caffeine is very real ... our bodies DO come to need it like a drug. This hit home for me last year when I went to visit my son at his university. Traveling always interrupts my routines, and that trip was no exception. Leaving before dawn, my day consisted of a bus trip, a taxi ride, a plane flight and a shuttle bus to his campus.  Somehow in all the confusion and excitement of traveling, I never had my tea. By the time I got to Noah’s school, I was so excited to see him that we had dinner and talked till midnight, never thinking about my caffeine crutch. But the next morning I awoke with a splitting headache. I’ve never had a migraine, but I imagine that it must be something like the pain I felt in my head.  It was so intense, in fact, that I had a hard time keeping my eyes open and focused.  My plan for that day was to visit the Baltimore Aquarium and the Science Museum. I didn’t really feel up to it, but rather than cancel I decided to persevere.  By mid-day I was feeling so unwell that I decided to get a cup of tea and sit for awhile, not realizing that it was the 24-hour lack of it that had brought on the headache. Shortly after my second cup I was feeling myself again, though at the time it never occurred to me that I had been going through withdrawal symptoms.

Caffeine withdrawal is intense, a fact to which I can personally attest.  Believe it or not, (and those who know me well can scarcely believe it!), I have been totally caffeine-free since April of this year.  I wish I could tell you it was a noble decision to give it up; but alas, it was prompted solely by vanity!  When I had my teeth cleaned on April 14th, my hygienist did a particularly great job cleaning them; they gleamed – and so accustomed am I to tea-stained teeth that I wanted to keep them sparkling white at least until my son’s wedding!  So I decided to give up tea until after Chris’ wedding to prevent them from getting stained again. I knew it would be hard, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the withdrawal symptoms brought on by stopping cold turkey. The Johns Hopkins medical website calls it “The headache from hell”, and frankly, I think that’s putting it a bit too mildly. For five days I endured the worst headache imaginable – I could barely see straight. I felt so ill that I was very tempted to wean myself more slowly, but I didn’t give in.  I substituted  herbal concoctions, which  at first I did not enjoy at all. I went through the motions anyway, though, as it gave my hands and mouth  something to do. After Day 5 the symptoms lessened, and after a week passed, something amazing happened! Not only was I headache free, but I suddenly had more energy than I ever have had before  in my life! I was even beginning to delight in the crisp, fresh taste of organic peppermint tea.

My husband noticed the increased change in my energy levels and joked that it must be a lifetime of caffeine consumption leaching out of my bones!  I was tempted to believe him at first, (what else could account for it?), but here it is 88 days later, and I feel clearer, lighter and more energetic than ever before, fueled only by peppermint tea and other organic herbal concoctions.  What I think is going on is not some special phenomena, but a return to a natural state – the way our bodies were designed to be (without chemical stimulants). When we stimulate our cells with caffeine, our entire metabolism speeds up.  It’s like all of our cells are on overdrive.  Naturally, they will get tired (wouldn’t you after running the Boston Marathon?). But instead of letting them rest, we counteract the fatigue with yet another cup of coffee or tea, and the vicious cycle starts all over again. While we think we’re pumping ourselves up, in reality we are doing just the opposite.

I’m not on a soapbox, advocating that everyone give up drinking their coffee or tea. That is a personal choice. But there are side effects to caffeine consumption that we should all be aware of to make an educated decision, and I’ll list a few of them here. And by the way, it isn’t only coffee (75-100 mg. caffeine) and tea (50 mg.) that are saturated with caffeine. Chocolate (one ounce contains 10-15 mg), cocoa and many soft drinks (30-45 mg) contain large amounts as well. Some “energy drinks” contain as much as caffeine as 4 strong cups of coffee in every serving!.  If you have more than 2-3 servings of caffeine daily, it may be affecting you emotionally and physically more powerfully than you might expect. Studies show that as little as 20 mg. daily has a noticeable effect on our mind/body connection.

So what is caffeine, exactly? It's defined as a potent, quick-acting drug which produces an effect similar to the natural stress response in our bodies, and it can affect each person differently depending on weight and build. It might give some people insomnia, yet be a soothing nightcap for others. It has an almost instantaneous effect that will continue to influence your mind/body state for 6-8 hours. I discovered the following effects of caffeine overuse in my research:

1. It stimulates the heart, respiratory system, and central nervous system, stimulating blood circulation, raising blood pressure, and causing messages to be passed along our nervous systems more quickly.
2. Caffeine makes blood more `sludgy' by raising the level of fatty acids in the blood.
3. It causes the stomach to produce more acid, irritating the stomach lining and making digestion less effective by relaxing the muscles of the intestinal system.
4. It stimulates the cortex of our brains which heightens the intensity of mental activity, resulting in temporary alertness and, eliminating drowsiness and feelings of fatigue. In those who already have high levels of anxiety the heightened intensity of mental activity can produce unpleasant effects such as a jittery feeling with shaking hands, palpitations, and wobbliness in the legs.  Caffeine addiction  involves nervousness, irritability, agitation, headaches or ringing in the ears.
5. Affects the length and quality of sleep. Heavy caffeine users suffer from sleep-deprivation because their nervous systems are too stimulated to allow them deep, restful or prolonged sleep.
6. The American Medical Journal has reported a correlation between caffeine and decreased bone density or osteoporosis in women.
7. It causes the adrenal glands to release their hormones into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar, or blood glucose, to be released from storage through the effects of the adrenal hormones. This causes the pancreas to over-work to produce extra insulin to reduce this  extra blood sugar. Once the extra insulin counteracted the extra blood sugar your temporary lift from the caffeine ends . However in heavy caffeine users the pancreas becomes over-sensitive and over-zealous. Now it begins producing too much insulin – it 'mops up' not just the excess blood sugar but the blood sugar you need to feel alert and energetic. The initial effect of this is a let-down effect and a craving for more caffeine to give you a further boost. A later effect can be excessive and chronic tiredness, even on waking in the morning. Some people find that many of the psychological complaints common to reactive hypoglycemia (the emotional yo-yo effect, shakiness, palpitations, weakness, tiredness, etc.) disappear within a few days of stopping caffeine.


Yikes!!  All my years of over-consumption were definitely NOT worth all that … especially considering the fact that it was making me more tired than I would have been without it! On the other hand, there is such a lovely ‘lore’ that goes along with tea and coffee drinking . Afternoon ‘tea time’ brings a touch of civility to busy, over-crowded days as we sit with fellow farmgirls over a pot of tea and a basket of warm muffins or scones, pouring our hearts out to one another along with the tea. Perhaps we prefer to put on the coffee pot instead and solve the problems of the world over a peach cobbler or a fresh-from-the-oven coffee cake. These are lovely, comforting rituals in our lives, and they do not have to stop just because we might be considering eliminating—or cutting back -- the caffeine in our daily diets. Substituting hot mulled cider and herbal teas can be just as rewarding, and our taste buds will make the adjustment in a very short time to appreciate their naturally herbal goodness as much as we love  their caffeinated cousins.  Peppermint, chamomile, spearmint, lemon verbena, lavender, rosehips and rose petals, these are just a few of the many herbs and flowers    you can experiment with in different combinations. In fact, Farmgirls and Farmerettes alike can have fun planting and harvesting your own tea gardens. Use them fresh, or dry them, store them away for winter use or give them as gifts at Christmas in a unique, thrift store mug … it makes a great gift!


And so gals, if you’re looking for some extra energy (and let's face it, who isn’t?!), don’t  reach unnecessarily for your caffeinated beverage to pick you up. The best kept secret is to ‘go natural’, and to let your body detox from years of accumulated abuse! And now … the secret is out!!  Enjoy!
Until next time,
Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings,



By: Keleen Hayes
On: 07/11/2011 07:38:56
Thank you for reminding us how delightful and energizing (or relaxing) herbal teas can be for our already overstressed bodies! I am planning to give a tea for my neighbors this fall, and your suggestion for a gift of herbal tea in a thrift store cup is perfect for a take-home gift! I have also acquired a taste for herbal coffees such as those sold by Mountain Rose Herbs, and the Teeccino varieties. They are non-caffeinated, of course, but with a coffee-type flavor. Very yummy. Thanks for a very timely article on the dangers of over-caffeination.
By: Blessed Mama
On: 07/11/2011 07:39:52
Thank you for reminding me. I have gotten lazy in my drinking habits by grabbing what is handy - and caffeinated. There are other methods of "comforting" I can use besides caffeine. Thank you again.
By: Shari
On: 07/11/2011 08:01:25
Ever had Postum? I don't know if that has caffeine, but I sure like the way that tastes in the morning. Also yerba mate. But then a nice glass of orange juice is a great pick me up as well!
By: Tina Bradley
On: 07/11/2011 08:32:30
Hi Cathi, Very well written! Congratulations on kicking the caffeine habit!! I've been vegan for 8 years and gave up coffee when I changed the way I feed myself. I really do feel better with herbal teas, and there are endless choices. I enjoy all your articles. Makes me feel like you are a kindred spirit! Cheers from Keene, NH - Tina
By: Vegetable Garden Cook
On: 07/11/2011 10:02:27
I gave up coffee with my first pregnancy. I spent at least two months without it and struggled really bad. The lethargy and headaches never went away, so I just went back. Two cups a day for pregnant ladies, and this seems to be enough.
By: Ellen
On: 07/11/2011 10:14:08
What a great article. I have all these sympthoms. gonna start cutting out the coffee . Tina Bradley, where did you find Postum? I haven't been able to find it. Drank it in the winter as a child. I have a tea garden and didn't even know it. Going to go harvest some now for the winter. Love the Blogs.
By: Kelsey Wilde
On: 07/11/2011 10:34:34
I recently stopped drinking caffeine also, maybe 4 months ago or so. I would only drink 1-2 cups of coffee a day and even that little amount wouldn't get me perked up but in fact, immediately bring me down. I would also switch up my sources of caffeine. One day have a couple ice teas, the next an energy drink and the next, coffee. That helped for awhile but that too even made me crash. Once I stopped drinking caffeine, I instantly felt better. Thankfully I didn't get a bad headache for more than one day. But today, I find that if I start feeling tired, all I have to do is grab a cold glass of water. If we keep ourselves hydrated, we will see that we don't need caffeine. And when we do drink caffeine, we set aside the fact that we do indeed need water which I think plays a huge role in the caffeine "crash."
By: Debbie
On: 07/11/2011 10:39:16
Hi Cathi,
Loved this post... I just recently kicked the caffeine habit too! I can relate to your " headache from hell". I didn't go completely cold turkey though.. I brewed 50 50 for the first week after trying straight decaf for the first two days... I felt just awful! But, I am here to validate your findings on feeling better, clearer headed and not sluggish in the am anymore... plus, I feel better throughout the day as well! Great post!
By: Lynn
On: 07/11/2011 11:14:19
I appreciate your article and it is very timely...

I have been wanting to quit as I do have osteoporosis and need to quit drinking coffee. I also load it up with lots of sugar and creamer. All terrible for you.

Thanks for the encouragement and motivation!
By: B. Lamotte
On: 07/11/2011 11:41:27
The universal clock ticks true because just yesterday morning I passed over my morning cup! I feel gutted out after drinking the 'jet-fuel' coffee my husband prefers and am hoping that a caffeine overdose is the reason I've felt so irritable lately. Today I slept in to catch up and have decided to get back to my roots with a fruit tea sampler for iced-tea. With the stress of life, the cure for me is caffeine-free!
By: Nan Roberts
On: 07/11/2011 11:55:51
Thanks for the fun and informative post. I know all this, but have conveniently forgotten it. Just a note-- yerba mate has a form of caffeine. Postum doesn't have any.
One herbal tea I drink to get the brain moving mildly is rosemary mixed with mint. Both increase blood circulation to the brain. I also like rosemary with lemon thyme because it tastes good. I grow them all so I just pick some and stick them in the pot. A great source for things herbal is Susan Wittig Albert's site www.allaboutthyme.com.
By: Becca
On: 07/25/2011 10:32:47
Contrary to most of the other folks here, I really enjoy my cup of coffee in the morning that my husband french presses for us! It's delightfully rich and creamy and I really like the taste. For me, teas are too thin and astringent. I grew up drinking sweet iced tea and I love it but, having given up sugary drinks, the iced tea is only a special treat for the very, very hot days here in Florida. :)
By: Tess
On: 08/15/2011 13:09:43
I too fell off the "wagon" when I made a move to another location that is "my ideal". Previously I had given up caffeine for 3 years. But because my new home was so cozy and warm and I was finally in a position to have company, I gave in once again to coffee! Shame on me! However, your article has prompted me to once again give it up and go back to my herbal teas! I will keep coffee on hand for those who desire it but will always have a pot of tea ready instead and encourage it first! Thank you Cathi - I needed that!
By: Toni Hodge
On: 09/19/2011 07:59:48
Dear Cathi,Thank you so much for this article on tea and coffee. You are exactly right. I would add that what most people don't know about tea, at least the oolongs, greens, and white tea is that there is a counter part to their chemical make-up in the catechins that release endorphins. Which coffee does not have this lovely little euphoric tool. I am an herbalist as well as tea house owner and I am forever trying to steer those poor over stimulated souls towards the herbal selections that I have designed myself. I hope some of my people read your page sometimes it takes hearing the story from several ears.

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Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir

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