It might seem like this should have a twist ending, that this tea enthusiast might re-discover a love for tea all over again, but this isn’t that type of story. An online friend, Paul, is the only person I’ve known here in Bangkok to take up an interest in tea since I did so a number of years back. He became a bit obsessed with it, trying lots of new types and sorting out tea gear, then he quit it again, all in well under half a year. Some of the aspects he loved and why he quit are worth considering, with some points that might serve as cautions for people that stick with it.
The main reason he cited for quitting was the negative effect of too much caffeine. In his words:
“When it came to the point I was being negatively affected by the caffeine in tea, and believe me I was, then I knew from past experience that zero tolerance was the only way.”
He’d had a related experience with coffee, which he gave up a year before, and knew he was inclined towards extremes. Still, it seemed unusual that something others experience as generally so positive he experienced so differently. As he described that cycle:
“Trying out all the different sizes, how long do I need to steep 160cc, do I need more than 5 grams? etc, etc. It became an obsession, and like many things I then abused it. When I woke up all I could think of was making some. My skin and my mind took a toll from the caffeine.”
It seems dehydration could have also been a problem. I also have trouble alternating between tea and water enough to offset the diuretic effect of tea. There are different references and opinions about the degree of this effect, which seems to vary by person. Of course, there are a few notable extreme cases to this effect, relating to medical problems (like this one; but that person drank a gallon of tea every day, and the problem wasn’t caffeine but is described there as too much oxalate from the black tea).
The proportion of water consumed to tea required is hard to identify, even in my own case, based on lots of practical experience, with the course of every day an opportunity to experiment. It would seem to vary based on lots of related factors (weather, other diet issues, etc.). How much tea relates to too much caffeine must also vary. I’ve worked it out and I usually drink between one and two liters a day; a good bit of tea. Not drinking tea in the evenings helps limit that.
Paul describes the amounts of tea he was drinking:
“I was experimenting with timings and temperatures all the time, and before I knew it I was filling up a one-liter vacuum carafe several times a day with hot water for tea.”
So indeterminate but a lot. Drinking it brewed gongfu style, as he describes, doesn’t necessarily vary the brew strength, which relates more to preference, so he might have been drinking very weak or very strong tea, or a mix of the two. He said he tried to drink water as well but it was hard to guess how that went in practice.
The negative effects of caffeine
I’ve run across anecdotal accounts about the negative effects of consuming too much caffeine before. In particular, I remember a co-worker who gave up drinking coffee throughout the day for extra energy and claimed he felt much better after he quit, with more energy overall. Of course, the effect of the caffeine in tea is offset by the effect of theanine, both of which affect a person in different ways. Tea doesn’t give someone the same caffeine jolt but the cumulative effects of too much caffeine still might add up.
How much is too much? Probably no set amount, but per a Mayo clinic source 400 milligrams is a good cut-off point: That’s roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks.
The amount in tea would vary, by strength, by the tea type, etc., but per another Mayo clinic page, the variance is from 14 to 70 mg. / 8-ounce cup (237 ml) for black tea, with green tea within that range (24 to 45 mg.). To reach their recommended limit one could still drink ten 8 ounce cups of tea at 40 mg. / cup, or over two liters of tea (possibly relating to too much oxalate consumed, per the other reference), but Paul probably did exceed that, potentially even on average. It’s interesting that the one article cited says that children shouldn’t consume caffeine, any of it, and adolescents less than 100 mg. (three Cokes a day; seems like plenty).
Paul’s assessment of this caffeine cycle related to coffee, based on having experienced it from that beverage as well:
“People can feel a buzz from coffee, and if they don’t drink it often it may be beneficial. But when they have it all the time they don’t feel ok without it… They think the coffee is making them feel better, but in actual effect it’s because they need the coffee just to feel normal. The benefits of caffeine are illusory, in my opinion.”
It makes you wonder how quitting tea cold-turkey like that might go, from the amounts he was consuming, in particular how long it would take to readjust, which he explained:
“After three days the withdrawal headaches stop. But it takes a good week to really experience the normal mind state that comes back. To be honest I continued to experience a rise in benefits way over seven days. I feel exponentially better, and the clarity I experience from not using caffeine is really nice.”
So that quitting cycle sounds just like the opposite of the experience tea enthusiasts ascribe to drinking tea, a mild lift that brings added clarity and calm. But then dosage did seem the likely main issue in his case.
For Part Two, join us next week!
Amazing that billions of people around the world manage to drink tea every day with no ill effects from caffeine.
I think that most people are drinking 2-4 cups, or less, of tea a day. That certainly doesn’t have any negative effects. I’m a green tea drinker and I drink typically 6 cups a day from the original pot of tea leaves. Each subsequent cup has less and less caffeine so that at the end of the day, I’ve had very little caffeine and lots of wonderful green tea.
I think that volume might have been the issue, since the one person’s experience this was based on was drinking about two to three liters of tea a day (an estimate). It’s my understanding that sensitivity to caffeine varies by person, so maybe with conditioning (built-up tolerance) and other hydration the average person could drink three liters a day with no ill effects, and that’s a lot of tea, more than I care to drink. The article wasn’t really supposed to establish a limit though, given all the variables and research required to even attempt that, instead some limited consideration of that subject came up in the context.
I think it’s important to realize that yes, everyone has different sensitivities to caffeine. in addition, when ever we consume anything to excess, it can very well have negative effects on us. I remember my sister-in-law overdosed on carrots – can you imagine – the palms of her hands turned orange. My concern is that I don’t want people to think that the caffeine in tea may have negative consequences for them. In general, there is no reason to anticipate that to happen.
Professional tea tasters – who may taste 300 teas in a morning – spit out the tea rather than drinking it. Amateur tasters and experimenters may well find this is the best advice long before the stage of “before I knew it I was filling up a one-liter vacuum carafe several times a day with hot water for tea.” I never heard of a professional tea taster with a caffeine problem.
I think that’s an excellent point Nigel.