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Caffeine-Free Energy Boosts for Your Busiest Days

When a health scare forced me to step away from the coffee pot, I had to find all-natural ways to keep myself buzzing -- no matter what.

You know those people whose ethereal calm makes you want to crawl inside their aura and take a nap? I’m not one of them. I walk fast, talk faster, and think at a rate that even I find exhausting. On better days, it’s part of my charm -- an infectious, bubbly energy. I sweat out my spare neuroses and rely on loved ones to talk me down when my shoulders start getting too high.

Then I started to crash. It was my body that quit on me first. Sporadic flare-ups became more frequent and interfering: digestive pain, throbbing pressure headaches, mood swings, exhaustion, swelling that caused my cheeks to sag and my contacts to rub my eyes red -- not to mention stubborn cysts at my jawline and a creased brow unfitting of my 25 years.


I neither looked nor felt like myself, and vanity spiraled into fear as I wondered if I ever would again. Dr. Google had diagnosed me with everything from celiac disease to diabetes; wanting a second opinion, I had my physician run my blood work. The diagnosis? Chronic stress.

It was an unsatisfying non-answer that seemed plucked from a celebrity publicist playbook. But I'm not a party animal and I wasn't abusing drugs -- well, unless you counted caffeine.


As a budding coffee snob and bona fide caffeine addict, the idea of starting the day without a full French press of Sumatran dark roast was unthinkable. On days when I found myself dragging, the office drip brew was the first place I turned. I’d swig water between each mug and tell myself things would even out.


But all I accomplished was a few extra trips to the bathroom -- and a back so tight you could play it like a piano. I was so wound up that I was forgetting to do silly things like breathe and chew, and it seemed my body was going rogue to get my attention.

Now, a great cup of coffee is one of life’s pleasures, and certainly part of a balanced routine for many people. But the more I read about cortisol, adrenal fatigue, and inflammation, the more I began to suspect that my caffeine habit wasn’t doing me any favors. I was so desperate to feel better that I devised a drastic experiment: I would quit coffee cold turkey, hoping its absence would help me hear more clearly what my body was trying to tell me. 

In the ensuing weeks, I was spacey. I got headaches. I even lost my appetite for several days -- turns out what I thought was hunger was actually the sensation of a caffeine crash. I also felt a mind-body connection I hadn’t known I was missing -- aligned and present, if a bit more slow-moving than usual. I experienced cravings for blood-balancing foods, and I fed those cravings with gusto. I dutifully switched off my light by 10:30 p.m. I cleaned up a diet that had slipped from "aggressively health-conscious" to "occasionally nondestructive." Turns out sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition are a bit of a miracle cure for chronic stress. Who’d have thought?!

I’m two months off of caffeine -- a change that did not exist in isolation, but that for me was an important piece of the puzzle. While my body is still normalizing, I feel worlds better than I did a few months ago. I start my days with hot water and lemon, sip herbal tea at my desk, and aim to fill my days with less contentious sources of energy. Life happens, though, so I’ve had to devise a new system to perk me up when I’m flagging. Here are my favorite ways to boost my energy -- not my blood pressure -- when I don't have time for a 5-mile run. Try them for yourself.

Photography by: Paul Sunday

If you have one minute: Check your angles. I always thought “Just breathe!” was obnoxious advice, but bad posture makes it really hard to do it properly. I'll let my head drop forward and roll it around in a circle to stretch my neck from every angle. Then I pull the crown of my head toward the ceiling (“like a puppet on a string,” as my high school dance coach would say), puff out my chest, and roll my shoulders back. I engage my core muscles, position my shoulders over my hips, and take a few deep breaths. Then I relax into a more natural version of that same pose.


Do this every 30 minutes, or as often as you can remember -- set an alarm, or post a note on your computer. And speaking of tech hazards, watch out for screen-induced “forward head.” I had to move my monitor back so I could view it at eye level.

If you have five minutes: Laugh. Make it your mission. Text a funny friend, or watch that cat video on YouTube that always gets you going. Photoshop your coworker’s head onto something weird, attach it to a blank email, and giddily wait for a response. Pull others into your black hole of joy! Soon you’ll be back to work, and more cheerful and productive for your foolishness.


Also, push-ups. Even wimpy, 45-degree-angle push-ups on the edge of the bathroom sink are enough to get your blood flowing.


If you have 10 minutes: Eat! Just go for a balanced bite that supports your health. Think fruit and nuts, veggies and hummus, fresh juices or smoothies, mini-meals of granola or avocado toast. I was never much of a snacker -- preferring to quell the beast with, you guessed it, more coffee -- and replacing food with chemicals was part of what was making my body freak out. Many of us are starved for nutrients (even if we’re technically eating enough “food”), and any chance to take in more of nature’s goodness is going to make our insides happy. Calories are just energy, and if you’re making smart choices, your system will regulate itself.

If you have 30 minutes: Walk it out. You'll get a double shot of vitality: movement and vitamin D. Even on a cloudy day, you’ll absorb enough of the sunshine vitamin to boost immune function and nutrient absorption. Bonus: Natural light is one of the best ways to combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

If you have an hour: Sweat. Get ready to hate me: I’m one of those people who truly loves exercise. But that’s because I’ve trained myself to need it (and really, we all do). I can’t stress enough how important it is to find a workout that feels like a treat and not a punishment. For me, it depends on the day: Sometimes it’s high-intensity circuit training, and sometimes it’s shaking my legs out on the elliptical. Either way, I can’t help but feel geeky gratitude for my ability to move -- and my days are more relaxed and energized as a result.


If you have a day (or night): Sleep. More than you do now. More than you think you need to. This is, to me, the ultimate non-negotiable. If I don’t sleep, I’m no good to anyone -- boring and dramatic at the same time, and nursing a profound contempt for everything but sugar.


Napping is its own skill, and great for those with flexible schedules or office doors that lock. But even better is planning ahead for a good night’s sleep. For many of us, that means turning in earlier than feels natural or even reasonable.


If you’re just hanging out and feel drowsy at an undignified 9:30 p.m., make like Sheryl Sandberg and lean in. If you don’t, you may not feel tired again until close to midnight -- at which point you’re leaning into a sleep deficit. Of course you don’t have to shut down your social life in the name of sleep -- the occasional late night won’t kill you, especially if you’re young. But when you get home, don’t dawdle. Don’t even open your laptop. Just wash your face and crawl in bed. Twitter can wait.

So there you have it: my formula for an effervescent caffeine-free existence. What are your favorite all-natural pick-me-ups?