Quitting caffeine was an alien idea to me - I’ve been a tea drinker for almost all my life. It seems strange to us now, but my generation’s mothers routinely gave us warm sweet tea in our baby’s bottle when we were just mere toddlers. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t drink tea. Still, I never considered myself to be addicted to caffeine. My daily expression of ‘I need a tea’ never felt like an expression of dependence. But, it turns out it was.
I was perimenopausal from my early 40s onwards when I began to suffer from an overactive bladder. Being a woman who had birthed children not that long before, I didn’t think much of this. I was used to those toilet dashes in the night and always looking for the location of the loos wherever I went. But when I reached the age of 50 and my GP confirmed I was experiencing menopause symptoms, something shifted. I’d never suffered from urinary tract infections (UTIs) before, but suddenly I had four in one year. On the fourth occasion, my GP told me I couldn’t keep on taking antibiotics, which was fair enough. He suggested an estrogen cream which would help with vaginal dryness, which, he said, was probably causing the UTIs. But I didn’t suffer from vaginal dryness.
I’ve always been pretty good at listening to my body, so I went home and I listened. I began to notice that my beloved morning mug of tea just didn’t taste the same anymore. Something was off. I drank it and I felt a little bit sick. It reminded me of when I was first pregnant and just the smell of coffee turned my stomach. It wasn’t that obvious, but it was there. My body was trying to tell me not to drink that tea. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was after drinking my mug of tea that my bladder was at its most active. After the first two mugs of the morning, I was rushing to the loo and I had that frustrating feeling of not properly emptying. I could sit there for a while, trying to empty, or I could get up and have to sit back down again within a few minutes.
The link between caffeine and UTIs
A little research told me there's a definite link between caffeine and bladder issues. A study by the University of Michigan shows that reducing irritating beverages like coffee, tea, alcohol, and carbonated and/or artificially sweetened beverages results in a reduction of negative symptoms, including the urge to urinate, the inability to delay urinating, and other bother with the issue.
It's these problems of needing to go more frequently and needing to go quickly when the urge arises that are contributing the rise in UTIs in menopausal women, says Dr Hoda Makkawi, a consultant family medicine physician and integrative holistic medicine specialist.
“There have been studies that have shown there is a direct correlation between too much caffeine and incontinence. Women who consume high levels, 400 mg or more, are 70% more likely to have urinary incontinence," Dr Makkawi, who works at EuroMed Clinic Dubai, explains. "Caffeine raises blood pressure, and this can cause your bladder to become overactive. It increases the blood flow to the kidneys, decreasing the absorption of water and sodium, resulting in a desire to urinate more often. This diuretic effect can also contribute to dehydration. While it doesn’t cause UTIs, it can be a contributing factor to them because inadequate bladder emptying is one known trigger.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. The caffeine was causing my overactive bladder, which in turn was causing the UTIs. And the point about dehydration rings true in my case too. My regular headaches increased during my menopause, which I’m sure was due to dehydration. I’ve definitely felt more dehydrated in the last few years than I ever have before. I now keep a bottle of water with me at all times, which really helps.
Drinking water in this way is a bit of a vicious cycle if you’re drinking caffeine though, as caffeine causes dehydration and an overactive bladder. When you need to pee a lot, the tendency is to drink less, so you pee less. But with caffeine causing dehydration, drinking less will only make you feel worse, heightening the chance of UTIs and bringing on more headaches. The answer is, of course, to drink less caffeinated drinks and more water.
For me, it seemed like caffeine was the biggest contributing factor, at least to those UTIs. I’ve suffered many symptoms in my menopause so far: hot flashes, brain fog, aching joints, menopause-related anxiety, and ‘menopause feet’, and I’ve been able to cope with all of them. But UTIs are different. If my sudden onset of recurring UTIs really was down to my menopause I needed to know what was going on and what I could do about it, so I quit caffeine.
What I learned after quitting caffeine in menopause
1. Caffeine, menopause, and UTIs are all related
“UTIs become more common in menopause because of the loss of estrogen,” says Sophie Elletson, a hormone specialist and nutritionist. “Since we have estrogen receptors throughout our body, loss of this hormone can disrupt our microbiome in the bladder and the vagina."
Elletson, who also works with Future Woman, explains, "In menopause, our hormone production is taken over by the adrenal glands, so we want to support our adrenals by reducing stress and caffeine. Increases in stress can compromise our body's ability to produce the small amounts of hormones we do have. So more caffeine equals less estrogen, and higher chances of UTIs.”
2. We become more sensitive to caffeine in menopause
Although quitting caffeine, in my case, was all about my bladder, it's also beneficial in other areas of menopause and perimenopause. Health & Her recently conducted research into the triggers for symptoms during this time in women’s lives, and caffeine was shown to have detrimental effects in various areas.
The study revealed two in five women reported they started to experience more sensitivity to caffeine as they progressed through perimenopause. Dr Rebecca Tomlinson, GP and menopause specialist, explains why.
“Typically found in tea, coffee and energy drinks, caffeine accelerates your nervous system, increases alertness, and interferes with the absorption of vitamins and minerals," she says. "While it might seem like a good pick me up after a bad night’s sleep, caffeine can also have a detrimental effect on sleep, causing insomnia which is one of the most common symptoms of perimenopause.”
3. Going cold turkey is hard
On discovering that my successive UTIs and daily cup of tea could be linked, I decided to give it up for good there and then. Completely cold turkey. It was a journey of discovery for me and having gone on that journey, I can confidently tell you that going cold turkey is hard!
I probably should have quit gradually, but I was so sure I didn't have any dependency on caffeine. I didn't think it would be an issue.
4. The side-effects are even harder
I would wholeheartedly recommend quitting caffeine but not doing it the way I did. Weaning yourself slowly from the powerful drug of caffeine will give you a much more manageable experience.
I stopped suddenly and I felt terrible. I had constant dull headaches that I couldn’t shift and I had the feeling of not really being there, as if I was operating from some kind of sludge. The first two weeks of feeling like this were really difficult and I almost gave in a couple of times because I knew one simple mug of tea would make me feel better - it was challenging to stick to my guns and hold out. But the thought of those UTIs kept me determined, through banging headaches and feeling like I was living underwater, until at last I came out the other side.
5. But swapping regular tea for decaf helps
I switched my regular tea to decaffeinated tea, which pretty much tastes the same as one of the healthy alternatives to coffee and tea, to give me the illusion of drinking tea and also because I still do really like tea. Even with this though, I felt so exhausted for the first few days without the caffeine buzz.
I know some people who quit caffeine and subsequently went back to it, but despite its challenges, I never will. I feel brighter with the alternatives to caffeine, I have more energy, and I like the fact that I’m no longer reliant on a drug to wake me up every day. Plus, the thought of those four UTIs in a year is enough to keep me on the course of no caffeine for good.
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Samantha is a freelance writer from Yorkshire, writing about health and wellbeing for Woman & Home, Reader's Digest, Giddy, and Good Housekeeping. For the past 15 years, she's combined her personal experiences with reporting, to write about menopause, fitness, sleep, and healthy eating. She also writes about travel and food and drink for The Independent, The Good food Guide, Lonely Planet, Frommer's, and more.
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