While caffeine is generally considered safe in moderate doses, regular consumption of this stimulant may come with unwanted side effects. If you’re a regular coffee drinker, you may find that you have developed a tolerance and dependency. You may require more caffeine to achieve the same effect, and you may experience withdrawal effects such as headache, drowsiness, and irritability if you miss your morning ‘fix.’ [This article, “10 Best Natural Alternatives To Caffeine For Energy And Focus” was originally published in NewsHealthWatch]
Caffeine partially achieves its stimulating effects by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. (Adenosine is a brain metabolite that induces a feeling of drowsiness.) Caffeine also boosts adrenaline levels in your system, inducing a ‘fight or flight’ response. Because it is a central nervous system stimulant, you may notice an increase in heart rate and blood pressure after a dose of caffeine. Excessive consumption of this stimulant can cause a fast heart rate, restlessness, headache, anxiety, insomnia, and dehydration.
Even though you may consume caffeine to boost energy and focus, perhaps to help you power through your work day, its stimulating effects last only 4-6 hours. After the effects of caffeine wear off, you may experience ‘rebound fatigue,’ leaving you more tired than you were before you consumed your first dose. Read on to discover ten natural stimulant and non-stimulant caffeine alternatives ranked in order of effectiveness.
First, the non-caffeine stimulants
Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a central nervous system stimulant that occurs naturally in the body and has an effect similar to certain amphetamine drugs. This organic molecule is found naturally in eggs, blue-green algae, chocolate, and wine. The cognitive and motivational effects of PEA come from its capacity to increase neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine.
Thought to be a component of the ‘runner’s high,’ PEA’s uplifting, stimulating effects may be similar to the effects of exercise. Some people have been able to prolong the positive effects of PEA by adding oat straw, which acts as an MOA inhibitor and boosts the effects of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine.
Quercetin is a flavonoid found most commonly in fruits, vegetables, tea, grains, and wine. Like caffeine, quercetin blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, and the stimulating effects are similar but with a much lower side effect profile.
Studies have shown that this natural stimulant can boost the activity of mitochondria, the ‘powerhouses’ of cells that produce ATP. ATP is the fundamental unit of energy that fuels your brain and muscles. Therefore, quercetin can improve athletic performance and endurance levels. For example, one study showed that supplementation with quercetin improved aerobic capacity by 4%.
Next, the adaptogens as non-stimulant alternatives to caffeine
Ginseng comes in a few varieties, the most common being American ginseng and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Classified as an adaptogen, this natural herb with mild stimulating effects contains oligopeptides that inhibit oxidative stress and support mitochondrial function in cells.
Studies of American ginseng have shown that it dilates blood vessels, supporting blood flow to the brain. In the most basic sense, adaptogens are herbs or mushrooms that ameliorate the body’s response to stress and help your system achieve balance. Used in traditional medicines for centuries, ginseng has been investigated as a treatment for chronic fatigue and cancer-related fatigue.
Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus native to the Himalayas that grows in the larvae of insects. Also classified as an adaptogen, this unique mushroom has been used in traditional medicines to treat respiratory disorders, kidney disorders, irregular heartbeat, and various other medical issues.
Cordyceps is often used for its stimulating effects, and it is thought to boost energy by increasing ATP production in cells. Rather than providing a quick burst of energy followed by a crash, this promising non-stimulant caffeine alternative can sustain your energy at the cellular level for the long term. This mushroom found its way into the limelight in 1993 when Chinese female runners who had ingested cordyceps broke several distance records.
5. Rhodiola Rosea
Also called ‘golden root,’ this adaptogen has been used in traditional medicines to treat anxiety, depression, and fatigue. Like many other caffeine alternatives, Rhodiola Rosea boosts the function of mitochondria in cells. Rhodiola also increases dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine levels in the brain, enhancing motivation, pleasure, and learning. Most notably, Rhodiola supports the adrenal gland to produce the right amounts of cortisol during the day, helping you to stay focused. Taking this plant-based caffeine alternative in the morning can boost alertness and cognition.
Moringa oleifera is a tropical plant native to the Himalayas, India, and Africa. Classified as an adaptogen, this natural energy booster has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 4,000 years. Moringa powder is produced from the leaves of the moringa plant, and it’s rich in vitamin C, calcium, potassium, B vitamins, and amino acids. This potent non-stimulant caffeine alternative contains high levels of vitamin B1 that boost the conversion of sugar to energy in the body. Isothiocyanates in this helpful plant also regulate blood sugar, reducing spikes and crashes.
Next, brain-boosting nootropics as natural non-stimulant alternatives to caffeine
7. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba, also called maidenhair, is an ancient tree that grows in China. Ginkgo extract is made from the leaves of the tree, which is sometimes called a ‘living fossil’ because it has grown for millions of years. Classified as a nootropic, ginkgo is thought to improve memory, focus, and attention span. This natural caffeine alternative increases blood flow to the brain by dilating blood vessels and reducing blood viscosity. Ginkgo may also improve cognitive function by boosting the uptake of glucose by brain cells, supporting the transmission of nerve signals responsible for functions such as memory and mood.
L-Theanine is an amino acid most commonly found in green and black tea. Measurements of electrical activity inside the brain have shown that L-Theanine increases alpha waves, which are associated with a state of relaxed alertness similar to that achieved during meditation. This natural caffeine alternative may also improve attention, reaction time, memory and learning. L-Theanine elevates levels of the neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, calming you without sedating you. It also lowers certain stress hormones that may interfere with cognitive function.
Finally, the superfoods: potent plant ingredients that boost energy and focus
9. Beet Root
Considered a superfood, beet root is a potent plant source of nitrates, substances that are converted to heart-protective nitric oxide in the body. Beet root and beet powder are favorites among athletes due to their capacity to stimulate blood flow to the muscles, respiratory system, and brain. Beets can also boost athletic performance by reducing the amount of oxygen muscles require to work efficiently and supporting mitochondrial function.
In addition, phytonutrients in beets called betalains provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and detoxification benefits. This is why beet root is known as a ‘liver cleanser.’ It’s best to consume beet and its products in the morning, as it opens your blood vessels and increases the flow of oxygen throughout your body, making you feel energized.
10. Spirulina Powder
Spirulina is a blue-green algae grown in both fresh and salt water, dating back to the Aztec civilization and consumed by NASA astronauts in space. As a complete protein, spirulina contains all the amino acids necessary for energy maintenance. It is a superfood rich in vitamin B1, which supports energy production in the body. The chlorophyll in spirulina gives you energy at the cellular level by boosting ATP production in mitochondria. Studies such as this one published in 2010 have shown that spirulina boosts exercise endurance and reduces fatigue.
Non-stimulant energy boosters may work together as a complete package
If you’re trying to achieve healthy energy and focus, you may consider a blend of superfoods and adaptogens for a natural boost that does not come with an afternoon crash. Healthy Truth, a Massachusetts-based health food company founded in 2014, is a notable producer of performance-enhancing protein bars and powders based on sound science. Their Organic Go Green Energy Blend powder contains moringa, spirulina, beet juice powder, and ashwagandha, among a variety of other healthful ingredients that deliver a natural energy boost without the side effects that might come from your morning coffee habit.
Finding the right balance for energy and focus
With so many of us facing hectic schedules and late nights, we often find ourselves searching for ways to boost energy and focus during the day. However, we sometimes pay a price for that extra cup of coffee in the form of afternoon jitters or the crash associated with rebound fatigue.
Fortunately, there are many stimulant and non-stimulant caffeine alternatives available to help you maintain your energy and hold your focus without harsh side effects or sleepless nights. Companies like Healthy Truth make a variety of performance-enhancing food products that can fuel your body naturally. You can find many other natural caffeine alternatives online and on store shelves. When you feed your body the nutrients it needs, you can stay focused all day long and reap the rewards of your hard work, without paying a hefty price.
Cleveland Clinic: Quitting Caffeine the Headache-Free Way
The Guardian: The invisible addiction: is it time to give up caffeine?
Important Note: The information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or medical advice, nor is it intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease or health condition. Before embarking on any diet or program of nutritional supplementation, it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional in order to determine its safety and probable efficacy in terms of your individual state of health.