Here’s a little scenario for you. If you woke up tomorrow and had no access to caffeine, how would you feel?
That’s right; no coffee to ease yourself into the morning, and no builder's tea to get you through the mid-afternoon slump.
No stimulants, no energy drinks, no pre-workout boosters.
Nada. Cold turkey.
If you answered “absolutely fine Josh” then you have nothing to worry about. But I’m guessing, because you’re reading this article, that’s probably not the case.
If you need your daily fix of caffeine just to function like a normal human, then it’s probably time to take a step away from the coffee maker. For a little while, at least.
Caffeine – what’s the problem?
Before I go on, it’s important to recognise that for a healthy individual, moderate amounts of caffeine aren’t harmful. In fact, there are loads of positive benefits of caffeine consumption, including an increased rate of fat burning1, and firing up the frontal cortex to increase concentration and alertness2.
The problem that many of us face with caffeine is caffeine dependency. And as caffeine lights up the same receptors in the brain as cigarettes, alcohol and even stronger drugs, it’s a lot easier to become dependent than you think.
Caffeine provides energy by stimulating your nervous system, much like when you are faced with a scary or stressful situation. As a result, your body secretes adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal glands, which are responsible for the temporary increase in alertness.
Think of it this way. When you are faced with a potential threat, your body secretes these hormones to increase your alertness and give you every chance possible of escaping from the situation alive. It’s an evolutionary response that saved us from being eaten by lions or drowning in a frozen lake. But with stimulants such as caffeine firing up this very same response, we’ve taken something that was once reserved for emergencies and turned it into an everyday occurrence.
Over time, abusing stimulants such as caffeine can burn out your adrenal glands and leave you, ironically, more fatigued and run down than ever. If you’re finding you need more and more coffee to get you through each day, the chances are you’re already slipping down this slope.
What’s more, the excess cortisol in your system will also result in a depressed immune system, sleep problems, weight gain, and much more besides. In a modern day world where we already face way more stress than we should, excess cortisol is the last thing you need.
I’m not saying you have to go without caffeine for the rest of your life. I’m not a maniac. But what I am proposing is a brief respite from caffeine to allow your body to re-adjust to life without it. This might be two days off per week, or a full week off every month.
And for those times when you need an energy boost and caffeine isn’t an option, here are 6 natural alternatives to try!
Maca is a herb that grows at high altitudes in the mineral rich soils of the Andes Mountains. It’s a fairly new discovery in the Western world, but has been traditionally consumed for over 10,000 years by Incan warriors as a way to boost energy, endurance and alertness.
As it turns out, they were on to something. In a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Ethnopharmacology, a group of male cyclists were split into two sub groups – one of which was given maca, the other a placebo. The cyclists who consumed the maca increased their time faster than the ones who got the placebo3.
A separate clinical review of maca also noted it’s ability to improve energy levels and mood in a range of subjects, both male and female4. I personally like to take a teaspoon of maca powder in a smoothie before a workout, and definitely notice the subtle yet long lasting energy boost. Baobab
I personally think baobab is one of the most underrated ‘superfoods’ on the planet. I love it’s unique citrus-sherbet taste, either in a smoothie or just dissolved in water. It’s also a great little pick me up for those days when your energy levels are flagging.
The reason baobab works so well as an energy booster is thanks to it’s exceptionally high content of vitamin C and potassium. Vitamin C plays an essential part in the transportation of L-carnitine to the mitochondria, our ‘energy production’ cells, whilst potassium is required for nerve signal transmission, helping this cellular energy flow to the brain and muscles.
Try dissolving a teaspoon of baobab powder in a glass of water and sip throughout the day for sustained energy. It’s the fruity equivalent of a vitamin IV hooked up to your arm.
If it was good enough for some of the greatest Chinese Emperors and Kings of all time, it’s probably going to work for you, too.
Reishi is thought to increase energy levels and alertness by improving the energy supply to the frontal cortex. Whilst there have been no human studies to date, a pilot study on labs highlighted this exact mechanism and showed, in theory at least, how reishi consumption can improve energy5. In this case, I think the anecdotal evidence is even more powerful, given how long reishi has been used and how many people have got great results from it.
Even if you don’t use reishi for it’s energy boosting properties, I’d highly recommend it as a tonic to your overall health. It’s often prescribed in Chinese medicine to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, and is so high in antioxidants it has even been used as a treatment for various cancers and tumours6. Ashwagandha
Whilst Ashwagandha won’t give you an instant energy boost like the others in this list, it will help you sustain long term energy production without the need for stimulants or ‘pick me ups’. If your system has taken a bit of a beating after years of caffeine dependence, Ashwagandha is the herb that I would recommend to help get you back on track.
It’s a bit of a paradox, but the reason Ashwagandha works so well for energy production isn’t because it stimulates, it’s because it calms. Numerous studies have shown Ashwagandha to be particularly effective for managing cortisol levels7, the stress hormone that wreaks havoc with our energy levels and leaves us feeling fatigued. It’s this uniquely calming potential of Ashwagandha that helps us get our energy levels back where they should be, particularly if we’ve been relying on caffeine (which stimulates cortisol production) as a boost. Ashwagandha is also extremely nourishing for the adrenal glands, which often take a pasting with years of chronic caffeine use. It has also been shown to boost mood8 and relieve anxiety9, making it an extremely effective tonic herb for overall wellness.
B vitamins play an essential role in energy production. This is no secret: take one look at the ‘energy drinks’ on the shelves at your local supermarket and you’ll often find B vitamins as the star of the show. If you set aside the sugars, sweeteners and artificial flavourings, they're actually on to something.
B vitamins work for energy production by improving the rate at which the food we eat is converted into energy. These vitamins work in tandem with one another, each playing their own individual role along the energy production chain. If you’re deficient in just one B vitamin, the whole chain will come grinding to a halt.
The best way to ensure you are getting an adequate supply of B vitamins is by eating a varied and balanced diet. Dark green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and potatoes are good sources of multiple B vitamins. For a little extra support, you can also try a high quality B complex supplement.
Specifically, pay careful attention to vitamin B12. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’re at a high risk of deficiency in this particular nutrient.
Curveball alert. I never said that everything in this list would be edible, did I?
If you’re struggling to focus or feel yourself hitting a slump, get outside. I can virtually guarantee that the simple combination of sunlight, oxygen and movement will have you feeling re-energised and re-invigorated in a matter of minutes.
The most obvious benefit of getting outside is the instant hit of vitamin D, crucial for ATP energy production10. The sunlight will also stimulate the release of serotonin, otherwise known as the ‘feel good’ hormone, for an instant mood boost. What’s more, walking in ‘green spaces’ has also been shown to combat brain fatigue and increase productivity.
The best part about it? It’s completely free. Next time you’re struggling to focus or stay alert, maybe a short walk is all you need.