6 Caffeine alternatives (and how to boost energy naturally)

From the desk of
Luis Villaseñor
Science6 Caffeine alternatives (and how to boost energy naturally)

There’s a reason the world starts its day with coffee. Caffeine provides a noticeable boost of energy. Many caffeinated beverages like tea and coffee have proven health benefits as well!

However, as is the case with almost everything, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. And if you metabolize caffeine quite slowly, even a small amount in the morning can disrupt your quality of sleep at night. Others, like me, don’t feel this effect much at all. I drink coffee around the clock and love every minute of it. But if you’re reading this, I assume you already have reason to explore caffeine alternatives — so let’s get to it.

In this article, I’ll explain how caffeine works, cover its benefits and risks, and at the end I’ll offer several caffeine alternatives to support your energy levels without sacrificing shut-eye. If you’re just here for the caffeine alternatives, skip to this part!

How Caffeine Affects Energy

Unlike food, which provides calories from fat, protein, and carbohydrates to be stored and later converted to the usable energy known as ATP (adenosine triphosphate), caffeine provides a subjective feeling of energy — you might describe it as alertness or wakefulness. Here’s how it works.

Normally, as you utilize ATP throughout the day, a compound called adenosine is released. Adenosine’s primary purpose is to bind to adenosine receptors in the brain, causing drowsiness and promoting sleep… but caffeine also binds to adenosine receptors. So when you have a cup of coffee, caffeine initiates a blockade — leaving less space for adenosine to make you feel drowsy. It tricks your brain into being more alert.

Benefits of Caffeine

The most popular (and obvious) benefit of caffeine is the subjective lift in energy and alertness. We covered that already. Here are a few others:

#1: Weight loss

Outside of perceived energy, caffeine also affects the way your body processes stored energy. By triggering the release of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, caffeine increases the rate at which lipolysis breaks down body fat into fatty acids. By freeing up these fatty acids, caffeine may increase fat burning.

And beyond fat burning, caffeine has also been shown to increase energy expenditure, or overall calories burned. This is because caffeine upregulates thermogenesis — the process of creating body heat — which requires energy.

So caffeine increases energy expenditure and fat burning, but does it promote weight loss? Here are a few studies attempting to uncover just that:

  • In one study, high caffeine consumers lost more weight than low caffeine consumers on a low-calorie diet.
  • Another observational study found that caffeine appeared to help with weight maintenance.
  • A 2019 meta-analysis examined relevant literature to find that “caffeine intake might promote weight, BMI, and body fat reduction.”

The key word is “might” — the most important facet of weight loss is (and always will be) consuming an appropriate amount of food.

#2: Exercise Performance

Caffeine is probably the most researched acute performance enhancer on the planet. It’s been shown to:

  • Enhance cycling times in cyclists
  • Increase muscle contraction strength in strength athletes
  • Improve energy supply to muscles during intense exercise

Why does caffeine boost exercise performance? Probably a combination of decreased pain perception, enhanced energy availability, increased alertness, and better mood.

#3: Mental health

To my last point, caffeine enhances mood and motivation in the short term. So long as you don’t overdo it and wind up in a jittery panic, it can promote getting things done with a smile on your face. But these short-term benefits can carry consequences if you’re not wise with your intake — more on that in the next section.

Downsides of Caffeine

Since caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, suppressing natural sleepiness, its biggest downside is the potential for sleep disruption. Due to genetic differences, some people process caffeine faster than others. Some drink coffee with dinner and conk out at 10 PM, while others struggle sleeping on one midday cup of coffee.

Beyond sleep issues, overdoing caffeine can cause a host of short-term side effects you don’t want. These include feeling jittery, nervousness, digestive issues, difficulty concentrating, and that “crash” later in the day.

And if you’re getting caffeine from energy drinks or syrupy lattes, you may have another galaxy of downsides to consider related to sugar. If you care about your long-term health, I recommend avoiding these beverages entirely. Now that the foundation is laid, let’s talk about caffeine alternatives!

6 Alternatives To Caffeine

Caffeine (and caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea) have many health benefits. While I’ve been known to say that “coffee is life,” if you’re sensitive to caffeine and it’s disrupting your sleep, you may want to consider these alternatives:

#1: Decaf coffee

Decaf coffee has a bit of caffeine, but only one-tenth the amount of regular coffee. I recommend decaf as a sleep-friendly way to capture coffee’s health benefits without excessive stimulation.

For example, the antioxidants in coffee beans may protect from neurodegenerative disease. Coffee also has many compounds (polyphenols) that are ergogenic to strength training and muscle building, separate from the influence of caffeine. So I highly recommend trying decaf coffee, especially as a pre-workout aid, even when decreasing your caffeine intake.

#2: Herbal tea

Herbal tea isn’t technically a tea — tea leaves contain caffeine. But we won’t hate! Herbal teas are a great way to substitute a caffeine-free drink into your morning ritual.

Some herbal teas, like holy basil, have stimulating properties independent of caffeine. Others, like chamomile, have relaxing effects. You have plenty of choices here. Me? I usually stick to matcha — I love the flavor, and favor its antioxidant properties.

#3: Chicory coffee

Chicory coffee is a caffeine-free beverage brewed from ground chicory root. It comes out tasting… well, not quite like coffee, but not too far off. Let’s just say it’s earthy.

Chicory root is high in a prebiotic fiber called inulin that may help nurture a friendly gut microbiome. In some guts, however, inulin can cause gas and bloating, so be warned.

#4: Hydrogen-rich water

Hydrogen water sounds like a scam, but there’s a good bit of science behind it. Saturating your system with molecular hydrogen turns out to have a variety of health benefits.

Energy is one of these benefits. In one randomized controlled trial, hydrogen-rich water increased alertness similarly to caffeine in sleep-deprived people.

#5: B Vitamins

I’m a big believer in getting most of your nutrients from food. No, energy drinks pumped with 10-times the Vitamin B RDA don’t count as “food.” Instead, try to eat a whole foods diet to get naturally occurring Vitamin B in foods like liver, greens, and eggs.

If you’re feeling especially tired, definitely race to buy the nearest energy drink! No, I’m kidding. Try a B-vitamin complex (or even just vitamin B12) to provide a safe and gentle energy boost.

B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12) are required along many steps of the chain to create ATP. They’re extremely safe and nontoxic.

#6: Electrolytes

Do electrolytes give you energy? Not in the form of calories, no — but they absolutely affect your perceived energy levels.

These charged minerals (like sodium, potassium, and magnesium) support cellular respiration, the process by which you create ATP. Magnesium, for instance, is a necessary cofactor in ATP synthesis.

Deficiencies in electrolytes can also sap your perceived energy. I see this mostly with sodium. Getting enough electrolytes means consuming electrolyte-rich foods and then supplementing to make up for where diet falls short.

Electrolyte beverages are probably the easiest way to close the gap — you might consider salting your bone broth, or trying an electrolyte beverage like LMNT. LMNT Sparkling is a convenient grab-and-go option. And LMNT Drink Mix features flavors like Chocolate Salt and Chocolate Caramel, which both make great substitutes for your traditional morning or nighttime hot beverages. You can make DIY-style electrolyte drinks too.

Just steer clear of so-called “sports drinks” when they contain loads of sugar and very little electrolytes. There’s no health benefit coming from those.

Boosting Energy Naturally

There’s nothing wrong with starting your day with caffeine. It’s a nice lift. Problems arise, however, when it becomes a crutch. You shouldn’t need caffeine to feel energized.

To become less dependent on caffeine, consider a caffeine alternative from the above list, and most importantly, don’t neglect the pillars of health: diet, sleep, exercise, stress management, and social ties. The more you dial in these pillars, the better your energy will be.

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