There’s a reason the world starts its day with coffee. Its main compound, caffeine, provides a noticeable boost of energy. Coffee and other caffeinated beverages like tea have many proven health benefits, but there is also another side to the story, as with almost everything.
I love coffee, so let me be the first to admit this: unfortunately, caffeine can be easy to overdo. And depending on your genetic makeup, even a small amount of morning caffeine can disrupt your quality of sleep, particularly if you metabolize caffeine more slowly. Others, like me, don’t feel this effect much.
When it comes to energy, I see caffeine as a double-edged sword. It can increase your energy in the short-term, but it can decrease long-term energy by impairing sleep. Then you can get trapped in a cycle of needing more and more caffeine as a pick-me-up. Not optimal.
In this article, I’ll discuss energy, how caffeine works, the benefits and risks of caffeine, and a handful of caffeine alternatives that support energy levels without stimulation. I hope you find it useful!
What Is Energy?
Until now, I’ve used the term “energy” loosely. I’ve used it how most of us use it: as shorthand for how we feel.
The term for this subjective feeling is perceived energy. You might also call it alertness.
Perceived energy is an internal, self-reported metric. If you’re feeling energetic, you know it. The same goes for low-energy states.
That’s perceived energy, but there are more objective forms of energy that fuel the human body. These forms can be lumped into two main categories:
- Stored energy
- Usable Energy
Stored energy is measured in calories from fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. It’s the triglyceride full of fatty acids, the starchy carbohydrate full of glucose molecules, and the protein full of amino acids. These are all stored forms of food energy.
Through a series of biochemical reactions called cellular respiration, your body converts stored energy to usable energy. And by usable energy, I mean adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
You’ve probably heard of ATP—it’s the fuel that powers every cell in your body. It’s the fuel that powers life.
Think of ATP molecules as tiny batteries floating inside cells. They’re ready when you need them, providing an instant charge. The ATP molecule simply needs to be broken apart to release this charge.
So you have perceived energy, stored energy (calories), and ATP. All are energy. Let’s see how caffeine affects this system.
How Caffeine Affects Energy
Caffeine is well-documented to increase alertness. This boost is the main reason people drink coffee, tea, and energy drinks.
Caffeine increases perceived energy by activating the central nervous system. Specifically, caffeine inhibits the depressant effects of a compound called adenosine by blockading adenosine receptors in the brain.
Remember adenosine triphosphate (ATP)? Adenosine gets released when ATP is used. As more and more ATP is used throughout the day, adenosine levels rise and bind to receptors, causing drowsiness.
Since caffeine binds to your adenosine receptors too, there’s less space for adenosine to make you feel drowsiness. It tricks your brain into being more alert.
Caffeine also affects the way your body processes stored energy. For instance, caffeine increases the rate at which body fat is broken down, via lipolysis, into fatty acids.
The boost in lipolysis is driven by epinephrine and norepinephrine, stimulating hormones released when you consume caffeine. If you’ve ever taken a cold shower, you have norepinephrine to thank for the resulting stimulation.
By freeing up fatty acids, caffeine also increases fat burning. The technical term for fat burning is beta-oxidation, and it’s a few steps removed from the creation of ATP. (The byproduct of this fat-burning—acetyl-CoA—enters the Krebs cycle, a term you may dimly remember from high school. About 18 steps later, ATP is formed).
Beyond fat burning, caffeine has also been shown to increase energy expenditure, or overall calories burned. How? By heating people up.
That’s right, caffeine boosts thermogenesis—or the process of your body creating heat. Creating that heat requires energy.
Benefits of Caffeine
The most popular benefit of caffeine is the subjective lift in energy and alertness. We covered that already.
We also covered how caffeine increases lipolysis (breaking apart body fat) and beta-oxidation (burning fat). So fat loss is another potential benefit.
Here are a few others:
#1: Weight loss
Since caffeine increases energy expenditure, you’d expect it to promote weight loss. It might.
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.
Finally, a 2019 meta-analysis looking at the relevant literature found that “caffeine intake might promote weight, BMI, and body fat reduction”. The key word is “might”.
#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, and increased alertness and mood.
#3: Mental health
In the short term, caffeine enhances mood and motivation. It can be a useful compound for getting things done with a smile on your face.
But these short-term benefits can carry consequences. Keep reading.
Downsides of Caffeine
The biggest downside of caffeine is the potential for sleep disruption. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, suppressing natural sleepiness.
Due to genetic differences, some people process caffeine faster than others. They can have an espresso after dinner and still conk out at 10 PM. That’s me!
Others will still feel that cup of coffee from breakfast. The half-life of caffeine (the time it takes for the active caffeine to be reduced by 50%) can reach 9.5 hours, which means that the quarter-life can reach nearly 20 hours! If your breakfast includes 2 cups of coffee, that’s like chugging half a coffee right before bed.
If you’re struggling with insomnia, caffeine intake is among the first levers to pull. I’ve seen a lot of people improve simply by switching to decaf coffee or herbal tea.
Beyond insomnia, overdoing caffeine can cause a host of short-term side effects you don’t want. These include:
- Feeling jittery
- Digestive issues
- Difficulty concentrating
- A “crash” later in the day
The key is to listen to your body. If you’re on the fence, it’s probably a good idea to skip that extra cup of coffee.
If you’re getting caffeine from energy drinks or syrupy lattes, you have another galaxy of downsides to consider: the downsides of sugar. If you care about your long-term health, I recommend avoiding these beverages entirely.
6 Alternatives To Caffeine
I may be anti-sugar, but I’m not anti-caffeine. Caffeine (and caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea) have many health benefits.
And 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 consider these alternatives:
#1: Decaf coffee
Drinking coffee has many health benefits—like protection from neurodegenerative disease—that appear to be separate from the caffeine content. It’s probably the antioxidants from coffee beans driving these benefits.
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.
Coffee by itself, even if decaffeinated, has many compounds (polyphenols) that are ergogenic to strength training and muscle building. So if you decide to taper down on caffeine, I would still suggest you try decaf, especially as a pre-workout aid.
#2: Herbal tea
Herbal tea isn’t technically a tea. (Tea leaves contain caffeine). But we won’t hate. Herbal teas are a solid 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 properties.
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. 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. Natural sources of B vitamins include liver, greens, and eggs—so eating a whole foods diet with these foods in rotation is a good rule of thumb to keep B Vitamins at optimal levels.
But if you’re feeling especially tired, taking a B vitamin complex (or even just vitamin B12) provides 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.
Do electrolytes give you energy? In a way, yes.
These minerals support cellular respiration, the process by which you create ATP. Magnesium, for instance, is a necessary cofactor in ATP synthesis.
Deficiencies in electrolytes will sap your perceived energy. I see this mostly with sodium. Plenty of researchers have seen it too.
Getting enough electrolytes means consuming electrolyte-rich foods, electrolyte-rich drinks, and supplements to hit your targets.
On the beverage side, you might try:
- Bone broth
- Lemon water with a dash of salt
- Electrolyte water (made at home or with our zero sugar electrolyte drink mix, LMNT)
Steer clear of sugary sports drinks and store-bought electrolyte waters. They usually have too much sugar and too few electrolytes to warrant your consumption.
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 that caffeine to feel energized.
If caffeine is becoming a problem for you, consider a caffeine alternative from the above list. And get your electrolytes.
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.