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Updated: May 26, 2023


Caffeine is most used psychostimulant substance in the world (1) and work by provisionally block the action of adenosine, a molecule which is directly involved in promoting drowsiness and sleepiness (2). This results in increased alertness, accelerated heart rate and enhanced respiratory functions. But unfortunately, for some of us, the consumption of coffee comes with a rather annoying price to pay: the caffeine crash. This is a phenomenon that happens when we consume coffee and we are already in a state of sleep deprivation, tiredness or fatigue: We feel tired, we drink coffee, caffeine gets absorbed and enters the brain, adenosine receptors get blocked causing its build up, the action of caffeine ends, adenosine floods the receptors, now we feel extra-tired.

The game-changing question therefore is: How can we increase alertness and mental performance without experiencing the ‘crash’? There are few herbs and superfoods that can be very useful coffee substitutes in such situations. Here are listed eight herbal remedies divided in two categories: The brain stimulants (containing psychoactive compounds such as caffeine and theobromine) and brain tonics (without psychoactive compounds).



Pure cacao powder has psychostimulant effects as it has caffeine and theobromine; in comparison to coffee though, it has a much lower content of caffeine per weight while the main effects on the human nervous system are linked to theobromine. This last compound deserves some concrete attention as it makes cacao a more effective substitute for coffee if a prolonged cerebral stimulation is desired. In terms of chemistry, caffeine is a water-soluble compound which acts on the brain after a short period following ingestion; theobromine, on the other side, is fat soluble and it takes longer to reach the brain where it remains for a longer time (up to 12 hours) (4). The combination of caffeine and theobromine in cacao is also thought to be responsible for its exquisite euphoric and mood boosting effects.


. Green tea has especially attracted the attention of researchers interested in examining its effects on cognition and brain activity as it has both psycho-stimulant and psycho-relaxant compounds, respectively caffeine and theanine (5). No surprise that it has been found effective in ameliorating anxiety and cognitive functions.


Guarana’ is extremely high in caffeine; some sources suggest that it has four times the amount of caffeine than coffee (7). Even though this data sounds somewhat alarming and off-putting, the pharmacokinetics (fancy word for metabolism) of guarana’s compounds is slightly different from coffee; although there is not a large scientific evidence to confirm it, it is postulated that there are compounds in guarana’ that delay the absorption of caffeine or act synergistically with caffeine to exert a prolonged stimulating effect on the central nervous system (8). Nevertheless, due to its large amount of caffeine, it is not advised to adopt a daily guarana’ use as a long-term solution for overcoming tiredness and fatigue as it can further deplete the nervous system


Yerba Mate is a popular drink consumed in various countries of South America. In a similar fashion to cacao, it has both caffeine and theobromine with a higher concentration of the first compared to the second (9). Some sources report that mate consumers are much less likely to experience a ‘caffeine-crash’ compared to coffee drinkers, but unfortunately there is not much scientific evidence to back up this statement. The best option is probably just to try it and experience directly its effects. I m pretty sure your fifth-grade Argentinian cousin will agree!



Ginseng has shown to improve memory and cognitive power without depleting the nervous system reserves or altering adenosine levels like coffee. Large amount of medical literature has been written on ginseng and on its bioactive compounds, called ginsenosides; these molecules in fact are deemed responsible for the astonishing property of this root to enhance the body’s resistance to non-specific stress (11).


Rosemary is a powerful cognition booster; It has shown to improve memory function in elderlies (13) and in young students (14) while protecting the brain and delaying neuronal death (15). Rosemary works in a completely different fashion than coffee as it does not have any psycho – active compound like caffeine; it is suggested that the cerebral benefits of rosemary are associated with some of its volatile compounds such as caffeic acid and rosmarinic acid which increase the blood circulation to the brain (16).


Ginkgo, like rosemary, has powerful antioxidant properties and protects the delicate blood vessels of the brain from free radical damage (17). Many studies suggest the implication of the bioactive phenolic compounds of ginkgo in rejuvenating the central nervous system and cardiovascular system (17).


Finally, another powerful brain tonic holding a place of privilege in Indian Ayurvedic medicine is gotu kola. Gotu kola has been widely used in India to increase intelligence, memory and longevity (18) and as a substitute for Alzheimer’s disease medications (19). The mechanism of action of gotu kola is probably somewhere in between ginkgo and ginseng, as it may increase the cerebral circulation and balance the levels of cortisol in the blood (20). Gotu kola is the perfect herbs for boosting alertness, cognition and focus in individuals experiencing stress and mental fog.


For how much we do love coffee, often it is not the most functional choice when it comes down to boost alertness without experiencing come-down symptoms. Evidence suggests that one coffee a day in the morning seems beneficial, but the frequent use of it throughout the day will cause us to take a ride on a rollecoaster with steep hills and low dips. To offer a more efficient alternative, this article reviewed the possibility to substitute coffee with herbal brain stimulants and tonics, providing good evidence of the wonderful properties of these herbs and remedies to give us ‘the kick’ with little or no crash afterwards. Whether taken alone or in combination, most of these remedies can be easily purchased at the local herb shop, oriental shop or online, so now is a great time to (kindly) divorce from our beloved brown brew in the afternoon and experiment new, more empowering alternatives.


1)PubChem. “Caffeine.” Nih.Gov, PubChem, 2019, Accessed 26 May 2020.

2) Layland, Jamie, et al. “Adenosine.” JACC: Cardiovascular Interventions, vol. 7, no. 6, June 2014, pp. 581–591, 10.1016/j.jcin.2014.02.009. Accessed 6 May 2020.

3) “Discovering Chocolate.” Www.Cadbury.Com.Au, 2020, Accessed 5 June 2020.

4) Baggott, Matthew J., et al. “Psychopharmacology of Theobromine in Healthy Volunteers.” Psychopharmacology, vol. 228, no. 1, 19 Feb. 2013, pp. 109–118, 10.1007/s00213-013-3021-0. Accessed 21 Dec. 2019.

5) Mancini, Edele, et al. “Green Tea Effects on Cognition, Mood and Human Brain Function: A Systematic Review.” Phytomedicine, vol. 34, Oct. 2017, pp. 26–37, 10.1016/j.phymed.2017.07.008. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.

6) Fc, Schimpl, et al. “Guarana: Revisiting a Highly Caffeinated Plant From the Amazon.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 28 Oct. 2013, Accessed 29 May 2020.

7) May 2013, Luke Yoquinto 30. “The Truth About Guarana.” Livescience.Com, 30 May 2013,

8) Moustakas, Dimitrios, et al. “Guarana Provides Additional Stimulation over Caffeine Alone in the Planarian Model.” PLOS ONE, vol. 10, no. 4, 16 Apr. 2015, p. e0123310, 10.1371/journal.pone.0123310. Accessed 8 Sept. 2019.

9) Lutomski, Piotr, et al. “Health Properties of Yerba Mate.” Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine, 3 Apr. 2020, 10.26444/aaem/119994. Accessed 6 June 2020.

10) Teeguarden, Ron. The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs. New York, Warner Books, 2000, pp. 96–110.

11) Leung, Kar, and Alice Wong. “Pharmacology of Ginsenosides: A Literature Review.” Chinese Medicine, vol. 5, no. 1, 2010, p. 20, 10.1186/1749-8546-5-20. Accessed 8 Aug. 2019.

12) Fez Inkwright. FOLK MAGIC AND HEALING : An Unusual History of Everyday Plants. S.L., Liminal 11, 2019, p. 133.

13)Pengelly, Andrew, et al. “Short-Term Study on the Effects of Rosemary on Cognitive Function in an Elderly Population.” Journal of Medicinal Food, vol. 15, no. 1, 2012, pp. 10–7,, 10.1089/jmf.2011.0005. Accessed 6 July 2019.

14) Filiptsova, O.V., et al. “The Essential Oil of Rosemary and Its Effect on the Human Image and Numerical Short-Term Memory.” Egyptian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, vol. 4, no. 2, June 2017, pp. 107–111,, 10.1016/j.ejbas.2017.04.002. Accessed 7 May 2019.

15) Habtemariam, Solomon. “The Therapeutic Potential of Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis) Diterpenes for Alzheimer’s Disease.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 2016, 2016, pp. 1–14, 10.1155/2016/2680409. Accessed 1 Nov. 2019.

16) Ulbricht, Catherine, et al. “An Evidence-Based Systematic Review of Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration.” Journal of Dietary Supplements, vol. 7, no. 4, Nov. 2010, pp. 351–413, 10.3109/19390211.2010.525049. Accessed 4 June 2020.

17) Droy-Lefaix, M. T. “Effect of the Antioxidant Action of Ginkgo Biloba Extract (EGb 761) on Aging and Oxidative Stress.” AGE, vol. 20, no. 3, July 1997, pp. 141–149, 10.1007/s11357-997-0013-1. Accessed 24 Apr. 2019.

18) Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. The Yoga of Herbs : An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2016, p. 170.

19) Puttarak, Panupong, et al. “Effects of Centella Asiatica (L.) Urb. on Cognitive Function and Mood Related Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Scientific Reports, vol. 7, 6 Sept. 2017,, 10.1038/s41598-017-09823-9. Accessed 6 June 2020.

20) Winston, David, and Steven Maimes. Adaptogens : Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Rochester, Vermont, Healing Arts Press, 2019.


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