We all love the sensorial stimulation from a fresh cup of decent coffee. Man, trough centuries, has developed various methods of processing the fruits of the Coffea plants to fully enjoy its earthy aroma. Nowadays, the making of a good coffee has become an art and our exceptionally sophisticated palates have sharpened up to taste the plethora of notes that different brewing methods and beans varieties can offer us. Obviously, the aroma is not the sole enjoyable aspect of coffee; we adapted to love the quick increase in alertness we experience after a cuppa – the coffee kick. The well-known compound responsible for such effect is caffeine. 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. And this is in a nutshell why we started our romance with the coffee bean. 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).
THE ‘BRAIN STIMULANT’ FOUR
THEOBROMA CACAO – CACAO
Ah, chocolate! Such delicious treat has been part of our snacks and cakes for a considerably long amount of time; it is said in fact that Columbus brought the first cacao bean to Europe in 1502 (3). Cacao as we know it is the result of grinding cacao beans into a fine powder. 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. So, in the quest for giving s push to our cognitive function, having a square of dark chocolate or a hot brew with pure cacao powder can give us a prolonged, milder and possibly crash-free enjoyable stimulation experience.
CAMELLIA SINENSIS – GREEN TEA
Tea could not miss its presence in this article. Herds of scientists have collected a plethora of specimens of green tea leaves and ardently studied their effect on human wellbeing that it is worth mentioning this largely appreciated hot brew ingredient. 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. Green tea, if form of extract or brew, is the ideal herb for anyone who is not too comfortable with the jitteriness associated with coffee drinking but still wants to give a kick to his/her brain function.
PAULLINIA CUPANA – GUARANA’ FRUITS
Guarana is a native fruit of the Amazonian rainforest and has been largely used by indigenous tribes (especially the Guarani, hence the name) to get quick energy and stamina (6). After its discovery, it quickly hit the market with an ever-increasing popularity; in fact today, if one reads the small text on a multicolour can of any popular energy drink, chances are that guarana’ is listed among the ingredients. 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’ 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). Many guarana’ consumers in fact state that the alertness experienced after consuming it lasts longer than coffee without causing excessive jitteriness or restlessness. Consuming guarana’ extract or powder instead of coffee when experiencing fatigue or tiredness is a great short-term solution to have a prolonged and sustained kick of energy; 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
ILEX PARAGUAIENSIS – YERBA MATE
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!
THE ‘BRAIN TONIC’ FOUR
PANAX GINSENG RADIX – RED GINSENG ROOT
While ginseng has become recently popular in the West, people in the East considered it a quintessential herbal medicine and have appreciated for millennia its stimulating and tonifying properties. What makes ginseng a rather unique remedy is its ability to increase physical efficiency and mental alertness without provoking nervous excitation or disturbing sleep (10). In terms of mental performance, 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). And non-specific stress literally means anything that challenges the body or the mind: running for the bus, driving for four hours straight, writing a 3000-words assignment, or go to work at 6am while sleep deprived. The bottom line is that the list of ginseng’s benefits is so long that probably it will require a whole book to discuss them in detail. Ginseng can be taken as a loose or encapsulated dried powder, as a tincture or as a concentrated water extract (very popular in oriental supermarkets).
ROSMARINUS OFFICINALIS – ROSEMARY
Rosemary has long been associated with memory and remembrance; people have thrown rosemary sticks in graves to not let the dead being forgotten and in ancient Greece students decorated their hair with rosemary as a learning aid (12). Thanks to scientific studies now we have proof that 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). Rosemary can be consumed not only on mouth-watering roasted potatoes, but can be used fresh or dried in hot water to make a pleasantly tasting alertness-boosting herbal tea.
GINKGO BILOBA – MAIDENHAIR TREE LEAVES
Ginkgo biloba is one of the most ancient species of trees on the planet, but its medicinal properties have been discovered not too long ago. 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). In recent times, ginkgo’s benefits have become rather famous and its extract can be purchased in most health food shops. In alternative, if in the mood for something more self-made/ it is very likely that somewhere in your local park you can find a majestic ginkgo tree and you might be able to harvest the leaves sprouting from its lower branches.
CENTELLA ASIATICA – GOTU KOLA
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.
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© GIACOMO SANDRI JUNE 2020