If you are a devout coffee drinker, it is probable that, like Icarus, at some point in your coffee life you have flown too close to the sun and have been burned.
Don’t get me wrong, I adore coffee; I’m having a cup of coffee as I write this. A cup of joe is not only delicious, it has been shown by research to have fantastic short and long term health effects time and time again. That’s not to mention the super coffee buzz that we all know and love.
But this coffee buzz can be potentially problematic. The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant. With stimulants, alas, what goes up must come down. Hence the dreaded coffee crash and the need for another cup later in the day. It is therefore all too easy to over consume the holy nectar and to experience over-caffeinated sensations such as anxiety and jitters. Coffee consumed later in the day has also been shown to disrupt sleep. This article from Singing and Sauerkraut has some helpful suggestions for improving your sleep, apart from reducing your caffeine intake.
So what can you do? If we limit caffeine consumption to avoid the crash, the jitters and the dodgy sleep, we have to go without the added energy burst as well which. Speaking from personal experience, that boost has been a lifesaver on countless occasions.
Find here great production boosting alternatives, without the side effects of caffeine - the jitters, sleep problems, and the caffeine crash.
Adaptogens and Nootropics Are Not Stimulants
What if I told you that some coffee alternatives exist which provide energy benefits, improve health, and decrease anxiety? All these while increasing focus and brain function? What if I then told you that you experience absolutely no crash from these substances? Well, if someone had told me that a few years ago, I would have asked them to stop believing in fairytales…
But it’s not a fairytale folks! Enter nootropics and adaptogens. You might have heard these terms before or it might sound like I’m speaking Greek or Chinese right now. In fact, both are sort of true. Let me enlighten you!
What Are Nootropics and Adaptogens?
First, let’s deal with nootropics. Nootropics were first analyzed and labeled in the 1960s by a chemist called Cornelieu Giurgea. Nootropic is Greek and roughly translates as “mind-bending”.
Although that might sound a little druggy and far out, let’s clarify one thing straight away: unlike caffeine, nootropics are not drugs. In fact, nootropics are natural substances that you probably unknowingly use every day and that have been used in Chinese medicines for hundreds of years.
According to Giurgea, in order to qualify as a nootropic, a substance must:
• Enhance learning and memory
• Enhance resistance of learned behaviors to conditions that might disrupt them
• Protect the brain against physical or chemical injuries
• Increase the efficacy of the tonic cortical / subcortical control mechanisms
• Not be sedating, possess few or no side effects, if any, and be essentially non-toxic
This is quite a tall order! However, lots of common fridge and pantry items qualify as nootropics. Nootropics can come in the form of essential nutrients (such as zinc and magnesium), phospholipids (such as fatty fish), choline (eggs), antioxidants (nuts and berries), amino acids, roots (an example of which is turmeric) and finally, plants and herbs.
Most adaptogens would fall into the sub-category of herbal nootropics. They can usually be defined as plants and fungi that help the body adapt to and cope with stress.
As with other healthy practices such as exercise, adaptogens cause a small amount of non-specific stress in the body, which the body then adapts to, in turn becoming stronger. As with coffee, adaptogens stimulate both the nervous system and the endocrine system. This has a normalizing effect on the body, causing it to function in an improved way. We are in turn less prone to stress and quicker to return to normal after a stressful situation.
Again, despite the unusual word, you are probably familiar with several adaptogens already. Some of the most common adaptogens would be maca powder and ginseng. Vitamin B12 and even MCT oil, found in coconuts, can be considered adaptogens.
Different types of adaptogens
Adaptogens come in many forms, and have different effects on the body on the mind. Effects of adaptogens can also vary from individual to individual. Some adaptogens are good for healthy organ function, some are good for hormones, some help to calm us down and some give us energy and help us to focus.
Although there is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence on the effects of adaptogens, I should mention here that scientific evidence on the effects of adaptogens in somewhat limited.
In recent years, mushrooms grown in Eastern climates that have been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years have gained immense popularity in the western world and are now some of the most consumed herbal nootropics. These mushrooms are all extremely safe and are used for cooking in many eastern cultures. They are normally brewed and drunk as a tea. Some popular nootropic mushrooms are:
The Best Alternatives to Coffee for Energy
And so we come to the good stuff. All of these adaptogens can be brew as hot, tea or coffee like drinks.
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First on the list of coffee like energy hits is Maca powder. Maca is a Peruvian root that has been most often used and documented as an aphrodisiac. However, it is fantastic for focus and energy. Maca is very easily acquired these days and can be bought in your local health food shop.
Hericium erinaceus, nicknamed lion’s mane because of its funky look, is a mushroom I am fascinated with. Sometimes referred to as the brain mushroom, lion’s mane has been linked to improved short and long term cognitive function when take regularly. Lion’s mane is great for situations when you need to be at your mental peak or when you want to get rid of brain fog. This mushroom is a little trickier to come across and your best bet is probably ordering online.
Although it sounds exotic, this flowering plant is grown in colder regions of Europe, even in Britain. Rhodiola is normally taken as a supplement. As well as being a super source or energy, this adaptogen is also great for reducing anxiety.
For thousands of years, Reishi has been used in Chinese medicine, for example, to relieve cough and asthma, to calm the mind, and to relieve dizziness, insomnia and anxiety. The word lingzhi, in Mandarin, means "herb of spiritual potency". Reishi mushroom has been known as the "mushroom of immortality".
Cordyceps is another energy boosting mushroom that has many potential health properties such as an improved immune system and organ function.
Another health shop staple, properly sourced ginseng is also a powerful natural source of energy. It is very easy to get your hands on some ginseng, so this root is a good place to start.
Universal Nootropics, Nootropic Stacks and Adaptogen Coffee
Nootropics and adaptogens aren’t just used for energy boosts. There are many adaptogens that have calming, anti anxiety properties. A good example of one of these adaptogens is L Theanine, an amino acid found most prominently in green tea. L Theanine has a soothing and calming but focusing effect on the body and mind, which is why we don’t get the same side effects from caffeine when we drink tea. Instead, we get the best aspects of a caffeine hit, such as energy and concentration, but without the negative effects, such as anxiety or the jitters.
Nootropic enthusiasts will combine different nootropics that have different effects in order to get the best overall experience. This is known as stacking. An example of this would be to combine different types of mushrooms such as lion’s mane and ashwagandha, which is a calming mushroom that in turn provides sustained energy. Reishi is another calming mushroom that is often paired with energy providing fungi.
Adaptogen coffee was likely born out of the success of the caffeine and L Theanine combination present in green tea. Adding L Theanine or other calming adaptogens to coffee allows the drinker to experience all the positive effects from their coffee without having to worry about the irksome caffeine overdose, to a certain extent. As caffeine is still a stimulant, people will generally experience some sort of come down from coffee regardless of what it is paired with.
As an anecdote, in my early days of abusing coffee, I always abused it paired with tea. I bet you never took me for a tea guy. Haha. I loved tea for a good while.
Universal nootropics are nootropic stacks that are designed to tick all the boxes, so to speak. That is to say, they provide a complete and balanced experience for the user. Nootropic users and companies have come up with their own various universal nootropic recipes claiming to satisfy this brief.
Other Nootropics, Adaptogens and Energy Tricks
If you are looking for more sustained energy in general, and not just looking for a coffee replacing beverage, there are various other nootropics and things we can do day to day to experience a more energetic, focused, relaxed, healthy and intelligent life.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, many nootropics come in the form of food. Including some nootropic foods in your diet such as fatty fish rich in omega 3s, eggs for choline, nuts and berries for antioxidants, vitamin B rich foods as well as cooking with spices such as turmeric will do a lot for energy levels and brain function.
All that is left to say is to apart from that is to follow the age old advice of prioritizing sleep, drinking your caffeine early in the day and making sure you stay hydrated.
And.... Don't forget your cup of coffee in the morning, it's the main source of antioxidants in the North American typical diet.