Caffeine is the most popular stimulant in the world; according to the FDA, up to 80% of Americans consume caffeine every day, either in tea, coffee, or energy drinks.
However, energy drinks are full of sugars, artificial flavors, and often more caffeine than a standard cup of coffee. Are there any natural energy drinks that don’t contain caffeine?
Why caffeine works
Caffeine is naturally found in coffee, tea, and cocoa. Energy drinks and some medications have caffeine added to them. Although caffeine is technically considered a psychoactive drug due to the effect it has on the nervous system, it’s still a natural stimulant.
Caffeine travels quickly from the gut to the liver within minutes of consumption, where it’s broken down into compounds that affect most of the body. However, it primarily affects the brain.
Caffeine increases alertness and wards off fatigue, which is why most people wake themselves up with a cup of coffee every morning.
The reason it helps people feel more awake is that it has the potential to block the effects of adenosine. Adenosine is a hormone that builds up throughout the day so that by the end of it, we’re tired and want to go to bed. Caffeine keeps us more awake and alert as it inhibits the Adenosine from activating. This is why heavy coffee drinkers can find it difficult to sleep at night, they do not have adequate level of adenosine.
The only things that can actually eliminate fatigue and replenish energy are food and sleep. Caffeine simply offers a temporary solution by helping us ignore normal bodily signs of being tired.
Adenosine isn’t the only hormone affected by caffeine, as dopamine and norepinephrine are also stimulated by caffeine. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and hormone which is released by the brain when we feel stressed. As it affects the brain’s ability to respond to events and pay attention to them it can increase the heartbeat, brain activity, and adrenaline levels.
Dopamine is also a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is involved in motor control, motivation, and arousal, and motor control. The effect caffeine has on both of these also contributes to alertness and focus caffeine brings.
It can also raise adrenaline levels, which is why some people feel anxious when consuming caffeine, as adrenaline is our “fight or flight” hormone. For some, the adrenaline makes them feel more energetic, but if you’re prone to anxiety, then it may make you feel more anxious.
Why limit caffeine?
Some people should and need to monitor their caffeine intake more than others.
Caffeine can inhibit the absorption of calcium in our bones. As older people and especially post-menopausal women are the most at risk of suffering from osteoporosis, they, in particular, should limit their caffeine intake so as not to exasperate it. Vegans who aren’t getting sufficient calcium intake should also consume less caffeine.
Although everyone has a different caffeine tolerance (based on sex, age, weight, etc), generally speaking, around 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine is safe for most adults per day . This is approximately the amount of caffeine in four brewed cups of coffee.
However, not everyone can tolerate this amount of caffeine.
People with very low caffeine tolerance can experience headaches, anxiety, and insomnia.
Some women find that they experience less breast pain when they don’t consume caffeine.
Caffeine also acts as a diuretic which means that you need to pee more, and it also can cause dehydration, so caffeinated drinks are not ideal if you’re thirsty.
Natural Energy Drinks free from caffeine
Some caffeine drinks claim to be a natural alternative to coffee or energy drinks but do they really work?
Here’s a rundown of the most popular caffeine-free energy drinks:
Coconut water is quite simply, the water from inside the coconut. It’s not to be confused with the thick coconut cream you might find in curries or piña colada, which is made from coconut water and coconut “meat”. Coconut water is the water from young green coconuts in its purest form. It became popular around the same time coconut oil was hyped up as the best thing ever.
Coconut water, unlike caffeinated drinks, is hydrating, which is a better choice if you’re thirsty or active. When compared to energy drinks, not only does it have no caffeine, but also no sugar, less sodium, and more potassium than energy drinks. It has easily-digested carbohydrates that present themselves as sugar and electrolytes.
It’s a great source of energy, as it contains more potassium than bananas. Potassium is a mineral that it’s common to be somewhat deficient in, and too little of it in your diet can cause fatigue and weakness as it helps regular muscle contractions. Unlike caffeine which is a band aid solution to fatigue, coconut water’s potassium contents can help improve energy levels in the long run.
Electrolytes form ions that are electrically charged particulars in our body’s fluids. They carry the energy that we need to function such as nerve impulses, and muscle movement, as many body functions rely on them for optimal performance.
Pure natural coconut water doesn’t cause the “come down” caffeine provides; as it’s low in sugar, it has a minimal effect on blood sugar, so it won’t cause a sugar rush either. However, there are many brands that add sugar and flavoring, so make sure to read the ingredients.
Kvass is a fermented drink made from fermented rye bread. It originates from Slavic and Baltic countries. It may also remind you of kombucha; however kombucha contains caffeine due to being made from black and sometimes green tea.
Although it sounds like beer, Kvass has little to no alcohol content, usually staying well below 1%. It often contains barley, and wheat too. Beet kvass is a common variation of the drink, but it can also be infused with mint and fruit.
The fiber and carbohydrate content of the bread means that there is a slow stable release of energy, but it’s still nothing compared to drinking a caffeinated drink.
Kvass is better to be seen as a caffeine-free alternative to kombucha, but if you’re looking for a natural energy drink, it’s not the one for you.
Barley and Chicory Coffee
Barley coffee is a bit of a misleading name, as it doesn’t actually contain any coffee. Barley coffee is often branded as a natural alternative to coffee, as it doesn’t contain caffeine. The carbohydrates in barley are slowly broken down so release a gradual level of energy. In fact, the branding for barley coffee is mostly for people who just like to drink coffee but don’t care for the energy boost from caffeine.
Chicory coffee is the same, except it’s made from chicory roots instead.
They both supposedly taste like coffee without the bitterness and caffeine. Some drink alone or make a mix of half coffee, half chicory or barley coffee for less caffeine. Both of these coffee alternatives bring a minimal boost of energy.
The Bottom Line
None of these will give you the boost that comes with drinking caffeine. In fact, it’s difficult to find any natural energy drinks that are completely free from caffeine. However, there isn’t a crash after drinking these as you might experience with caffeine. This is because these natural caffeine-free energy drinks are all Low GI, which means they slowly but steadily release energy over a longer period of time. They’re all relatively low in sugar, so you won’t experience a sugar crash afterwards, which might happen if you just replace caffeinated drinks with sugary drinks.
Although caffeine can stay in our systems for up to 6 hours, it peaks within the first hour of consumption. For energy to last the whole day, you might find the likes of barley coffee your new favorite natural caffeine-free energy drink. it is however not like drinking an espresso shot first thing in the morning.
I personally have no caffeine tolerance. With even one cup of coffee a day, I experience irregular heartbeats, headaches, anxiety, breast pain, and even dental pain. I stick to decaf and herbal teas, many of which are caffeine-free, like peppermint. I would crown coconut water as nature’s energy drink, as I find when I take it to the gym instead of regular water, I get a much better workout.
That said, so far, it looks like nothing can compete with caffeine.