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9 Caffeine Alternatives – Beyond the Bean

9 Caffeine Alternatives – Beyond the Bean

Around 1 billion people worldwide drink coffee and adore the dark brew as their everyday pick-me-up. Drinking coffee for its stimulating caffeine as part of our morning ritual or even throughout the rest of the day is a non-negotiable habit for most of us until our energized friend turns on us. Jitteriness, a sensitive stomach, and feeling out of sorts are side effects of caffeine and a reason why many people wish to turn away from caffeine to look for alternatives. In this article, CARE explains the science behind the side effects of caffeine and showcases effective and tasty alternatives to dancing the jitterbug.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in General Health
12 min read · Feb 16, 2024

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Table of content

How Does Caffeine Work?

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For the majority of us, the regular caffeine intake comes predominantly from our daily cup of Joe. Therefore, many people searching for caffeine alternatives, in reality, want to quit drinking coffee.

Before we break down the best caffeine alternatives for energy, let's quickly understand what happens in your body when you sip that aromatic morning cup and why you and many other people are looking for alternatives to this ubiquitous stimulant.

Caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant found in coffee, other beverages, plants, and even chocolate, exerts its effects by intricately interacting with various biological pathways. After ingestion, caffeine is quickly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into our circulatory system. [1]

The perk of drinking coffee is that it gives us quick energy, relieves us from tiredness, and often helps us to start the day or get through it.

But how does this work?

1. Adenosine Receptor Blockade

Central to caffeine's action is its ability to block adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that builds up in your brain during the day (your wakefulness). Adenosine promotes feelings of drowsiness and relaxation, naturally increasing until the evening to make you tired and prepare your body and brain for sleep. Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors and prevents the adenosine from making you drowsy. Instead, more adenosine accumulates in your brain. During your sleep, your brain breaks down the adenosine again. [1]

2. Stimulation of the Central Nervous System

As already mentioned, when caffeine docks onto adenosine receptors in the body, it blocks the action of adenosine, the neurotransmitter that normally promotes relaxation and sleepiness.

This interference leads to increased neuronal activity and the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine instead of the calming effect of adenosine, which causes heightened alertness and increased heart rate and blood pressure. All these biological processes effectively make us feel more awake when we consume caffeine. [1]

3. Impact on Hormones

Caffeine also influences the release of certain hormones. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to increase the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that plays a key role in your body's 'fight or flight' response.

This stimulation is primarily due to caffeine's ability to increase neuronal activity and mimic stress conditions in the body, leading to a rise in cortisol levels. [1]

Additionally, it affects dopamine levels, the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter, contributing to the mood-enhancing effects of caffeine. Caffeine enhances dopamine signaling in the brain by inhibiting the action of adenosine, which normally suppresses dopamine production. This inhibition allows dopamine to be more active, leading to the mood-boosting and reinforcing effects often experienced when drinking coffee. [1]

Overall, this sounds great and effective, right? Why should someone look for caffeine alternatives, then?

Why Caffeine Alternatives? — Side Effects of Coffee & Co.

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Despite some of its benefits, caffeine's interaction with your body and biological pathways has a flip side. It can lead to several undesirable effects as well, prompting many to seek caffeine alternatives.

Let us look at what those side effects are and how they are caused by caffeine.

1. Development of Tolerance and Withdrawal Symptoms

Some of us have tried to quit drinking coffee at some point and got hit with massive headaches or mood swings the first few days.

Reducing or stopping caffeine abruptly can indeed lead to withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue, and irritability. Furthermore, your body can develop a tolerance for caffeine, meaning you need increasingly larger amounts to feel the same energizing effects. [1]

2. Disruption of Sleep Patterns

Caffeine can also significantly mess with your circadian rhythm (sleep-wake-cycle), mainly if consumed in the afternoon or evening. It can disrupt the timing of your body’s internal clock, reduce your total sleep time, and decrease sleep quality. [2]

As you now know, caffeine competes with adenosine for the same receptors, and it effectively neutralizes adenosine’s sleepy effect, which leads to a higher accumulation of adenosine in your brain. While you feel more alert and awake in the short term after drinking coffee, the excessive amount of adenosine in your brain, due to caffeine blocking it from latching onto the adenosine receptors, the adenosine can’t be cleared during your sleep. Therefore, you wake up feeling groggy and still tired from the remaining adenosine in your brain the next morning.

3. Anxiety and Jitters

While caffeine can boost energy and wakefulness through its interaction with our nervous system, it can also lead to anxiety, a racing heart, and jitters. [1]

Caffeine's stimulation of the central nervous system can lead to an overactivation of the "fight or flight" response, resulting in increased heart rate and release of adrenaline, manifesting as anxiety and jitters. [1]

Additionally, by blocking adenosine receptors that usually promote calmness, caffeine disrupts the natural balance of neurotransmitters, contributing to heightened nervousness and restlessness. [1]

4. Digestive Issues

While not spoken about in the open, coffee (and caffeine) are an accelerator for many people to use the restroom. Caffeine stimulates the gastrointestinal tract, making it easier for people to relieve themselves.

This stimulatory effect on the gastrointestinal system, which accelerates bowel movements, can lead to digestive issues like diarrhea or an upset stomach. Caffeine increases the production of stomach acid, leading to digestive discomfort, including acid reflux or heartburn, by irritating the lining of the stomach and esophagus. [1]

5. Energy Crash

While coffee and its caffeine can give us a short-term energy boost, many people experience a sudden energy crash and a drop in alertness after drinking coffee once the stimulating effects of caffeine wear off.

This crash happens when your body's heightened state of alertness, driven by increased adrenaline and cortisol levels due to caffeine, subsides, leading to a rebound increase in adenosine. This is a stark contrast, or crash, to the alertness you experienced right after drinking coffee. [1]

So, what are some alternatives to caffeine that either help us get off the addiction to caffeine or still allow for an energy boost without the adverse effects of the stimulant?

9 Popular Caffeine Alternatives

The good news for those seeking a revitalizing boost without the side effects of caffeine is that various effective alternatives are readily available. These caffeine alternatives, increasingly popular among health-conscious people, offer a range of benefits that can invigorate your body and mind more calmly and gently.

Below, CARE has curated a list of caffeine alternatives that either provide you with a similar taste to coffee and are caffeine-free or a milder yet similar energy boost without the unwelcome side effects of caffeine.

1. Chicory Root / Chicory Coffee – A Historical Caffeine Replacement

Chicory coffee, considered a New Orleans staple and crafted from the minced and roasted roots of the chicory plant indigenous to Eurasia, is favored as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee due to its comparable taste profile. Rumor has it that in the 1800s, during a coffee bean shortage in France, the chicory plant was already used as a caffeine substitute.

Alongside its health advantages, including promoting digestive wellness, chicory coffee has been found to support healthy bowel movements, aid in blood sugar regulation, and have anti-inflammatory properties. [3]

2. Green Tea – L-Theanine Balance

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Yes, green tea contains caffeine, but much less than coffee. The brew boasts about half the amount of caffeine compared to coffee, and it still offers a boost of energy without many common side effects, such as jitteriness, anxiety, and sleep disturbances linked to coffee. The milder caffeine level in green tea provides a smoother, more sustained energy release over 4–6 hours, avoiding the abrupt energy crash associated with coffee.

In addition to its lower caffeine content, Green tea contains L-theanine. This amino acid promotes relaxation without drowsiness, counterbalancing the stimulant effects of caffeine and leading to a more balanced state of alertness. This synergistic effect of L-theanine and caffeine in green tea results in a more moderated and gentle stimulation than coffee's more intense, sometimes harsh effects. [4]

Still, keep in mind that Green tea contains caffeine. Therefore, you should not consume it excessively to reduce your caffeine intake.

3. Chai Tea – Magical Sweetness from India

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Chai tea, originating from India, is a spiced tea made by brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic spices and herbs, traditionally including cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, and cloves. It is typically prepared by simmering the tea and spices with milk and sweeteners, creating a rich and flavorful drink.

While chai tea contains caffeine due to the presence of black tea, its caffeine content is considerably lower than coffee, making it a great alternative for those seeking a less intense stimulant and a more balanced, aromatic beverage experience. Chai tea is prepared with warm milk, which contains tryptophan, an amino acid that balances out the stimulating effects of caffeine. Black tea also contains L-theanine, though less than green tea, contributing to a calming effect on the nervous system, countering the jitteriness and anxiety associated with coffee, and promoting a more relaxed yet alert state. [5]

4. Ginseng – The Epitome of Adaptogens

Ginseng is the root of a herb and does not contain caffeine. It is treasured in traditional Chinese medicine and is considered an adaptogen. An adaptogen is a natural substance that helps the body resist stressors of all kinds. Celebrated for its ability to invigorate the mind, ginseng sharpens memory, brightens mood, and awakens concentration, all while gently reducing fatigue. [6]

Its centuries-old legacy as an energy tonic is complemented by its role in balancing blood sugar and bolstering immune health. Ginseng stands out as a stellar caffeine alternative, offering a holistic energy boost that unfolds steadily, free from caffeine-induced peaks and valleys. It's not just a pick-me-up; it's a harmonious supplement for your well-being, vitality and tranquility. [6]

5. Golden Milk – Turmeric for the Win

Golden milk, another cherished beverage from India's rich culinary heritage, is gaining popularity for its myriad health benefits, and it has become a celebrated alternative to coffee since it contains no caffeine.

At its heart lies turmeric, known for its potent antioxidant properties and brain health support. Turmeric is also what gives the milk its golden color. This vibrant spice is blended into warm milk, heated to your preference, and enhanced with a symphony of flavors, including ginger, cinnamon, and a pinch of black pepper. [7]

Often sweetened with honey or vanilla, this comforting concoction is now a trendy offering in coffee shops around the globe. With its inviting warmth and healthful embrace, a single taste of golden milk can redefine your beverage routine.

6. Kombucha – Energy Through a Healthy Gut

It was impossible to spend the last years without being offered all different kinds of kombucha. Some of our friends might even have attempted to brew their own batch at home.

Kombucha is a uniquely fermented beverage crafted from a blend of bacteria, yeast, either black or green tea, and a touch of sugar. It has stood out as a health-conscious alternative to regular coffee for years.

Its growing popularity stems from its rich probiotics, offering a spectrum of potential health benefits through lactic acid bacteria for the gastrointestinal tract. [8] Our gut health and a healthy microbiome is undeniably an essential aspect of both our physical and mental health. With its distinctive taste and wellness-focused profile, kombucha is an intriguing option for those looking to gain energy through a healthy gut instead of caffeine.

7. Matcha Tea – The Hulk of Beverages

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Matcha, a finely ground powder from green tea leaves, has roots in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and is celebrated for its extensive health advantages. If you want to eliminate your caffeine intake, matcha is not your beverage since it contains even more caffeine than coffee.

This vibrant green powder is a powerhouse of antioxidants, chlorophyll, and amino acids, including caffeine and L-theanine, a combination that is an effective cognitive enhancer. It boosts focus, awareness, and energy while diminishing stress and elevating mental stamina. The presence of L-theanine in Matcha uniquely influences the brain, enhancing alpha brain waves, which fosters a state of calm alertness and can even stimulate heightened creativity. This multifaceted impact makes Matcha a superior choice for those seeking more than just a caffeine fix, offering a holistic approach to mental and physical well-being. [9]

8. Maca – A Giant “Radish” from the Peruvian Andes

Maca is a cruciferous root vegetable related to broccoli, though it looks like a giant radish. It hails from the Peruvian Andes and is grown in over 4000 m in height.

The hearty cruciferous root vegetable has long been revered for its energy-boosting, stamina-enhancing, and endurance-building properties. Its rising popularity is attributed to its reported benefits in alleviating occasional stress, augmenting energy levels, enhancing athletic performance, and supporting sexual health. Maca does not contain caffeine but macamides and carbohydrates, which can support energy. Intriguingly, a study revealed that a daily intake of 2 grams of maca for 14 days notably improved physical activity and heightened sexual desire in male cyclists. Complementing this, another research piece highlighted maca's positive impact on mood and energy, stating that maca extract, compared to a placebo, significantly bettered various quality-of-life measures. [10] [11]

9. Carob Coffee – The Black Gold of Cyprus

Carob, a resilient tree native to Cyprus known for its drought and temperature tolerance, has been a cornerstone of the island's agricultural heritage for centuries. It was once revered as Cyprus's "Black Gold" due to its economic significance.

Recently, the spotlight has shifted to carob's health benefits and nutritional value, leading to a resurgence of carob-based food products in the market, especially “carob coffee.” Notably caffeine-free, carob is a healthful alternative to coffee and cocoa due to its similar taste to both beverages. It holds an edge over chocolate, boasting fewer calories and lacking both caffeine and theobromine, making it an appealing choice for those seeking a nutritious and energizing substitute for coffee. [12]

What to Keep in Mind When Quitting Caffeine

When your coffee or caffeine, in general, no longer brings you the same joy and energy it used to, and instead, you start to notice discomfort when drinking it, this might be a signal of a need for change.

Be aware that letting go of caffeine can lead to temporary but challenging withdrawal symptoms like headaches, mood swings, jitters, and unease. [1]

But do not worry; we are here to arm you with information and determination to master this transition.

  1. Go Slow

    In case you decide to cut back, do it slowly and mindfully.

  2. Drink Lots of Water

    Increasing water intake can also significantly ease the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, such as restlessness, irritability, and headaches.

  3. Be Persistent

    Approach this change with patience and perseverance, and explore all the delicious, feel-good alternatives with less caffeine or no caffeine for a smoother journey away from your cup of coffee.

If you wish to optimize your well-being and lifestyle quality, being a CARE member allows you to take charge of your health. With our regular health check-ups, blood analysis, and tailored health consultations, we enable you to get comprehensive insight into your health status and detect potential health gaps or changes early.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you wish to talk about quitting caffeine or taking your fitness and wellness to the next level. Your health is your greatest asset!

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!