Coffee. Red Bull. Monster. Pre-workout. More coffee. And more energy drinks.
Every single day we drink these to get our brain out of hibernation.We’re convinced that we need stimulants to function as a normal human. You might be familiar with this popular, yet appropriate slogan: “America runs on Dunkin.”
Consequently, we’ve become conditioned and addicted to caffeine – so much, that we’re practically walking down the streets with an IV of coffee in our veins where without it, we would shut down like Johnny 5 (you know that awesome robot from Short Circuit).
Caffeine in moderate amounts isn’t harmful. It’s fantastic for increasing your metabolism (AKA fat burning), accelerating signal transmission between neurons, and of course, cranking up your frontal cortex for increased focus, concentration and alertness.
So actually, no I’m not even insisting to put the down the coffee forever, but instead inspiring you to reconsider your “need” for it and reassess the amount you consume daily, because…it’s probably A LOT more than you want to be having.
Obviously there’s positive qualities associated with caffeine, but when it’s overdone as many of us are doing, those benefits wither away. Unfortunately, people are experiencing more adverse effects and less benefits because they can’t take the IV out.
So What Is Really Happening?
When you start pounding back caffeinated drinks, your sympathetic nervous system is awakened – much like when you’re in a stressful or scary situation. Neurotransmitters like acetylcholine, serotonin and dopamine are elevated because neurons are firing quicker, so you effectively experience the aforementioned neurological effects, but also obviously a faster heart rate, pupil and bronchi dilation, inhibition of digestion, bladder contraction, and secretion of adrenaline.
The more important problem is how chronic caffeine and stress impairs your body systemically. Much like when you’re under a lot of stress, caffeine induces cortisol release from the adrenal glands. It starts off as too much which can range from mild health issues to major ones, including, but not limited to a depressed immune system and increased intestinal permeability – both of which are nothing you want to mess with.
What I’m proposing is a brief respite from caffeine use and looking towards some of these herbs and nutrients that I have personally used myself. So kick the caffeine to the curb.
Here’s five evidence-based (and better) alternatives to caffeine that you can use right now...
1. Huperzine A
From the plant Huperzia serrata, huperzine has traditionally been used in cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s patients and for those with deficits in memory. It’s mode of action is sustaining levels of the incredibly important neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is a neuromodulator that serves dual purposes – increasing attention and activating muscle contractions. While the evidence on examining this herb on healthy individuals is scarce, there’s some evidence that shows huperzine improves memory and learning performance in students.
Through its known mechanisms of action, it seems logical to use it for increasing performance in mentally challenging tasks and in the gym. While the studies aren’t sufficient to support its use in healthy individuals, huperzine is a herb I have faith in and would recommend trying if you want to one-up your mental game. I personally use it as a pre-workout and I'm totally in the zone. Big time. The safety around it is very good too at doses up to 400 mcg daily with minimal side effects, if any.
As you can probably tell, choline – an essential nutrient – is a prerequisite for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and also has many roles such as increasing adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin levels in the cerebral cortex of the brain including decreasing susceptibility to memory impairments and dementia. Many people don’t reach the recommended dietary allowance for choline despite sources of it being found in cruciferous vegetables like kale and swiss chard, meat, eggs and, fish.
Unless you plan on eating a shit load of beef liver, it becomes very challenging to reach the RDA of 550 mg and 425 mg for men and women, respectively. Food sources are hardly enough anyway to reach high enough concentrations to exert a discernable cognitive effect, unlike citicoline – this is due to its 97% absorption rate through the blood brain barrier.
While supplementation has been mostly used and researched for brain injury, neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases, it still holds value in the context of healthy individuals who need a boost in their attention and focus beyond what food can provide. A study evaluated healthy women taking dosages of 250 and 500 mg of citicoline and found that their attention and performance on an examination was increased. When coupled with caffeine, it’s also been demonstrated to considerably enhance concentration, memory and reaction time in healthy people at dosages of 250 mg.
So, reaching adequate choline levels is a good enough reason to care about the nutrient, but when it’s in a super absorbable form like citicoline, the benefits are tremendous. My recommendation would be to use it independently for a couple of weeks before reintroducing and pairing with caffeine. The upper limit is 3,500 mg/day and side effects are nearly non-existent, but I would still say closer to what’s shown in the evidence. Nevertheless, the research on it in healthy individuals who are looking for cognitive enhancement is still lacking.
(Citicoline splits into uridine and choline upon ingestion and diverts into multiple pathways serving as the building block substrate for various end products.)
3. Panax Ginseng
This herb has numerous uses, but the monograph set forth by the Commission E – the advisory board for botanical medicine – has claimed ginseng as a tonic for rejuvenation in people with poor concentration, debility and fatigue. Ginseng has been traditionally used for concentration, immunity and memory enhancement, reducing muscle damage, and as an adaptogen in combatting stress. As an adaptogen alone, this is valuable herb if your life is inundated with stressors, including caffeine.
In healthy individuals, evidence has repeatedly shown amelioration in mental fatigue and performance during challenging cognitive tasks, and improvements in mood and social functioning at dosages of 200 mg and 400 mg.200 mg of ginseng has also been verified for improving the memory of healthy middle aged adults, three hours post ingestion.In chronic fatigue syndrome states, ginseng has proven to be effective in reducing mental fatigue by 50% compared to a placebo, which has a powerful benefit considering the prevalence of this condition.
While there isn’t any strong evidence for its use in athletic performance, when strictly speaking about fatigue reduction and increases in concentration capacity, it has some solid support that’s worthy of consideration.
Rhodiola is a traditional medicinal herb that’s been used for hundreds of years in medicine because it carries multiple properties such as being cardio and neuroprotective, serving as an antioxidant, enhancing cognitive performance, and decreasing stress and fatigue. Along with panax ginseng, it’s a remarkable adaptogen for the highly stressed person. Standardized rhodiola extracts contain 3% rosavin and 1% salidroside – this is what’s used in most clinical research.
In regard to athletic performance, rhodiola has very limited, yet positive evidence. Specific extracts of 200 mg that are standardized to 3% rosavin and 1% salidroside show increases in VO2 max and endurance, but not strength in untrained invividuals. Time to exhaustion was also measured in another study on athletes taking 500 mg of rhodiola three times daily and showed no benefit. However, one study had implications for curtailing muscle damage, despite no performance enhancement benefits.
Lastly, 3mg of standardized rhodiola caused a noticeable decrement in heart rate, and increase in time to exhaustion in high-intensity endurance exercise (6 minute mile). However, the data suggests that its ergogenic benefits are only seen in acute bouts of activity with short-term dosing. So basically, it may be valuable for short intense exercise, but the evidence for chronic dosing and long-term endurance is unsubstantiated.
While rhodiola doesn’t seem to confer much cognitive or performance benefit to the experienced or endurance athlete, its ability to reduce fatigue in those who are consistently exhausted or stressed is evident, which alone can improve your performance in the gym.
One study examined 20 stressed students taking 100mg of rhodiola divided twice daily or a placebo during a three week exam period and found that the primary outcome measures of psychomotor function, mental work capacity and well-being all increased at a statistically significant level.Another study evaluating students also showed a positive benefit of a statistically significant decrease in fatigue.576mg of rhodiola extract was also proven to heighten attention and concentration, and reduce fatigue and cortisol responses in subjects with chronic fatigue.
Based on the data available, the strongest evidence for rhodiola indicates effectiveness for reducing stress and exhaustion, and improving cognitive performance in already fatigued individuals, while there’s limited evidence for physical performance or cognitive enhancement in athletes.
According to toxicity studies, rhodiola has a safe track record where doses up to 600mg are deemed effective in clinical studies. However, a two week respite is advisable after consistent use.
Now it’s time to reveal the supplement you’ve been missing out on for immediate energy and getting to the root cause of your fatigue.
NT Factor is a patented lipid formula that comes in a waffer and contains glycophospholipids – they constitute your cell membrane membranes, which is crucial for restoring and maintaining the health of every cell in the body. It has been studied for over 20 years with 11 clinical trials published in the scientific literature.
NT Factor is highly bioavailable – meaning they are protected and delivered to peripheral tissue without degradation from enzymes and bile salts. Once ingested and absorbed by the gut, they're transported by lipoproteins to cells to replace the damaged phospholipids.
Beyond the fact that fortifying your cell membranes is a key to longevity and cancer prevention, this protective effect allows your mitochondria – the energy producing organelles in the cell – to well, and make the energy you need. The truth is, everyone experiences the daily cell onslaught from dietary choices, lifestyle habits, and environmental exposure toxins, so it’s an unassailable fact that protecting your membranes is paramount for optimal health.
If the mitochondria’s membranes are damaged enough, fatigue becomes a major symptom. This is substantiated in people who suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. People who suffer from this – and potentially you as well – are plagued with incessant fatigue, but also show evidence of oxidative damage to DNA, mitochondrial function impairment, oxidized methemoglobin – a biomarker for oxidative stress – and an elevation in antioxidant enzymes.
One study assessing fatigue showed a 33% reduction in people with severe fatigue after eight weeks of NT Factor supplementation, and in another study examining subjects with moderate fatigue, a 35% decrease was seen in fatigue symptoms. Restoration of cell membrane integrity was also noted. Improvements in clarity, concentration and stamina have also been reported when used in a superb multivitamin formula called ProVites.
The health preventative reasons alone are warranted enough to use NT Factor, but it’s when paired with some of the aforementioned interventions, you can expect a noticeable AND immediate increase in energy. I can attest to this as I have personally stacked NT Factor, rhodiola rosea and huperzine. When I took it as a pre-workout, I noticed increased endurance and energy, sustained focus and decreased mental fog – which if you’re like me and aren’t a stranger to overexertion in the gym, the enhanced mental clarity is a huge bonus.
Don’t succumb to the caffeine IV every day of your life – you should know by now that it’s not doing you any good. Take a break from it and employ some of these exceptional botanicals and supplements to enliven your mood, boost your energy, squash fatigue for good, and ultimately perform better weight crushing workouts.
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Is Coffee Making You Fat? - Caffeine & Your Body with MuscleGenes!
NASM CPT, Master's in Human Nutrition Precision Nutrition Sports & Exercise Nutritionist
Justin Janoska is a professional fitness coach and a clinical nutritionist who specializes in helping people with challenging diseases. He runs an online coaching platform where he helps people like you reach build muscle or lose weight.