best alternatives to coffee

“I can give up anything, but don’t ask me to give up coffee.”

The quote above is one I have heard hundreds of times. Very few things will incite such a passionate objection as to the fact that coffee may be masking causes of current health complaints. The problem is that coffee has some amazing benefits, but it can be abused. There are also people who find it either too stimulating or too much of a crutch and end up looking for the best alternatives to coffee. How do you know if coffee is being beneficial or detrimental?

  • Do you find you can’t wake up without it?
  • Can’t make it through the afternoon without that second cup?
  • Does coffee make you jittery or give you anxiety?
  • Do you get a headache if you don’t have it?
  • Trouble sleeping at night?

If these are true, you may want to find the best alternatives to coffee.

During my time in clinical practice, I was shocked at how many people felt like they can’t get through the day without coffee. Coffee has numerous health benefits in published research, including improved cognitive health, reduced risk of certain diseases, and increased telomere length  (isolated caffeine did the opposite). However, the reliance on caffeine as an energy source may be an early sign of poor mitochondrial health that can lead to other health disorders later.

The Duality of Coffee Research

The research on coffee can appear overwhelmingly positive in news reports. But when you look at the literature, you will see a duality in its health role. On one hand, you will see an increased risk of elevated homocysteine – a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders – but also find a decreased risk of Parkinson’s, diabetes and liver disease. You’ll see an increase in the inflammatory markers IL-6 (50% higher, C-Reactive Protein (30%) and TNF-alpha (28%) from over one cup of coffee in healthy individuals, but an increase in telomere length.

Caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid in coffee inhibit the enzyme COMT, which is the dopamine, adrenaline, and estrogen metabolism pathway. COMT requires magnesium, and if you have certain variants in COMT that already slow it down, coffee will slow it down further. The diuretic action and inhibition leads to low magnesium and can ramp up dopamine, adrenaline and estrogen levels. Enter anxiety for some people.

For certain people who metabolize caffeine well, eat a b-vitamin and an electrolyte-rich diet, your COMT enzyme is functioning at a higher rate, exercise and sleep deeply, the pros and cons of coffee even out. For many clients at Swanson Health Center, it was extremely common for coffee to be problematic due to its use to mask symptoms, exacerbate stress, anxiety, poor digestion, poor bone health, poor sleep and dependence for energy.

The Duality of Alcohol Research

We have also been told 1-2 glasses of wine each night is good for your heart. Yet, for many people, the wine makes them congested, increases homocysteine, induces drowsiness but causes shallow and disrupted sleep, earlier wake times, and therefore causes fatigue the next day. If it affects your sleep, your risk for cardiovascular disease increases. Like coffee, wine also contains caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid and depletes magnesium, making the COMT enzyme also relevant.

I also think much of the wine in the United States being made now is not what our ancestors or Europeans enjoy. Between fungicides, phthalates, mycotoxins, added sulfites and the numerous FDA-approved chemicals and additives in wine, it is no wonder people get headaches and can’t sleep, even with small amounts.

Seek out organic dry-farmed wines that use wild yeast without all toxins and additives, or unfiltered organic beer (the yeast left in is a source of b-vitamins) and see if you are able to maintain moderate intake with deep sleep and energy.

What seems clear to me is that your b-vitamin and electrolyte intake, medications and genetic biochemistry determine whether the pros outweigh the cons. In either case, you have to see if the dependency on stimulants (caffeine) and depressants (alcohol) masks the reason why the body isn’t running well on its own to move and rest.

The 7 Dietary and Lifestyle Energy Robbers

Below you can see how your body can get into a depleted state, robbing all of the nutrients needed for the energy cycle.
best alternatives to coffee

The Kreb’s Cycle or Energy Cycle Biochemistry

Now that you see the vitamins and minerals that are depleted, you can see how this zaps your body of energy by looking at the Kreb’s Cycle. The Kreb’s Cycle is the process of converting food into energy and takes place in the mitochondria (powerhouse) of your cells. Fat and protein are the preferred energy sources, with B-vitamins, magnesium, choline, and manganese as crucial nutrient factors to the energy cycle working properly.

If you consume sugar, refined flour based carbs, excess coffee, excess alcohol, and use antacids, antibiotics or birth control, you are going to deplete the nutrients needed to run the energy cycle. ATP (energy) especially relies on magnesium, which is low in our diet and depleted by many factors. Coffee and alcohol deplete b-vitamins and magnesium, creating sluggish natural energy by tapping the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline for energy. This creates a coffee/dependence cycle.

Can you enjoy a beer or glass of wine at night without struggling to sleep or get out of bed in the morning? Can you have a cup of coffee in the morning without feeling jittery, anxious or crashing mid-afternoon? Yes, some people are not affected and this may be an indicator of good health. But for others, it depends on how many categories of depletions you have from the chart above, your current state of health, and your individual genetic biochemistry for stimulants and depressants. You can actually see how your body handles coffee and alcohol genetically through Nutrition Genome.

Citric Acid Cycle Legend

best alternatives to coffee

Understanding Mitochondria is the Key to Energy and Health

The mitochondria is the powerhouse of your cell. They are responsible for energy through CoQ10 and ATP production from the Kreb’s Cycle and consume up to 90% of the oxygen in your body. What happens when you get out of breath? You have to stop moving. Now, what happens when your mitochondria are struggling for oxygen? Your whole body is tired all the time. We are even finding low oxygen or “hypoxia” associated with type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiac ischemia/reperfusion injury, tissue inflammation and cancer.

As we age, we have to pay even more attention to increasing the number of mitochondria through exercise and protecting their health with diet to remain biologically younger than our physical age. In fact, more and more evidence is pointing towards protecting the mitochondria for slowing the aging process. You can tell the state of your health simply by your energy during the day and sleep during the night. Is it a struggle to get through the day without caffeine? Are you “tired and wired” at night? If so, it is time to implement a new protocol.

By protecting your mitochondria, you are increasing energy naturally, promoting deep restorative sleep, preventing disease and increasing longevity. For a more detailed article on mitochondria, read this one.

The Energy Stack Protocol

There is a major difference between going a million miles a minute and crashing, and keeping a moderate pace throughout the day without fatigue. For the same reason you wouldn’t start sprinting in the beginning of a marathon, you don’t want to jolt your body with stimulants all day long. You will continually crash. This is the shift people need to make when they are used to a stimulant and instead experience steady energy without a crash or fatigue.

  • Focus on my list of protein, fat and carbohydrates
  • Choose an electrolyte drink
  • Choose a grass-fed whey protein powder for the morning or post-workout/intense mental work
  • Exercise: Sitting is now the new smoking. Choose your favorite activities and do them often. If you have a desk job, keep on the move, opt for a standing desk, bike to work if possible, and do pushups/squats throughout the day.
  • Sleep: Going to sleep before 10:30 can do wonders for energy the next day, and magnesium supplementation at night can help promote deep restorative sleep.

What about Coffee Alternatives like Yerba Mate?

Many people have had success switching from coffee to Yerba Mate. While it still contains caffeine, the feedback I have received is that they do not experience the crash associated with coffee. Yerba mate is a South American herb that is rich in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and antioxidants.

It appears to be unclear as to why the caffeine is energizing without the crash or excessive jitters. It is a lower dose (30mg vs 100mg in coffee) and has been purported to be another variant of the caffeine molecule. It also does not increase stomach acid like coffee, making it easier on the stomach.

Concerns came out a few years ago about Yerba Mate regarding the cancer risk. The majority of these studies included populations in South America that also smoked, drank alcohol, and neglected to include other factors including nutrition, environmental pollutants, pesticides and contamination during processing.

For the studies pointing towards an increased cancer risk, the researchers postulated a synergistic effect between tobacco use and drinking hot infusions of smoked Yerba mate leaves that would have increased the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons consumption (these are all highest in vegetable oils and grains). A review of the studies can be found here and states, “there is no sound population-based case-control study on mate consumption as a risk factor for cancer.”

I recommend using the Organic Unsmoked Yerba Mate.

Coffee Alternatives that Taste Like Coffee?

The best one is called Dandy Blend, and contains dandelion root, chicory root, beetroot, roasted rye and barley extract (no gluten). Add half and half with a little coconut palm sugar for the full experience. This combination is a wealth of vitamins and minerals, and incredibly cleansing for the liver.

Energizing Supplementation

1. B-Complex Plus

B1, B2, B3, B5 are all required for the Kreb’s Cycle to produce NADH and CoQ10. Folate and B12 are needed for the methylation cycle. I think you can hit these targets with food if you don’t have numerous depletions and genetic polymorphisms occurring. Otherwise supplementation with the right forms of b-vitamins can give a major boost.

2. Magnesium Citramate

Magnesium is needed by ATP for energy, while citrate and malate are intermediaries in the Kreb’s Cycle. The perfect combination for energy during the day and relaxation at night. Magnesium is a mineral that I believe everyone should be taking.

3. Cordyceps

Cordyceps have been discussed many times in my articles. For more information, I recommend reading this article. One of the key benefits is preventing hypoxia (low oxygen), increasing stamina, lowering stress and protecting the mitochondria from superoxide.

4. Lion’s Mane

Lion’s Mane is known for increasing memory and concentration. Mental fatigue can drag the whole body down, and it is why we have so many people taking Adderall simply to focus. Compounds in Lion’s Mane are able to stimulate the production of nerve growth factor (NGF), which promotes the repair and regeneration of neurons. The fatty acids in Lion’s Mane are believed to be responsible for enhancing cognitive function.

The combination of Cordyceps and Lion’s Mane provides a very impressive profile for energizing the body and mind, and I owe a major part of my mental and physical endurance to both.

5. NADH and CoQ10

Are the previous recommendations still not providing enough energy? If you have digestive and mitochondrial issues, you may need to bypass the energy cycle and provide the final product of NADH and CoQ10. Or, this may be what is needed for those who have higher demands. I found out about this one at a conference from a practitioner, whose son was using it for track. The practitioner joked that he felt like he was doping his son because the results were so dramatic.

Other Sources

1. Alcohol and CoQ10:
2. Alcohol and B12 in post-menopausal women:
3. Alcohol and B12/folate in men:
4. Alcohol and magnesium:
5. Citric Acid Cycle:
6. A. L. Peace-Brewer, PhD, Genova Diagnostics

Due to the current workload at Nutrition Genome, Alex is not able to answer questions at this time. Please check back soon!