According to Mark Hyman M.D., one of the world’s foremost natural health experts and author of “The Blood Sugar Solution,” caffeine in coffee increases your stress hormones — the catecholamines produced by the adrenal glands. These get released into the bloodstream whenever you’re physically or emotionally stressed, so adding to them can only exaggerate their bad effects.
Benefits, But Downsides Too
Caffeine has undoubted benefits — it wakes you up and stimulates the mind. But its effects wear off quickly, prompting you to have another cup of coffee, and another. Pretty soon you become dependent on it, with the result that your body becomes less sensitive to insulin, a complex hormone produced during the stress response caused by caffeine.
Increased insulin makes it difficult for the cells in your body to adjust the blood sugar level. In turn, the higher blood sugar level increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by clogging up the arteries.
Dr. Hyman has explored the impact of coffee on our physical and mental processes, and he points out that caffeine represents only one or two percent of the average bean. Other compounds, including the chlorogenic acids, caffeol, polyphenols, phytoestrogens and diterpenes have an effect on our health and metabolism. They are currently a focus of scrutiny in labs worldwide.
Already, scientists have discovered that diterpenes are linked to higher levels of LDL and VLDL (low, and very low density lipoprotein), the transporters of fat and cholesterol in the blood. Before you think that’s good, diterpenes also increase the triglycerides themselves: the fats that are being moved around (usually towards the hips!)
To make matters worse, coffee addiction leads to accompanying “fringe addictions,” such as enjoying the milky, creamy, sugary stuff that comes with each big bowl of cappucino or café latte. An entire culture has grown up around coffee addition — more harmless (and certainly more stylish) than the one surrounding addiction to hard drugs, but not entirely benign.
Perhaps most significant is the discovery of higher levels of 5-HIA in the urine of habitual coffee drinkers. 5-HIA is one of the components of serotonin, the vital neurotransmitter which we need to maintain a positive mood and to get a good night’s sleep. Coffee has a tendency to disrupt sleep and cause anxiety. As Dr. Hyman says: “We all know someone who tends to be tired, wired and over-caffeinated!”
What Are the Alternatives?
There are many alternatives to coffee, some of which have highly similar effects in making you more alert, increasing your focus on the task in hand, and keeping you awake until you finish.
In fact, you can get all these benefits without the “disbenefits” of coffee and its cocktail of chemical ingredients. You can find them in various types of tea, such as Green Tea, Matcha and Licorice Tea; in Yerbe Mate — a herbal drink that increases metabolism — and in certain supplements which you can take in tablet, capsule or powdered form.
There’s green tea and there’s matcha. They both come from the Camellia sinensis plant, the genetic building blocks of which have recently been decoded by a research team in China.
Professor Lizhi Gao of the Kunming Institute of Botany, who led the team, admitted: “The tea tree genome, was tough.” This was because its DNA is four times the size of the coffee plant genome, with no less than three billion DNA base pairs.
But is it also four times better? Green tea is just one of six main types of tea derived from Camellia sinensis, the others being yellow, oolong, black, white and post-fermented tea.
Unlike oolong and black tea (normally enjoyed in the west), green tea is not dried and oxidised, its leaves being soaked in an alcohol solution during processing. As a result, it is richer in antioxidants than regular tea, with properties that are widely claimed to assist weight loss, reduce cholesterol, and combat cardiovascular disease.
Stronger and (many believe) better is matcha tea, grown on bushes which have been covered to hide them from direct sunlight for 20–30 days before harvest. Keeping them shaded increases their chlorophyll content, turning them to a darker shade of green and raising their amino acid level.
At the processing stage, stems and veins are removed from the leaves and then stone-ground to produce a fine green powder. This is matcha. It contains caffeine — but not as much as coffee — together with an amino acid called L-Theanine which is known to induce a relaxed state of well-being and alertness. In other words, it’s like coffee without the jitters!
The flavour of green tea and matcha may not be to everyone’s liking, but remember: those scientists who’ve unravelled the DNA of the tea plant now have complete information about the chemicals which cause it. Changes in the flavour of green tea and matcha can be expected in the near future.
Like green tea, guarana contains caffeine, but it also has other chemicals that are similar to caffeine, such as theophylline and theobromine.
Named after the Guarani tribe in the Amazon basin, who made it by grinding the seeds of a tree, guarana has the effect of reducing mental fatigue, acting as a stimulant, enhancing athletic performance — and, it has to be said: increasing sexual desire. Clearly, the Guarani indians were not solely concerned with improving their ability to concentrate on hunting and gathering.
Given the high caffeine content of guarana (by weight it has double the caffeine content of coffee), it’s best not to take it in addition to green tea or matcha.
Many people prefer yerba mate (prounouned “mah-tay”) to coffee on account of its generous levels of amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Like coffee, it wakes you up, but does so without causing the anxiety that results from restricted blood flow.
You can combine it with other compounds, including tea, to change the flavour and make it even more potent. It looks good when served in a traditional calabash gourd with bombilla (but that’s not really necessary!)
If you really feel like a change from coffee, you can also try some of the many other teas which are readily available today:
* Licorice Tea, an adrenal tonic that increases energy but is caffeine free.
* Siberian Ginseng Tea, which helps your concentration and postpones fatigue.
* Reishi Mushroom Tea, made by boiling 1/3 ounce of chopped reishi mushrooms in 3 cups of water, then simmering for 30 minutes.
* Schizandra Tea, brewed from bright red schizandra berries.
* Rooibos Tea, low in tannins, caffeine-free but containing antioxidants such as nothofagin and aspalathin.
Nothing At All
The tough option is to give up taking any form of stimulant and rely on simple techniques to get you through the day. Here are just a few:
1. Increase your exposure to sunlight.
Go outside, enjoy the sun. It’s much brighter than your computer screen and even a few minutes will increase your alertness.
2. Listen — really listen — to some lively music.
Stop listening to background music. Turn up the volume and immerse yourself in the sound. Big orchestral pieces work well.
3. Move around.
Take a break for some brief exercises: walking, running, doing press-ups, or just having a stretch beside your desk.
4. Observe what’s around you.
When doing mental work it’s so easy to become divorced from reality. Remember the mantra “Here and now” which occurs in Aldous Huxley’s novel “Island,” — the utopian sequel to the dystopian “Brave New World.”
5. Take a cold water splash.
Not full-body immersion! Just a splash of water on the face will suffice.
Finally, you can try this one, recommended by the late Colin Wilson, author of “The Outsider” and an expert on positive psychology and human consciousness.
6. Concentrate your eyes on the tip of a pencil.
Hold a pencil in front of you, concentrate all your attention on the tip, then relax, defocus, and allow yourself to experience the surrounding world. Repeat the process a few times.
You can take green tea, matcha, Yerba Mate and L-Theanine in supplement form, as tablets, powders or capsules. In fact, taking caffeine as a supplement can be better for you than drinking coffee, as you don’t get the disbenefits of coffee’s other compounds. Caffeine stacked with L-Theanine in a vegetarian capsule is a tried and tested combination.
Whatever you take, whether it’s coffee, green tea, matcha, or supplements, bear in mind that concentration is a state of mind. It happens when the task you’re doing holds your interest and stops your mind from wandering elsewhere. When you enjoy what you’re doing, concentration is so much easier.