Depending on who you ask, coffee is either great or terrible for you. It’s been linked to certain health benefits—like a lower chance of developing Type 2 Diabetes or Parkinson’s disease—and contains minerals like magnesium and chromium, both of which help regulate blood sugar levels. It’s also high in antioxidants.
But coffee, of course, contains caffeine. Caffeine consumption is so normalized that it’s easy to forget it’s a psychoactive drug, meaning it changes how our brain functions and affects our perception, mood and state of being. A central nervous system stimulant, caffeine triggers the release of adrenaline, the body’s fight or flight hormone, which in turn increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow.
Caffeine also increases our dopamine levels. A neurotransmitter—a chemical that transfers nerve impulses from one nerve fiber to another—dopamine controls the reward and pleasure centers in the brain, regulates movement and emotional responses, and controls where we focus our attention. In really simple terms, increased levels of dopamine makes us feel temporarily great; less dopamine, not so much.
Because it activates adrenaline and cortisol—the hormone that manages our stress levels—caffeine can be hard on our adrenals, the glands that secrete them. Unstable and spiked rates of both hormones cause blood-sugar fluctuations and create a generally volatile habitat for healing and restoration. If you suffer from inflammation, adrenal fatigue, or mood swings, eliminating or cutting back on caffeine may help alleviate those symptoms.
Still need a lift? There are other options.
A traditional Taoist herb prescribed in Chinese Medicine practices, rhodiola increases energy, has been shown to improve focus and actually lowers cortisol levels.
A Peruvian root rich in protein and Vitamin B12, maca can increase stamina, improve sexual function, and provide an overall boost. It’s also a source of several B vitamins, as well as Vitamins C and E, along with calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and amino acids.
If you’ve ever had coffee in New Orleans, it may have been blended with chicory, the roasted root of a flowering plant. Chicory came into widespread use during a major coffee shortage in France; locals mixed the root with the coffee they did have to stretch their supplies farther. On its own, or blended with dandelion root (here’s a recipe for Dandelion and Chicory Chai), it serves as a convincing stand-in.
Caffeine Free Chai
A few weeks ago we posted a recipe for a traditional chai masala. Make it with a caffeine-free tea like rooibos or tulsi for a little lift without all the hormonal havoc.
Below are two recipes using rhodiola and maca from The Chalkboard, one of our favorite resources for inventive recipes and wellness tips:
As herbs like maca increase in popularity, be sure you’re buying from a distributer you trust. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, a company whose ethos and products we love is Sun Potion.
Photos: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images from the Huffpost; Caffeine compound illustration by Daniel Seex