Natural energy drinks like tea, coffee, and yerba mate have a history of safely boosting focus and productivity, and offer other mental health benefits too.
Billions of dollars are spent every year on beverages that claim to increase physical energy and boost mental performance.
Collectively known as energy drinks, these drinks are popular among those looking to feel more energetic, alert, focused, creative, and productive.
But these artificial energy drinks have some huge downsides that can leave you feeling worse.
Fortunately, you don’t have to resort to something in a can or bottle that says “energy drink” on the label to get the benefits you’re looking for.
People have been drinking natural beverages for energy and mental clarity for thousands of years.
What’s Wrong With Artificial Energy Drinks
There are hundreds of brands of energy drinks on the market, making this a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry. (1)
Energy drinks now rival Coca-Cola in annual sales. (2)
Energy drinks claim to increase both physical energy and mental alertness.
Some are marketed to help you stay up all night, although skipping sleep is never a good idea for your brain.
There’s a growing health concern about the safety of these drinks.
Commonly reported side effects include insomnia, headache, heart palpitations, irritability, chest pain, tremors, and digestive upset — mainly due to excessive amounts of caffeine. (3)
Energy drinks are responsible for tens of thousands of visits to US hospital emergency rooms each year and, sadly, a handful of deaths. (4)
The Risks of Caffeine in Energy Drinks
The main ingredients in energy drinks are caffeine and sugar.
They also contain purportedly healthy additions like B vitamins, taurine, l-carnitine, guarana, ginseng, and yohimbine.
While these nutrients can be helpful in the right form or in sufficient amounts, they are included in energy drinks to look impressive on the label.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, any performance enhancement from energy drinks comes from sugar and caffeine, NOT from added nutrients or herbal extracts. (5)
Most energy drink brands like Monster and Red Bull contain amounts of caffeine similar to coffee — around 10 mg of caffeine per ounce — but this can really add up if you chug these drinks all day long.
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And energy shots are a different story completely.
5-Hour Energy Shot, for example, contains a jaw-dropping 100 mg of caffeine per ounce!
Also, be aware that there is nothing natural about the caffeine in energy drinks.
It is not extracted from natural sources, but is man-made in laboratories, usually in China.
" Yerba mate is a traditional South American tea said to offer the “strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate,” all in one beverage.
The Drawbacks of Sugar in Energy Drinks
The other stimulating ingredient in energy drinks is sugar.
Some energy drinks contain a staggering 20 teaspoons of sugar per serving.
More than half contain more sugar per serving than Coca-Cola. (8)
Sugar will give you a temporary energy kick, but it comes with a great cost.
Here are a few ways that too much sugar will affect your brain, mood, and ability to think:
- Sugar hijacks your brain’s reward center and may be as addictive as heroin and cocaine. (9)
- It contributes to depression by increasing brain inflammation. (10)
- It increase output of the stress hormone cortisol. (11)
- It leads to wild swings in blood sugar levels which can make you jittery and irritable when your level is low and lead to diabetes and possibly Alzheimer’s when it’s chronically high. (12)
- It wreaks havoc with your attention span, short-term memory, ability to learn, and mood. (13)
- It changes brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly.
Some energy drinks use artificial sweeteners like sucralose or acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), but these are no better for you than sugar.
They also negatively impact your mood and ability to think.
The 5 Best Natural Energy Drinks
The idea of energy drinks is not new.
People have been drinking coffee, tea, and other beverages for more mental energy and clarity for thousands of years.
Unlike commercially manufactured energy drinks that are fraught with side effects, these natural versions, when consumed in moderation, actually help you build a better, healthier brain:
- They boost neurotransmitter levels to improve mood and motivation.
- They contain phytonutrients that increase brain cell production and blood flow to the brain.
- They offset the effects of aging and protect the brain from free radical damage and degenerative diseases.
These are inexpensive, easy to make, readily available, safe, and delicious.
Billions of people around the world could not imagine starting the day without their favorite “natural energy drink,” myself included!
The natural energy drinks discussed below vary in taste, caffeine content, and additional health benefits.
I suggest trying them all to see which one delivers the mental clarity and smooth energy boost you’re looking for.
1. Green Tea
If you live in a coffee-drinking country with a coffee shop on every corner, you may be surprised to learn that tea, not coffee, is the #1 beverage in the world. (14)
Green tea especially is known as a healthy drink that is beneficial for the most pressing health concerns, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. (15)
It has notable mood-boosting effects as well.
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It has the unique ability to increase attention while instilling a sense of calm, without making you feel drowsy.
Most of its health benefits are attributed to two compounds found almost exclusively in green tea, EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) and l-theanine.
EGCG is beneficial for memory and attention. (16)
It can alleviate anxiety and strengthen resilience to stress. (17)
It also reduces the effects of both psychological and physiological stress. (22)
This is similar to the state achieved during meditation.
Green tea’s smaller amount of caffeine, along with the presence of calming compounds, assures that you will be mildly energized but not wired.
2. Matcha Tea
Matcha green tea is considered the “champagne of green teas.”
It’s the tea used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Matcha starts with the highest quality tea leaves which are dried and then ground into a fine powder.
It has all the benefits of green tea, but even more so since you’re actually consuming the entire leaf of the tea plant.
Matcha tea is an antioxidant powerhouse and can contain up to 137 times more EGCG than regular green teas. (25)
Besides drinking matcha tea straight, you can easily add the powder to smoothies, lattes, soups, or sauces.
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You’ll find basic matcha recipes at MatchaSource.com.
If you like experimenting in the kitchen, LetsDrinkTea.com has 102 imaginative matcha recipes.
Here in the United States, coffee is definitely the king of natural energy drinks.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the country runs on coffee.
Sixty-two percent of us drink it every day. (26)
Coffee is a potent antioxidant that shields the brain from free radical damage.
Surprisingly, coffee is the #1 source of antioxidants in the Western diet, ahead of tea, fruits, and vegetables. (29)
Coffee drinkers have a significantly reduced risk for Alzheimer’s, so it may help keep you mentally sharp for the long haul too. (30)
4. Yerba Mate
Yerba mate is a traditional South American tea brewed from a member of the holly plant family.
It’s been said to offer the “strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate,” all in one beverage.
Yerba mate is so loaded with nutrients that it’s claimed to contain practically all the vitamins needed to sustain life. (31)
This well-studied beverage has been found to contain up to 100 times more antioxidants and polyphenols than canned energy drinks. (32)
Yerba mate fans report increased mental energy, clarity, and focus, but with no caffeine jitters.
At 85 mg caffeine per 8 ounces, it contains more caffeine than tea but less than coffee.
5. Turmeric Tea
Turmeric tea is the first natural energy drink on this list with no caffeine.
Turmeric is a spice that’s been used for both cooking and healing for thousands of years.
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It’s an important herb in Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old natural healing system.
The people of Okinawa, Japan are among the longest-lived in the world and happen to drink large amounts of turmeric tea. (33)
Turmeric is well studied and has been found to exhibit potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer properties. (34)
The main active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, a compound known to aid memory and concentration.
Curcumin increases blood flow to the brain as effectively as physical exercise. (35)
It raises levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are essential for happiness and productivity. (36)
In fact, curcumin has been found to be an excellent natural antidepressant that’s more potent than Prozac. (37)
You can buy turmeric tea bags or simply simmer 1/4 teaspoon powdered or grated fresh turmeric in a cup of water for 10 minutes.
The Ultimate Natural Energy Drink Recipes
Two pioneering biohackers, Tim Ferriss and Dave Asprey, admit that they’ve tried everything to improve their mental performance, including brain-enhancing drugs.
But ultimately they found their favorite brain enhancers to be new twists on the old standbys, coffee and tea.
Each has created his own favorite recipe for optimal mental performance.
Ferriss’s all-round favorite brew is yerba mate.
Instead of coffee, he starts each day with a blend of yerba mate and various teas mixed with coconut oil, ginger, and turmeric.
He calls this drink “titanium tea” and likens it to “rocket fuel for the brain.”
He has also developed a protocol using yerba mate to maximize creativity.
He starts with yerba mate, strategically followed by red wine and a little dark chocolate.
His finds that the perfect ratio of yerba mate to red wine is 3 to 1.
Asprey, on the other hand, has built an entire industry around his “bulletproof coffee” concept.
Making coffee bulletproof means adding grass-fed butter and MCT oil to it.
Putting butter in coffee is not as weird as it sounds.
The people of Tibet traditionally add yak butter to their tea, which is where he got his idea.
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And when you think about it, adding butter is not much different than adding cream, since butter is simply cream that’s been beaten or churned.
Asprey and his many followers report steady energy, better mood, reduced feelings of hunger, and enhanced mental clarity and physical performance from his Bulletproof Coffee.
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Water, the Original Energy Drink
I know drinking water does not sound very exciting, but it is one of the most effective ways to keep your energy and mental performance high.
It takes only 2% dehydration to negatively affect your attention, memory, and other cognitive skills. (40)
The effects of dehydration can be so pronounced that they can be mistaken for dementia!
The common advice is to drink 8 glasses of water per day, but this is overly simplistic.
A better rule of thumb to determine the quantity of water you need is to divide your weight in pounds by two.
That gives you a baseline for the number of ounces of water you need per day if you are sedentary.
However, if you exercise, which hopefully you do, you’ll need more.
Camelbak, a leader in hydration products, has an online hydration calculator that takes into account your weight, age, activity level, type of exercise, and even the outdoor temperature and cloud cover.
This will tell you how much additional water you need while you’re exercising.
And of course, there are plenty of apps to help you stay hydrated.
Culligan Water has compiled a list of a list of apps to help you drink more water.
Natural Energy Drinks: Take the Next Step
Staying hydrated is an important, fundamental way to improve mental function and productivity.
Artificial energy drinks in bottles and cans are not necessarily safe and are certainly not natural.
Traditional drinks like green tea, coffee, yerba mate, matcha, and turmeric tea are much smarter choices.
They have been consumed for improved mental energy and performance for thousands of years.
They are excellent sources of nutrients and antioxidants that nourish and protect your brain, and increase overall physical and mental health and vitality.