Why Natural Energy Drinks Are Better for Your Brain

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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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 brainpower.

Collectively known as energy drinks, these drinks are popular among those looking to feel more energetic, alert, focused, creative, and productive.

But these manufactured 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.

Energy drinks now rival Starbucks in annual sales. (12)

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, and digestive upset — mainly due to excessive amounts of caffeine. (3)

Energy drinks are responsible for tens of thousands of visits to hospital emergency rooms each year, and sadly, a handful of deaths. (4, 5)

The main ingredients in energy drinks are caffeine and sugar.

They also contain additives 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 mainly 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 other additives. (6)

Most energy drinks 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.

And energy shots are a different story completely.

5-Hour Energy Shot, for example, contains a jaw-dropping 100 mg of caffeine per ounce!

Common side effects of excess caffeine include anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, racing heart, heart palpitations, and insomnia. (7)

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, usually in China.

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 at a great cost.

Here are a few ways 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 level which can make you jittery and irritable when it’s 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.

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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 as a “side benefit”:

  • 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 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, and obesity. (15)

It has notable mood-boosting effects as well.

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 learning, memory, and mood. (16)

It can alleviate anxiety and strengthen resilience to stress. (17)

EGCG works synergistically with the caffeine found in green tea to elevate mood and improve focus and alertness. (18, 19)

L-theanine promotes the formation of neurotransmitters linked to memory recall, learning, and positive mood. (2021)

It also reduces the effects of both psychological and physiological stress. (22)

L-theanine puts the brain into the alpha wave state which is associated with relaxation and attention. (2324)

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.

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.

You’ll find basic matcha recipes at MatchaSource.com.

If you like experimenting in the kitchen, LetsDrinkTea.com has 102 imaginative matcha recipes.

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3. Coffee

Here in the United States, coffee is definitely the king of natural energy drinks.

Eighty-three percent of us drink it every day. (26)

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the country runs on coffee.

Coffee is known for giving a boost in energy while optimizing memory, focus, alertness, mood, and attention. (2728)

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. (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, it’s been said that it includes practically all the vitamins needed to sustain life. (31)

It also contains up to 100 times more antioxidants and polyphenols than artificial energy drinks. (32)

Yerba mate fans report increased mental energy, clarity and focus, but without the caffeine jitters sometimes experienced with coffee.

At 85 mg caffeine per 8 ounces, it contains more caffeine than tea but less than coffee.

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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.

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 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 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 old standbys — coffee and tea.

Each has created his own favorite recipe for optimal mental performance.

Titanium Tea

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.

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Bulletproof Coffee

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.

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 bulletproof coffee.

Here’s a short video of Asprey showing how he makes his natural energy drink.

Video: How to make Bulletproof coffee
Click the image above to see a video by Dave Asprey on how to make Bulletproof coffee.

Water: The Original Natural Energy Drink

I know this is not very exciting, but drinking plenty of water is one of the most effective ways to keep your energy and brainpower up.

Your muscles and your brain are roughly three-quarters water, so even mild dehydration results in reduced energy and loss of brain function. (3839)

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 to drink 8 glasses of water per day 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. (41)

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.com 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.

water hydration calculator
A good hydration calculator takes into account many factors.

This will tell you how much additional water you need while you’re exercising.

And of course, there are hydration apps.

Here’s a list of a few apps that can help you stay hydrated.

Natural Energy Drinks: Take the Next Step

Staying hydrated is an important, fundamental way to improve mental function and productivity.

Manufactured 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, increasing overall physical and mental health and vitality.

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