Caffeine is the world's most consumed psychoactive drug. Yes, you read that right: caffeine is considered a drug! And while many of us think of caffeine as synonymous with coffee, it isn't the only natural source of caffeine.
If you're not a massive fan of coffee but still crave that jolt, there are a few buzz-worthy alternatives. You can actually find caffeine naturally in many other plants, leaves, seeds, and fruits – and even chocolate!
Whether you're a caffeine addict or looking to increase your energy without feeling like you'll soon be levitating, this guide will help you understand different natural caffeine sources, their benefits, and possible side effects.
What is caffeine?
Interestingly enough, caffeine has a naturally bitter taste meant to deter pests.
Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance in the methylxanthine class that acts as a stimulant, increasing the activity of your brain and nervous system. Caffeine is water- and fat-soluble, allowing it to easily cross the blood-brain barrier and other receptors in the body. Let's take a closer look at how caffeine affects the body.
What caffeine does to your body:
Caffeine and your central nervous system:
After hitting the brain, caffeine creates almost immediate alertness and can temporarily relieve drowsiness. It's also a vasoconstrictor, meaning it narrows the blood vessels. For people who struggle with migraines, this can actually provide relief.
Caffeine also increases the release of certain chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. This is what's responsible for those caffeine jitters you may experience!
Caffeine and your digestive system:
Caffeine is thought to increase stomach acid, which can cause heartburn, an upset stomach, and a possible heightened risk for stomach ulcers.
Caffeine also stimulates the colon muscle, which is why you may feel the urge to "go" shortly after consuming it.
In addition, caffeine is a diuretic and a bladder irritant. Meaning that urge to pee is going to hit hard!
Caffeine and your circulatory and respiratory systems:
Caffeine takes about an hour or two to hit its highest concentration in your bloodstream. Caffeine can temporarily increase blood pressure and may cause an irregular or rapid heartbeat in some people.
5 Natural caffeine sources ranked high to low (per serving size):
Ranking caffeine content can be a bit tricky as the amount can depend on many factors, such as serving size, variety of beans, the way it's grown and produced, and the overall quality.
1) Coffee 100-150 mg:
On average, 1 cup of coffee (8 oz) will have about 90-100 mg of caffeine, whereas a big cup of coffee (12 oz) may have more than 150 mg of caffeine.
Coffee is prepared by roasting coffee beans, grinding them into a powder, then brewing with hot or cold water.
Coffee beans naturally contain caffeine; in fact, one coffee bean typically contains 6 mg of caffeine. The amount of caffeine in a coffee can vary based on the roasting and brewing method. By weight, lighter roasts will have less caffeine, whereas darker roasts will contain more.
A large number of health benefits of coffee seem to stem from the fact that it contains caffeine, although coffee beans also have a good amount of antioxidants too.
2) Espresso 65 mg:
1 single shot of espresso (1 oz) contains around 65 mg of caffeine. Depending on how many espresso shots you have, this can quickly add up to more caffeine than a cup of coffee.
Espresso is thicker than traditional coffee and packs more of a punch. It is made with finer ground beans and has a lower ground-to-water ratio. Espresso has a more concentrated flavor and can be drunk plain or mixed with milk or water to make espresso-based drinks such as latte, macchiato, cortado, or cappuccino.
While 1 ounce of espresso contains 65 mg of caffeine, multiple espresso shots are typically added, resulting in a much higher caffeinated drink. On average, a 16-ounce cappuccino or latte contains about 175 mg of caffeine.
3) Matcha Green Tea 40-135 mg:
This can vary based on quality and type of matcha. On average, a serving size for a cup of matcha is about 2-4 grams, whic h adds up to around 40-135 mg per cup of matcha.
Matcha is a form of powdered green tea, which is shaded the last few weeks before harvest and then ground into a very fine powder. Because of how it's grown and processed, powdered matcha green tea has a much higher chlorophyll concentration and antioxidants than loose-leaf green tea. Meaning it boasts many health benefits beyond just caffeine!
While matcha does naturally contain caffeine, it also has a high concentration of the amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine is known for being relaxing and calming and works to counteract the caffeine, leaving you with an alert yet focused and relaxed feeling. Matcha may be the ideal beverage for anyone who experiences jitters or anxiousness drinking coffee but still wants a bit of a pick-me-up.
4) Black Tea 47-90 mg:
1 cup of black tea (8 oz) contains around 47 mg of caffeine, while a larger cup of black tea (12 oz) may contain approximately 90 mg. This can vary based on how long it's steeped and the quality of the tea.
Black tea, which may include Earl Grey, Darjeeling, and English breakfast tea, is made from the same tea plant as matcha. However, black tea leaves are picked later and left to oxidize much longer than green tea leaves. The oxidization gives black tea its darker coloring and depth of flavor.
Black tea is also rich in antioxidants and contains flavonoids, which have been studied for being beneficial for heart health, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
Black tea also contains a high amount of polyphenols, which may support a healthy gut microbiome.
5) Dark Chocolate 20-60 mg:
1 ounce of dark chocolate may contain 20-60 mg of caffeine. Milk chocolate only has around 6-20 grams of caffeine per ounce. And white chocolate less than 2 mg.
As it turns out, cocoa beans are also a natural source of caffeine! Because of this, on average, a 16 oz hot chocolate will have 25 mg of caffeine.
All chocolate and chocolate-flavored foods contain some caffeine, although the amount can vary significantly based on how much cocoa is in it.
Cocoa has also been studied for its numerous health benefits. Chocolate is believed to have antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, and flavonoids. Chocolate also contains necessary nutrients like magnesium, iron, and potassium.
Is caffeine good for you?
Low to moderate levels of caffeine (50-300 mg) can help with energy, alertness, and increased ability to focus.
Caffeine blocks the release of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that increases throughout the day and promotes the drive for sleep (among other things). With adenosine blocked, other neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine can increase. These can change and increase brain function and also may improve mood. One study showed that people who drank 2-3 cups of caffeinated coffee per day had a 45% lower risk of suicide. A different study also looked at mood and caffeine and showed that caffeine consumers had a 13% lower risk of depression.
Researchers have also looked at the connection between caffeine potentially helping lower the risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. One notable study suggested that 3-5 cups of coffee or three plus cups of tea may even reduce the risks for these diseases by as much as 28-60%.
Studies also show that caffeine may also affect our metabolism and improve fat burning by up to 13%, helping with healthy weight management.
Additionally, a low to medium dose of caffeine before a sporting event can improve athletic performance.
It is important to note that while these studies seem promising, more research is needed, and results can vary based on genetics and the type of caffeine consumed. Some benefits, such as improved fat metabolism, appear to only work in the short term.
Why is caffeine bad for you?
There are quite a few possible benefits to caffeine, but what about the risks? High levels of caffeine can come with serious side effects and dangers.
Anxiety is one of the most talked about and experienced risks of too much caffeine. Caffeine releases the hormone adrenaline, which is responsible for that fight-or-flight feeling. One study showed that men who consumed 300 mg of caffeine reported feeling double the stress compared to men who were given a placebo.
One of the benefits of caffeine is that it can increase energy and alertness, but it can also have a downside and cause insomnia or sleeping problems.
Caffeine can have a pretty significant effect on the digestive system. Caffeine increases the amount of stomach acid released, which, over time, may lead to stomach ulcers or GERD. In addition, caffeine may lead to loose stools or diarrhea. Studies on this topic are conflicting, however.
Caffeine is one of the most commonly used drugs in the US, and it is, in fact, habit-forming and can lead to dependency. While caffeine may be able to treat migraines or headaches, being dependent on caffeine can also lead to headaches.
Lastly, caffeine can impact the heart and potentially lead to atrial fibrillation- an inconsistent and altered heartbeat. Studies regarding caffeine's effect on the heart vary, though the connection between caffeine and an unsteady heartbeat appears to be linked to genetics and other long-term health conditions.
The recommendation for caffeine intake is less than 400 mg for the average adult and less than 200 mg in pregnancy.
The bottom line
A lot of people can't get enough when it comes to caffeine. Thankfully, there's a variety of options to choose from. From the jolt of an espresso to the softer feeling of a cup of matcha, there's something out there for everyone.
While it's okay to want a pick-me-up in the morning or an energy boost to get you through an afternoon slump, remember that caffeine consumption should always be in moderation, and there can be severe side effects from consuming too much of it. Caffeine can affect us differently, and it's essential to consider different needs, tolerance, and health concerns.
You may also like:
- Common gut problems and why matcha and aged black ginger may help
- The 33 health benefits of matcha tea powder
- A guide to different types of teas
- Matcha vs. Coffee: The health benefits of Drinking Powdered Matcha Tea instead of Coffee
- The six best matcha kits and starter sets
Disclaimer: These statements in this blog post have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. It's essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.
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