Herbal Stimulants Part 1: Coffee and Coffee Alternatives


When a client comes to consult for the first time and I ask for a dietary profile, more often than not the first thing I hear is, ‘’I’m not giving up my coffee.’’  People are personal about their coffee and there’s an assumption that the first thing an herbalist is going to do is ban that magical morning elixir.  It also underlines the degree to which we love our herbal stimulants whether we indulge in them on a regular or occasional basis.

So what’s the deal with coffee, or any other herbal stimulant, and why do we want to consume them or cut them out of our diets?  Like with most things, the answer is complex and variable, depending on individual needs and constitution.  Making across the board generalizations may be easier and reassuring, but it’s rarely useful in truly understanding the affect of a substance.

Let’s start with coffee (coffea spp.).  The roasted, ground and infused bean of the coffee plant has been a favourite bitter beverage since its exportation in the 1500s via the port of Mocha in Yemen.  The port is the origin of the name ‘’Moka Java’’ which is ubiquitous in the coffee world1.

Coffee harbours a host of chemical substances in its brew, many potent medicinals.  The purine alkaloid caffeine (1,3,7 – trimethylxanthine)18 is no doubt the best known as it is responsible for the stimulation of the central nervous system5,6, that wake-up so many of us have come to rely upon.  It does far more than that though.  Caffeine is also a bronchodilator (opens the airways) which can help relieve symptoms of asthma2, ‘’…even small amounts can improve lung function for up to four hours2.’’  Furthermore, it acts as an adjuvant to pain medication, helping it work better; drinking a cup of coffee along with your Advil when you have a headache can provide 5-10% more relief than taking the pharmaceutical alone3.  Recent studies are also looking at the ability of caffeine to improve cognitive function, particularly age-related cognitive decline4,5,6.

Another important constituent of coffee is chlorogenic acid (CGA), a dietary phenol which breaks down into caffeic and quinic acid during both the roasting process and when digested in the colon10, 18.  CGA appears to possess antioxidant activity7 and there is also research into its potential to slow glucose uptake8,9.

Epidemiological studies also point to coffee potentially acting to prevent type 2 diabetes8 and Parkinson’s disease when consumed regularly and in significant quantity (4+ cups daily), although more research is needed to ascertain this with any certainty18.

Given all that, what’s the issue with a cup of joe?  Where many herbalists have a beef with coffee resides in the magic bean’s ability to disrupt sleep patterns11,12, 13 and allow us to ignore our body’s messages telling us to rest13.  Its stimulating effects stave off the symptoms of fatigue permitting too many to burn the candle at both ends while effectively running on empty.  This puts the body in a state of low-grade stress, requiring the service of the adrenal glands to mitigate the effects14.  Over the long term this tires out the adrenals which are notoriously slow to rebuild.  Therefore the issue is not with judicious use, but rather with chronic misuse or overuse.

When people are heavy coffee drinkers, chances are they also aren’t so big on herbal tea.  Given that teas are one of the primary treatment modalities of herbal medicine, it can often make compliance to a protocol patchy at best.  The coffee may also interfere with action of the suggested herbs as it does with a variety of different pharmaceuticals16, 17.  Besides affecting the actions of herbs, it can also impair the absorption of iron18, 19, 20, 21 and possibly also affect the bioavailability of zinc18, 21 in the body.

Yet another reason many herbalists approach coffee with caution is due to the notoriously long list of caffeine withdrawal symptoms which usually include fatigue, headaches, brain fog and mild depression13,15.  Thankfully, these symptoms usually subside within a week of discontinuing the beverage.  Tapering off or replacing coffee with a more mildly caffeinated alternative can help, although it’s good to remember that a moderate consumption (1-2 cups daily, up to 3-4 for some individuals – but NOT the whole pot) isn’t problematic and can actually be quite beneficial to health.

This is where the simple rules disappear and the spectrum of individual need and tolerance take over.  Some people do really well with coffee, it acts as a mild laxative that stimulates their bowels, it wakes them up and keeps them alert, it helps provide them with a sunny disposition and the get up and go they need.  Ayurveda would tell you that type of person is a Kapha, and constitutionally they benefit from moderate coffee intake.  For others, coffee aggravates, causing irritability, nervousness, restlessness, and diarrhea – even heart palpitations.  Quick reference back to Ayurveda, this would be the Pitta person, whose constitution is aggravated by the hot and oily qualities of coffee.

For those who do want to reduce their intake of coffee, there are numerous herbs that can be used to provide lower amounts (or no amounts) of caffeine while still delivering the dark colour, unctuous mouth-feel and roasted aroma so distinctive of the beverage.  It’s therefore important to choose your herbs wisely and play with proportions and preparation until you’ve got something pleasing to the palate.  Two blends I like a lot are the following:

All-Purpose Coffee Replacement

  • 40 grams of roasted Dandelion root
  • 45 grams of roasted Chicory root
  • 40 grams of roasted Carob
  • 11 grams of Burdock root
  • 5 grams of Maca powder

Combine all the ingredients and store in a glass jar.  For every four cups of water, add a heaping quarter cup of the mixture.  Bring water and herbs to a simmer and decoct 10-20 minutes until the brew is dark, thick and fragrant.  Strain and serve hot, with milk and sweetener if desired.

Gingerbread  Coffee

This is a great Holiday treat, excellent to warm the system on those cold days.

  • 4 ounces of roasted Dandelion root
  • 8 ounces of roasted Chicory root
  • 4 ounces of roasted Carob
  • 1/2 cup of roasted Cacao nibs
  • 5 sticks (2-3’’ long) of Cinnamon, broken up
  • 1 tsp whole Cloves
  • 2 tbsp ground Ginger
  • 1/4 tsp Stevia powder

Combine all the ingredients and store in a glass jar.  For every four cups of water, add a heaping quarter cup of the mixture.  Bring water and herbs to a simmer and decoct 10-20 minutes until the brew is dark, thick and fragrant.  Strain and serve hot.

When all is said and done, the moral of the coffee story is that if you come and see me to consult, I won’t ask you to give up your java habit – but I can explain the pros and cons of it, point you toward the existing research on the matter and let you make your own decision.


1 – http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/386883/Mocha

2 – Welsh EJ, Bara A, Barley E, Cates CJ. Caffeine for asthma. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD001112. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001112.pub2

3 – Derry CJ, Derry S, Moore RA. Caffeine as an analgesic adjuvant for acute pain in adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD009281. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009281.pub2

4 – Beydoun MA & Al. (2014): Caffeine and alcohol intakes and overall nutrient adequacy are associated with longitudinal cognitive performance among U.S. adults. The Journal of Nutrition, 144:6, 890-901.

5 – Johnson-Kozlow M & Al. (2002): Coffee consumption and cognitive function among older adults. American Journal of Epidemiology, 156:9, 842-850.

6 – Jarvis MJ (1993): Does caffeine intake enhance absolute levels of cognitive performance?. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 110:45-52.

7 – Rice-Evans C, Miller NJ, Paganga G (1996): Structure-antioxidant activity relationships of flavonoids and phenolic Acids. Free Radic Biol Med, 20:933-56.

8 – Van Dam RM, Feskens EJM (2002): Coffee consumption and risk of  type 2 diabetes mellitus. Lancet, 360:1477-8.

9 – Johnston KL, Clifford MN, Morgan LM (2003): Coffee acutely modifies gastrointestinal hormone secretion and glucose tolerance in humans: glycemic effects of chlorogenic acid and caffeine. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78:4, 728-33.

10 – http://coffeechemistry.com/acids/chlorogenic-acid.html

11 – Drake C, Roehrs T, Shambroom J, Roth T (2013): Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3 or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medecine, 9:11, 1195-1200.

12 – Landolt HP & Al. (1995): Neuropsychopharmacology, 12:3, 229-238.

13 – Roehrs T, Roth T (2008): Caffeine: Sleep and daytime sleepiness. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 12:153-162.

14 – Meerlo P & Al. (2002): Sleep restriction alters the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal response to stress. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 14:397-402.

15 – Juliano LM, Griffiths RR. (2004): A critical review of caffeine withdrawal: empirical validation of symptoms and signs, incidence, severity and associated features. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 176:1, 1-29.

16 – http://www.caffeineinformer.com/caffeine-drug-interactions

17 – Diksha P, Sanjita D, Gupta S, Goswami S. (2014): Interaction of antipsychotic drugs and caffeine. Scholars Academic Journal of Pharmacy, 3:5, 383-7.

18 – Jane V. Higdon & Balz Frei (2006): Coffee and Health: A Review of Recent Human Research, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 46:2, 101-123.

19 – Hallberg L & Rossander L (1982): Effect of different drinks on the absorption of non-heme iron from composite meals.  Human Nutrition and Applied Nutrition, 36:116-123

20 – Morck TA, Lynch SR & Al. (1983): Inhibition of food iron absorption by coffee. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 37:416-420.

21 – Van Dyck K, Tas S, Robberecht H & Deelstra H (1996): The influence of different food components on the in vitro availability of iron, zinc and calcium from a composed meal.  International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition, 47:499-506.

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