To close the section on caffeine-containing herbal stimulants, we’ll look at the powerhouses of caffeination best used on a very occasional basis. These are the herbs that you take out when life offers you no choice but to pull an all-nighter or a fifteen hour day behind the wheel. These are the legal solution when you need to completely forego your body’s signals regarding its need for self-repair and down-time.
The advantage to knowing how to work with these herbs is that you can bypass the usual vehicle for their administration – energy drinks and power shots12 – which hurt your body even more by combining the insane amount of caffeine with processed sugars, artificial sweeteners and chemical additives of all kinds12.
So who are the players in this category? They are certainly lesser known than the plants seen thus far. This means that there is far more anecdotal than empirical evidence concerning them, although the rising interest in botanicals and human health (and the lucrative supplement and nutraceutical industry as a result) is slowly changing that.
First there’s guarana (Paullinia cupana K.), a native of South America and one of the more major sources of caffeine (and tannins!) in Latin America3. Folk medicine in Brazil suggests that guarana possesses tonic and adaptogenic qualities1, 3, 12 although double-blind trials done to verify this don’t seem to support the claims1 More research is being done in this area however3, 12.
Many studies have focused on the potential use of guarana for weight loss3, 4, 5 (just like with every other caffeinated herb), although always combined with other herbs rather than used as a single. In this regard, there is conflicting evidence, with results being far probitive in the double-blind, randomized and controlled trials (translation – the studies with the greatest reliability and least chance of bias)4, 5.
In vitro, the plant does seem to act as an antioxidant helping with cardiovascular health and blood cholesterol maintenance in much the same way tea does2. In vivo, this appears to be the case as well2 although more studies will need to be done in order to draw any firm conclusions6. The polyphenols present in the plant are most probably responsible for these benefits although it is also possible that the xanthines, saponins, tannins or a combination thereof act synergistically to product the cardio-protective outcome.2
Guarana is also added to a number of cosmetic preparations for its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties3. While the trivia is interesting, the actual benefit as a beauty aid is pretty questionable; if you want to know why I say that, read the chapter entitled “The Progenium XY Complex” of Ben Goldacre’s excellent book, Bad Science.
Moving back to caffeine as our point of interest and once again using coffee as the baseline for caffeine kick, you can consider that guarana clocks in at about five times the strength per unit mass3; it possesses the highest percentage of caffeine by weight (2-8% of the seed) in all natural botanicals3. I’ve found the best (read tastiest) way to get that caffeine into your system is by ingesting the powdered seed, making it into herbal candies or baking some into cookies, muffins or sweet-bread. Using it this way also allows you do get your caffeine to double as mid-afternoon snack, a useful 2 for 1 when you’re on the road.
Kola nut (Cola spp.) is even less well known (and studied) than guarana, although you do see it appear as an ingredient in some of the energizing herbal powders more recently available on the market. The extract, unbeknownst to most, also has an extensive history as a flavouring agent in the food industry, particularly in cola-type carbonated beverages7, although today its use has been largely replaced by synthetic chemicals10. (It’s where the name ”cola” comes from in case that wasn’t already obvious7.)
In Africa where it hails from, the nut or seed is chewed for its anecdotal properties as a tonic and stimulant8. As with many other strong botanicals worthy of respect, the plant and its fruit have an important place in the traditional religion and culture of the area, particularly in Niger and Nigeria9, 11.
In addition to large amounts of caffeine, kolanin and theobromine, the seeds contain a variety of phenolic compounds including significant amounts of tannins, catechins and epicatechins8. While no solid body of research documents the possible health benefits of the dietary polyphenols of the kola nut, one can assume that it rivals with the evidence that’s been collected for some of its cousins including cocoa, which belongs to the same botanical family.
The caffeine content of the kola nut is approximately 1.5-2% by weight, making it similar in stimulant effect to the weaker exemplars of the guarana spectrum.
Let’s mention again that any of the herbs discussed here – and any caffeine containing herb for that matter – can cause adverse physical effects when abused. These include cardiac symptoms such as palpitations and irregular heartbeat, gastro-intestinal distress, nausea, vomiting and over-stimulation of the nervous system making some people feel manic or high, and others irritated and anxious12. This is yet another reason to keep these most potent substances at a reasonable level of use, when the situation justifies their consumption.
For those that want go further and push their knowledge to the absolute limit when it comes to caffeine-containing botanicals, there are a few avenues of research left for you. Consider studying the caffeinated plants that didn’t make it into this article because of the rarity of their use today and the lack of empirical evidence about their effects. Those plants include Ilex cassine or vomitoria, (an evergreen plant used historically to prepare a coffee-like caffeinated and emetic brew known as cassina or black drink13) as well as Paullinia yoco (a vine of which the sap/wood is used in Columbia and Equador to brew a stimulating beverage)14, 15.
1 – Fernandes Galduroz, JC & Araujo Carlini E. The effects of long-term administration of guarana on the cognition of normal, elderly volunteers (1996). Sao Paulo Medical Journal, 114:1.
2 – Portella RL & Al. Guarana (Paullinia cupana Kunth) effects on LDL oxidation in elderly people: an in vitro and in vivo study (2013). Lipids in Health and Disease, 12:12.
3 – Hamerski L, Vieira Somner G & Tamaio N. Paullinia cupana Kunth (Sapindaceae): A review of its ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry and pharmacology (2013). Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, 7:30, 2221-2229.
4 – Sale C, Harris R C, Delves S & Corbett J. Metabolic and physiological effects of ingesting extracts of bitter orange, green tea and guarana at rest and during treadmill walking in overweight males (2006). International Journal of Obesity, 30:764-773.
5 – Saper R B, Eisenberg D M & Phillips R S. Common Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss (2004). American Family Physician, 70:9, 1731-1738.
6 – Schroeter H, Heiss C, Spencer J P E, Keen C L, Lupton J R & Schmitz H H. Recommending flavanols and procyanidins for cardiovascular health: Current knowledge and future needs (2010). Molecular Aspects of Medicine, 31:6, 546-557.
7 – Burdock G A, Carabin I G & Crincoli C M. Safety assessment of kola nut extract as a food ingredient (2009). Food and Chemical Toxicology, 47:8, 1725-1732.
8 – Odebode A C. Phenolic compounds in the kola nut (Cola nitida and Cola acuminata) (Sterculiaceae) in Africa (1996). Rev. Biol. Trop., 44:2, 513-515.
9 – Aina Adewale-Somadhi (2004). Practitioner’s Handbook for the IFA Professional. Ile Orunmila Communications. p. 1
11 – Chinyere Duru M. When Signifying Goodwill is no longer enough: the Kola Nut and Gender among Igbos in Nigeria and Belgium (2006). Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment, 13:3.
12 – Ishak W W, Ugochukwu C, Bagot K, Khalili D & Zaky C. Energy Drinks: Psychological Effects and Impact on Well-being and Quality of Life – A Literature Review (2012). Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 9:1, 25-34.
13 – Edwards A L & Bennett B C. Diversity of Methylxanthine Content in Ilex Cassine L and Ilex Vomitoria AIT.: Assessing Sources of the North American Stimulant Cassina (2005). Economic Botany, 59:3, 275-285.
14 – Weinberg B A & Bealer B K. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug (2001). Routledge, New York.
15 – Weckerle C S, Stutz M A & Baumann T W. Purine alkaloids in Paullinia (2003). Phytochemistry, 64, 735-742.