Caffeine and Adaptogens: Cycling to Superhuman.

by Ben LeVine

{this post originally appeared in elephant journal}

“It is our ability to acquire, use, and conserve energy that ultimately defines our lifetime adaptive success.” - Donald Yance

Coffee, tea, yerba mate, chocolate. I love them all. And I’ve consumed them copiously in my quest to understand caffeine, energy and bio-individuality. Cross-referencing personal experience with new research, I’ve tested and tasted through euphoria and headache. After severe denial I finally admit: consumed habitually, caffeine is a zero-sum energy game. That was hard to say. And sure, I’m ignoring all the beautiful subtleties of your brew of choice—antioxidants, L-theanine, theobromine and more. But I’m only concerned here with energy over time. Let me explain. 

One of caffeine’s main mechanisms of action is blocking adenosine receptors in our brain. The neurotransmitter adenosine makes us sleepy as it builds up in the body and activates adenosine receptors throughout the day. Caffeine looks enough like adenosine to trick these receptors, but then ingeniously blocks the receptors without activating them, causing a traffic jam of adenosine. With adenosine receptors temporarily disabled, other happier neurotransmitters have the open road in the brain, giving us that mild euphoria we all love. Your brain’s a nightclub with a bachelorette party in full swing. The lame adenosine boyfriends are trying to get in but the bouncer, Mr. Mean Caffeine, is blocking their way, allowing the lovely Dopamine, Glutamate and friends to party on ‘til morning.

Our bodies, desiring balance, counter caffeine consumption over time primarily by building more adenosine receptors in the brain. Increased caffeine consumption wins a couple battles, but this is a war caffeine cannot win! When taken daily, near-absolute tolerance is built up in as little as two days to two weeks depending on the study and the individual. When this happens, our normal caffeine consumption is just enough to counter those extra adenosine receptors, effectively bringing us back to baseline energy. Even worse, that wonderful euphoria is pretty much gone.

Instead of seducing our bodies out of homeostasis like caffeine, super herbs called adaptogens actually enhance the body’s natural ability to maintain that balance. They do this partly by modulating, protecting and strengthening the stress and immune responses, leading to increased adaptive resilience. While some adaptogens do have direct stimulating effects on the central nervous system, much of the extra energy experienced is instead a result of more efficient and enhanced energy production and less internalized stress.   

A profile on Rhodiola captures the difference between caffeine and adaptogens:

“With classical stimulants the initial increase in work-capacity is followed by a period of substantially decreased (markedly below average) work-capacity. In contrast, with extracts of R. Rosea, the initial increase in work-capacity is followed by a lesser diminution, such that the work-capacity continues to be above average.”1

So how do we strategically use both caffeine and adaptogens for sustainably increased energy? First, cycle your caffeine. The key here is to avoid building up tolerance and the onslaught of unwanted new and more sensitive adenosine receptors. Do this by spacing out caffeine consumption to once or twice a week (personal experimentation will uncover your sweet spot). Used judiciously, caffeine is ideal for peak occasions: a pre-race coffee, a meditative tea ceremony, a mate-fueled storm of creativity, the list goes on. With infrequency maximizing the experience, the appeals of caffeine as daily maintenance will slowly fade.

Adaptogens, on the other hand, can become your primary daily energy support. While effects are often immediate, many of these herbs are more transformative over longer periods of time. Herbalist Mathew Becker states:

“The adaptogens are like good food & exercise, the longer you do them the better they work. They aren’t short-term energizers like coffee. You can take them as short-term energizers but they aren’t going to change you… Moderate doses over an extended period of time is what works best…”2

Our individual biochemistry is incredibly varied and unique, and science is still figuring out all the intricate interactions. The advice offered here is meant to serve as a mere signpost on the path of your own internal energy explorations. So experiment with your caffeine consumption, find the adaptogenic herbs that suit you, and cycle toward superhuman. Happy travels! 


{photo by Portland Design Works}

1     Brown, R. P., M.D., Gerbarg, P. L., M.D., & Ramazanov, Z., Ph.D. (2002). Rhodiola Rosea: A Phytomedicinal Overview. HerbalGram, (56), 40-52.

2    North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. (2006). Materia Medica Intensive: Disk 16 Adaptogens [CD]. Boulder.

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