Is There Such a Thing as a ‘Good Kind’ of Caffeine?

We hear a lot these days about how caffeine boosts endurance and energy levels.  I can’t say for sure if it works that way for me, but I can certainly attest to the fact that mentally, I feel more pumped up for a workout if I’ve consumed caffeine a few minutes prior to exercising.

But are green tea and yerba mate any better than coffee?

iStock 000003325220XSmall 300x199So let’s accept the fact that caffeine improves performance on some level, through targeted (as opposed to habitual) use.  Then does it matter what type of caffeine we consume?  Does it matter whether we get our pre-workout fix from a few cups of coffee or from supposedly “good” caffeine sources like green tea and yerba mate?

From there, it’s not much of a leap to ask the same question about habitual use.  If you’re like me and find it extremely difficult to quit drinking caffeine, then does it matter in what form you get that morning caffeine jolt?

Brendan Brazier’s take on it

According to Brendan Brazier in his vegan sports nutrition manual Thrive, green tea’s caffeine (technically theophylline) “slowly and steadily releases energy over the course of several hours,” as opposed to the caffeine in coffee that causes jitters.

He goes on to say that theophylline doesn’t stress the adrenal glands, by far the effect that worries me the most about drinking a lot of coffee.  In fact, Brendan writes that theophylline might actually be beneficial to the adrenals, by “restoring hormonal balance.”

As for yerba mate, it’s not entirely clear to me, from either Thrive or Wikipedia, how this South American plant’s caffeine differs from that in coffee.  In fact, it seems that the caffeine is mostly the same as that in coffee, though in a smaller dose.

In addition, green tea and yerba mate are “greens,” making them higher in antioxidants and less acid-forming than coffee.

For all the above reasons, Brendan includes green tea and yerba mate in his natural sports drink, Vega Sport Performance Optimizer, which I drink before most of my hard workouts.

Another side of the story

But there are other opinions out there.  In Caffeine Blues: Wake Up to the Dangers of America’s #1 Drug, a book  by Stephen Cherniske that I read for motivation in a failed attempt to quit coffee once and for all, the author has a less-forgiving take on the herbal alternatives to coffee.

In the introduction to the book, Cherniske writes:

Most, like…yerba mate…turned out to be nothing more than plant sources of caffeine and other stimulant drugs.  Their mode of action is exactly the same as coffee: stimulation of the central nervous system resulting in adrenal stress.  The fact that these stimulant products are found in health-food stores and claim to be “all-natural” is simply part of the hype that fills the energy market.

Of green tea, he says similar things, mainly that “caffeine is caffiene” and the only real virtue of green tea is that it’s lower in caffeine than coffee.  He even downplays the cancer-fighting effects of green tea, calling it a “weak agent” that probably only benefits those whose diets are low in fruits and vegetables (and that’s none of us, right?).

Who is right?

I have no idea.  Probably not surprisingly to anyone, I’ll go with Brendan Brazier.

No, it’s not because I worship him—although I do think he’s a cool dude. Instead, it’s because he doesn’t have any apparent agenda.  Whereas Caffeine Blues‘s entire reason for existence is to spread the anti-caffeine message, Brendan’s books aim to help people perform in sports and life on a vegan diet.  If Brendan believes that caffeine has a place in the athlete’s diet, it’s his job to communicate that, just as he does.

So the take-home message, as far as I’m concerned, is that green tea is the best source of caffeine, followed by yerba mate (whose stimulating effect comes more from actual caffeine than theophylline.  And much as I wish it weren’t true, coffee appears to be the worst source.

I’d love to hear what you all think about this, particularly if there are any chemists out there.  Is caffeine just caffeine, regardless of the source? Or can we, as athletes, get the performance benefits of caffeine while minimizing the adverse effects if we choose green tea or yerba mate?

And how the hell am I ever going to quit coffee!?

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Comments

  1. I am in the process (3 days) of trying to kick my morning coffee habit.

    I just don’t think I need it and I don’t think that on a daily basis it is good for me. I am slowly making my way to another 21 day cleanse after vacation next week and want to be rid of the caffeine as I start the Swiss Detox.

    My plans are to rid myself of caffeine so that when I REALLY need a boost for performance, i.e. race day or a really big workout I will get the full boost from it.

    What I really need to kick to the curb next is SUGAR!!

  2. The best way I found to give up coffee was pregnancy. I guess that option isn’t available for you.

    I look forward to hearing someone of further education than I in the subject as well.

    • Rita, that’s really funny. I’ve actually had thoughts like that before. When my wife didn’t drink a drop of caffeine or alcohol during her pregnancy, I thought, “I wish I had something to force me to be so healthy for 9 months!”

  3. Kelsey H says:

    There is so much conflicting information out there, that I have learned to trust my body first and what it tells me.

    1) I know that I love the smell of coffee and the immediate burst of energy it gives me, but when I come down off of the caffeine soon after, I become an angry, irritable mess and coffee also gives me stomach problems. Not worth it.
    2) I have not yet tried Yerba Mate, but plan to. Right now I drink about 2 cups of tea (black and green a day). The black I try to use only in dire circumstances as it has more caffeine and can give me a slight crash later, but in no way does take me on the roller coaster ride of coffee. (To me, coffee is like one of those rides at an amusement park where they raise you vertically and just drop you.)

    Anyways, I have given up coffee for good just because I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I may eventually have to do the same with black tea, and sugar (another “drug” with significant affects on my body) and me will just have to try to find a happy relationship.

    • Kelsey, definitely give yerba mate a try. I find that it’s a more enjoyable feeling, a smoother boost without crazy anger or jitteriness (I feel those things too after coffee). And I like the taste even better than green tea.

      Why I haven’t been able to replace coffee with yerba mate, then, I have no idea. Maybe it’s the taste and roastiness that I like.

  4. I have no idea how you’ll quit coffee, but when you do, please pass along some pearls of wisdom! ;)

    I agree with you – I’d rather trust Brendan Brazier. Outside of what I’ve read on your blog, I don’t know too much about him, but you’re right in how his mission isn’t an anti-caffeine agenda and that’s an important fact to note.

    I’ll stick to my coffee and occasional tea for now. :)

  5. Maybe you don’t actually want to quit coffee. If you did, you would have done it by now! Obviously you have the willpower (you went vegetarian, which is hard to do. And helloooo you ran a 50 miler and qualified for Boston!) If you want it bad enough, you’ll be able to do it. Just. Stop. Drinking. Coffee. And roll with the punches as they come. That’s my strategy.

    • Amanda, that’s a really good point. The reason I have not been able to quit is because I like it too much. Anytime I do quit for some amount of time, I’m always trying to think of a way that I can incorporate it into my life again in small quantities. Because I like it.

      But I also like the idea of having lots of energy, and I do believe coffee robs me of energy ultimately. So I don’t know what to do. But you’ve made me feel better about it :)

  6. Acutally, the feeling I get from coffee and green tea is quite different… Coffee boosts my energy level really quickly but then I get tired again. But green tea keeps me alert and at ease for hours. So for me, the distinction made by Brendan is a real one.

    And what’s crucial when preparing green tea: let the water cool down for 10-15 minutes and let the tea steep for only 1-2 minutes. And you can use it several times, depending on the quality of the tea (just let it steep longer each time).

    • BG, when you say that method is crucial for preparing tea (and I agree, I’ve heard before that you should use 170 degree water instead of boiling and not oversteep), is it crucial simply for flavor, or somehow related to the caffeine and effects on your body?

      • If it he water is over 170 degree the green tea loses some of its great nutritional value (e.g. vitamins and antioxidants). But I dont have the sources here so I cant tell you more details. But the flavor is certainly better.

        BTW: About 90% or so of the caffeine is released in the first 90 seconds. So if you use the same tea for a second brew it’ll almost be decaff [see e.g. http://www.nobleharbor.com/tea/caffiene.html ]

  7. Christina says:

    Thrive/Brazier says to be careful about using Yerba Mate because it requires recovery time. It seems useful during a marathon for that extra shot of energy, but not during a regular everyday workout.

    • Christina, I asked Brendan about this when I met him. Because I remembered that from Thrive, but he also recommends Vega Sport Optimizer (which has yerba mate and green tea in it) before hard workouts. So I asked how often he drinks Vega Sport, and I think he said 4-5 times per week. But he also recommends maca powder after those workouts, since it’s supposedly an adaptogen and helps regulate stress hormone levels, so it helps you recover from caffeine use better.

      One point I wasn’t totally clear on that I wish I would have asked: When he warns that after workouts with yerba mate, you’ll need additional recovery time, is that because the yerba mate stimulation is hard to recover from, or because you are able to workout harder with it, and therefore need more time to recover.

  8. I love coffee too much to give it up!!

  9. I drink about 6 cups of coffe and 2 to 3 cups of tea (black/white/green) per day. I do not feel any negative effects from this amount of caffeine.
    If I am running in the early morning I will only drink 1 cup of coffee before the run. I also use GU with caffeine. Cant say though that all this caffeine has made me any faster !

    • MrP, that is a lot of caffeine! When you drink only 1 cup before your runs, do you feel any negative effects from lack of caffeine then?

      Very interesting that you don’t notice any negative effects. I suppose it just depends on the person. I think I’d die if I tried to drink that much.

      It’s not surprising that it hasn’t made you faster. I’ve read that the caffeine endurance boost only occurs if your body isn’t used to it. Since you actually reduce caffeine on your long runs, it wouldn’t work.

      • I only drink 1 cup before the run so I do not have to take a pee break mid run. I do not feel any negative effects from lack of caffeine on the one cup.
        I start my day at about 5.15 am with a glass of Chia Fresca (1 Tbs chia seeds, juice of 1 lime, 1/2 tsp ginger powder & 1 tsp agave nectar) 1/2 apple and 2 or 3 brazil nuts and sometimes a few almonds. I will take the dogs for a walk, about 45 mins and return home and have a toaster waffle w/maple syrup and 1 cup of coffe & hit the trail before it gets to 100 degrees (got to love Phoenix in August!!)

  10. I hate the caffeine roller coaster I’ve been on lately. I drink a lot of Starbucks, and it’s so potent. But so far, I haven’t committed to quiting. Hoping to learn from you on this one.

    • Alan, roller coaster is the perfect way to describe it. Extreme highs and lows. I think if you’re prone to a large gap between your highs and lows anyway, then coffee is probably very bad. Maybe if you’re not, it’s okay.

      If you really want to quit, look at this if you haven’t yet. http://www.nomeatathlete.com/quit-coffee This worked for a while for me, and as someone interested in numbers you might find some beauty in the method. I did eventually start drinking coffee again, though definitely less than I used to.

  11. I definitely feel there is a difference in the way green tea and coffee affect my body. I used to drink a lot of coffee but started to notice it really irritated my bladder (not good on a long run!) I now drink a cup or two of green tea in the morning before working out and then I have one or two cups of coffee after lunch. Never more than two cups of coffee or it affects my sleep! I have also wondered about the need to completely eliminate caffeine but I think it is like with red wine – there are some benefits to moderate consumption and since I do enjoy a cup of tea or a good cup of coffee, I continue to consume it in moderate amounts.

  12. I won’t give up coffee :) I went off coffee during a cleanse in January (transitioned off with teecino…YUCK) After the cleanse I went back to coffee but now drink one cup a day, half regular/half decaf. I may change my mind down the road…

  13. Hi there!
    I think caffeine is caffeine, but perhaps there are other things in green tea that make it beneficial.

    I’ve had in my head that I need to quit coffee for the longest time, but why?!?! Studies show coffee to be beneficial for so many things (parkinson’s, alzheimer’s, etc). Drinking coffee helps me feel more ready for my day – giving me energy, vitality, focus, creativity…

    I will say though that I am not as deep a sleeper as I used to be, and this may be a result of the coffee. One day I might experiment with this and see what happens to my sleep when I cut back on the coffee.

    Good luck and let us know if you learn anything new about coffee :)

    Christina

    • Christina, sometimes I think the same thing about coffee and benefits that are linked to it. But I often wonder how many of the subjects in those studies have good, high-antioxidant diets. More likely, they’re people with an average Western diet, which most would agree is terrible. And in that case, coffee might be their best source of antioxidants. I also think that there’s incentive for scientists to demonstrate benefits of coffee, for the sole reason that people who are addicted to it love to spread that information!

      But I don’t mean to disagree with everything you write. I definitely the know the feeling you describe about feeling ready for the day and feeling so energized and creative. My problem is that it’s usually followed by a period of anxiety and feeling like crap, and I wonder how much better I’d feel if it wasn’t part of my life.

  14. Well I agree that caffeine is caffeine, but you have to look at the package, the same way you consider sugar’s package. Fructose in fruit is going to be much less immediately available than that of high fructose corn syrup. Fructose in fruit is going to be surrounded by fiber, carbohydrates and the other components of food that your body will have to break down before reaching the fructose. The fructose in corn syrup is highly refined and much closer to being a naked sugar molecule that goes right to your blood stream (and then to your liver where it is metabolized or perhaps to your cancerous tumor where it is gobbled up http://www.reuters.com/article/idAFN0210830520100802 ). Now, I am just assuming here, but I would guess the same is true of caffeine. How quickly the caffeine is metabolized might be determined by its packaging. How much of a difference there is between sources might be negligible, however, considering most sources are liquids anyway.

    But what caught my attention is that theophylline is not actually a caffeine, it is just a molecule that is similar in structure and behavior. Therefore the better point here might be that a plant source CNS stimulant is a plant source CNS stimulant. From what I read on wikipedia the physical affects of of both are similar and their mechanisms of action are virtually the same. However, theophylline does have roughly twice the half-life of caffeine in healthy adults, as Brendan says. This is probably explained simply by the fact that they are not the same molecule–but, again, I am just assuming. Also, one study did find that theophylline was not as potent a CNS stimulant as caffeine (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1368528/). So it would seem that theophylline would give your workouts weaker boost vs caffeine, but a longer lasting one.

    Ok sorry for the book here. I am just really interested in this stuff. I also think that the final word on caffeine depends on the person. Some people can really tolerate it while others can not. I think its up to you to decide for you.

    • Joanna, great info as always. I was confused about that exact point of whether theophylline was a type of caffeine (if caffeine even has types) or a distinct but similar molecule. The three sources I looked at used conflicting language about this, so thanks for clearing it up.

      What you infer about theophylline seems very consistent with what BB says in his book, so I think it’s correct.

      Fantastic comment loaded with good stuff.

      • I wanted to mention caffeine isn’t a stimulant–it’s a adenosine impersonator. It attaches to adenosine receptors without stimulating them, blocking adenosine from getting to the receptors. Why is this important? Adenosine is a chemical that tells you when you’re sleepy. As you go about your day, your brain activity produces this chemical. Normally, when adenosine levels reach a certain point, you feel sleepy.

        With caffeine blocking receptors from telling what the andenosine levels are, you feel more awake and alert. However, when consuming caffeine, the body can only be awake as much as it ordinarily would be without caffeine, not “stimulated” to a higher level.

        I got this information from this article at lifehacker.com (http://lifehacker.com/5585217/what-caffeine-actually-does-to-your-brain), they take information from the book, “Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine,” (couldn’t find the “underline button”) by Stephen R. Braun. Braun surveyed all the scientific data and wrote the book. A lot of the important information is summarized in the lifehacker.com article.

  15. Really interesting stuff. I feel lucky because I never got in the coffee habit. I’ve never had a cup in my life, just tasted it here and there.
    But I am a huge tea drinker.

    I’m going to have to go with the ‘everything in moderation’ approach.

    I’ll probably keep drinking my tea before races because it’s something I enjoy.

    • Lauren, never in your life? Incredible! I guess if I had never “tried” to like coffee, I probably never would have developed a taste for it.

      And thanks for reminding me that it’s about enjoyment, too. It’s easy to get caught up in being healthy (and hoping that health leads to enjoyment of life) when sometimes you just need to enjoy.

  16. I eased myself off coffee for a couple of months earlier this year and switched to yerba mate, green tea, and other decaf teas. In the end, I just really like the aroma and taste of coffee! I didn’t miss the energy burst I got from the caffeine, I missed the coffee itself. I tried decaf for awhile, but they just don’t seem to have decaf blends in the yummy flavors I like. When I went back to drinking coffee, I became more aware of how it affected me. I never feel a “crash” from it, but I do get jittery if I drink too much. I think everyone has a different reaction to it.

    Maybe it’s not the BEST thing for me, but it’s my only vice after quitting smoking and limiting alcohol.

  17. I avoid caffeine like the plague. I haven’t read the book you mentioned, but I think that the overall costs to the nation are higher for our caffeine addictions than they are for alcohol or tobacco.

    It’s a legal drug that we get our kids hooked on at a young age and don’t regulate at all.

    Don’t think it’s that bad? Try quiting for a few days and let me know how that goes.

    I do drink a lot of green tea, but the kind that I get is decaffeinated or caffeine free. I will also have a small amount of caffeine now and again, or if I am having a migraine then I’ll have a lot of caffeine at once in an effort to speed up the process of it getting through my system.

    I used to get really bad migraines (went blind for 2 weeks once in high school, and that was mild on the pain front compared to some that I’ve had) and I found that eliminating caffeine from my diet and learning to handle stress better were the two biggest ways I got them under control. So, consequences for me are a bit worse than the average person, but I feel I’m healthier in general for not including it in my diet.

  18. I’m with you on this one! I have tried to enjoy teas and non-caffeinated drinks but it’s the taste. In fact, I lived a year in Taiwan and a few months in China, so trust me I got the best, freshest, teas and still craved the coffee flavor! It definitely wasn’t the caffeine; I have never had a caffeine headache. When I get even the slightest bit ill (cold, allergies, 24-hour flu) I avoid coffee (and simple sugars) like the plague because it dehydrates so much and I think it’s terrible for a broken immune system (recently this meant two weeks without a drop of caffeine or chocolate!). Also, there were times in China and Taiwan where the coffee was so terrible that I just didn’t drink it for long stretches at a time (weeks, months). I found that I could get by on 100% juices (orange, multi-vitamin, etc) because I liked the taste, but still I missed the coffee taste — especially after a few weeks I get the craving, much like I do with chocolate. Decaf is OK, but in Europe (where I currently am) it’s very difficult to find in many countries and cities, and why bother when the coffee is so delicious and costs just a 1 euro at most places!!!

    Finally, I have never believed that coffee is any less healthy for someone than meat or most packaged products sold in grocery stores (think of all the chemicals put into those things to preserve them). I believe that moderation is key, and balancing it out with healthy choices for meals or snacks is important.

  19. This might not be that enlightening, but my story is that I was addicted to coffee in high school, and the withdrawal was so awful that it made me realize I could *never* do actual drugs. It contributed to the intense migraines/motion sickness that I’ve dealt with all my life. Since I quit it (now 7 years ago), I have no tolerance for caffeine at all. I’m not sure about the possible benefits, though I know lots of runners who enjoy them. For me, ANY caffeine is WAY TOO MUCH, according to my brain. Even green tea will give me a headache or give me the jitters, or worse, make me feel really nauseated. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it than others, but I just can’t handle it at all.

  20. I have found that the source of the caffeine is as important as the amount of caffeine. Remember that for coffee, tea, chocolate etc. caffeine is not the only active ingredient. For myself, I drink copious amounts of tea, both green and black and never feel wired or jittery, but one cup of coffee will have me bouncing off the walls for hours. Not drinking tea never gives me withdrawl symptoms, but other sources did. That’s probably because in addition to caffeine, tea has other chemicals like l-theanine, which are relaxing and counteract the caffeine. Even yerba mate varies a lot. If company websites are to be believed, some is close to green tea, and others are closer to coffee. It appears that difference is whether it is “smoked” or “unsmoked”, so it pays to check

  21. I quit coffee for 3 months…then started again. And am quitting again:) I decided to quit because I have reactive hypoglycemia (my blood sugar goes too low but is different from plain ‘ol hypoglycemia). Anyway, when I gave up caffeine alltogether I noticed I was not getting “the shakes” anymore, I didn’t have to eat every 2 hours in order to feel ok and I noticed I actually had more energy. How I quit the first time was I would just have really weak coffee, I threw out the first brew and drank the second weaker brew. Then I slowly substituted green tea for coffee one cup at a time. One day I forgot to have my coffee! I made the mistake of having a cup here and there with family members if they came over to visit. I started drinking more after that and pretty soon I was drinking coffee all day again. So now I’m quitting again.
    For me, caffeine of any type has an effect on me, so I plan to get rid of all caffeine.

  22. Hi, I detox’d off caffeine for my 14 day fruit and vege juice cleanse/detox (i’m also vegan now after 2 years as a lacto- ovo…) and i gotta say day 1 – vomitted 6 times by 10pm. Severe withdrawls. Coffee in particular plus any pre workout stimulants and energy drinks- they are all addicitve it their own right. Im back to 3 coffees a day as a MAX and also have been enjoying herbal rooibus vanilla tea (no caffeine) with a dribble of soy and some stevia :). I also run regularly and do weights also. Love the site Matt :) cheers,
    ZAC

  23. LUIS SUAREZ the worlds greatest footballer right now drinks yerba mate daily. the top football players are at the top of there game in every area always. who needs science when you copy the best. thats all you need to know ;)

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