Like most people, I function best while fully caffeinated. As a child, I was fed milky espressos after dinner on holiday, and as an adult, I always have a little cafetiere of coffee at 9am and another at 10.30am. If I’m running, I’ll have one or two cups before I set off, and sometimes, I’ll have a third around 3pm. And yes, I sleep like a log.
But I have three issues: I often tend to waste a lot of coffee due to the bitter taste; those pesky jitters can stop me from sounding like a normal human on afternoon Zoom calls; and I’ve been previously diagnosed with excessively high cortisol levels.
Producing too much of the hormone for too long can also lead to anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, acne and more. While we need a bit of stress to get us out of bed in the morning, too much can be counterproductive. That tipping point is totally individualistic, but for me, I still walk a fine line between being fine and feeling over-stressed having only recovered from amenorrhea two years ago.
Twice a week, I leave the house at 6.30am to go to a high intensity gym class. I run twice a week and cycle instead of taking public transport. I have a full-on job. I live in London. Each weekend is a balancing act between social lift, fitness and relaxation. Oh, and I drink quite a bit of coffee.
In moderate doses, of course, caffeine is really good for us. A recent study published in the journal PloS Medicine found that people who drink two to three cups of coffee and tea a day have a 30% lower risk of stroke and dementia compared to those who consume neither. In fact, having a combination of up to six cups of tea and coffee a day has been linked with a lower risk of vascular dementia (although clearly, that doesn’t mean that everyone with dementia could have avoided it by drinking three cups of coffee).
But what if there was a way to reap all the benefits of caffeine with none of the cortisol complications? Enter: adaptogen coffee.
Adaptogen herbs are those known to help the body adjust to our physical and emotional stressors. The word ‘adaptogen’ was first coined by a Russian toxicologist back in 1957 to describe “substances that increase the state of nonspecific resistance” to stress. For something to count as an adaptogen, it’s got to nourish, level out energy and stress, work on multiple parts of the body at the same time, and be completely safe to use over an extended period of time.
The science, albeit quite small, backs up the use of certain herbs (which have often been used for hundreds of years in traditional medicine). Ashwagandha, for example, has been proven to be an anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, antioxidant and rejuvenating herb that has a “positive influence on the endocrine, cardiopulmonary and central nervous system.”
Ginseng too has been found to soothe long-term sources of stress. A few small studies have found that mushrooms like reishi can boost immunity while lion’s mane has been found to repair nerve damage, reduce inflammation and reduce mild symptoms of depression.
“While we don’t have enough research on lion’s mane coffee (in particular), we do know that edible mushrooms are a great source of vitamins and minerals and have been used in Ayurvedic medicine since 3000 BC,” explains Signe Svanfeldt, nutritionist at Lifesum.
“We also know that drinking coffee in moderate amounts can increase alertness (thanks to the caffeine), and boost performance. Popular adaptogens like ginseng and ashwagandha are believed to boost your body’s reaction to stress but again, we don’t have enough evidence to support this.”
What’s the point in mixing adaptogens with coffee?
While adaptogens may boast benefits, it’s still weird to combine them with coffee. But, according to Zain Peer, co-founder of London Nootropics, “there are good synergies between coffee and adaptogens because they allow us to benefit from caffeine while minimising any adverse self-effects.”
While caffeine can make us more alert and attentive by blocking our adenosine receptors, it also increases our cortisol levels which can lead to anxiety, rapid heartbeat and jitters. “Adaptogens can help balance our cortisol levels, ensuring we get the benefits from coffee while reducing that anxiety,” Peer explains.
“Caffeine is also absorbed quickly, which may result in a crash and adaptogens can help give us sustained energy levels without a crash – plus they have additional health benefits too.”
How does adaptogen coffee work?
The question then is: do you get enough of these powerful herbs to actually reap the health benefits or for them to have a profound effect? “What’s important are the active ingredients and bioavailability (vs total quantities) of the adaptogens,” says Peer.
One of London Nootropics blends is a CBD and ashwagandha coffee which uses broad-spectrum CBD. That, they claim, means the blend works on two systems in the body: CBD on the endocannabinoid system, and ashwagandha on our adrenals. As for the other blends, Peer says that the coffee uses nearly 500mg of high-quality dual-extract lion’s mane, which researchers believe to be an effective dose.
It might seem weird to add a downer to your morning livener but it kind of makes sense. “Caffeine is the world’s most popular nootropic,” Peer continues. “It can help with mental alertness and much more. However, it can have side-effects for some people and CBD can help balance stress/anxiety levels in our body, allowing us to benefit from caffeine while staying balanced.”
Is it worth switching from regular caffeine to adaptogen coffee?
As someone who believes in the power of mushrooms (hello Fantastic Fungi!) and who tends to avoid oat lattes for fear of the caffeine being watered down, I wanted to see if switching to adaptogen coffee for a couple of weeks would have any noticeable benefits.
I decided to replace my first morning coffee (usually drunk at either 6am or 9am, depending on whether it’s a gym day or not) with a Mojo blend of cordyceps and ginseng. My second cup of the day tends to be a Grind (lion’s mane and rhodiola) and my third is the ashwagandha and CBD (Zen).
The first thing you notice about these coffees is that they don’t smell or taste like regular coffee. There’s no acidity, no bitterness; they’re kind of creamy and sweet without having any sweetener or dairy substitute. And because of that, I’ve been drinking whole cups rather than leaving half of it to get cold as usual. The Zen tastes incredible in an oat latte –even though I don’t normally drink them.
While I’m not that caffeine-sensitive, I’ve definitely noticed that any jitters and increasing heart beats have gone. With adaptogen coffee, I never reach a point where I think I’ve had too much and yet, haven’t really felt the need to have that third cup unless it’s because I’m hankering after that creamy, frothy latte.
I’m mentally alert by the time I leave the house at 6.30am and have as much energy as I need to make it through my gym classes. Normally, I’d be gagging for a second cup by the time I get to the office or back home but again, at the moment, I feel like I could easily go without – I just like the taste and warmth of the drink so tend to have that second cup.
Perhaps it’s placebo but I feel good drinking adaptogen coffee. I’m less stressed and less frantic than I can be normally and yet, equally as productive. Crucially too, I’m less wasteful. I spend a lot on ground coffee beans and yet every day must chuck away at least one full cup of the stuff; the bitterness can be overwhelming after a while. Because ‘shroom coffee isn’t bitter and doesn’t have the immediate impact that the regular stuff has, it’s nicer to drink.
Will I keep on drinking exclusively adaptogen coffee? When possible, yes. Of course, most cafes don’t offer it, and sometimes, you do just want a standard Americano. But I do think that when you have a hard-core fitness regime and job, taking extra stressors out of your diet may be worth thinking about if you’ve already assessed how well you sleep, how many plants you eat a day and whether you’re properly hydrated. I’m not giving up caffeine any time soon but a cup of lion’s mane or ashwagandha coffee is the perfect blend.
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Images: Getty/London Nootropics/Miranda Larbi