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10 Healthy Morning Pick-Me-Ups That Aren’t Traditional Coffee or Tea

Now, I don’t need coffee in the mornings. You won’t hear me complaining or freaking out or freebasing Folger’s Instant off a soup spoon if I don’t “get my morning coffee” (well, maybe a small grumble if it’s the wrong morning), but I usually like to have one in the morning. It does the trick. It tastes good. It gives me a little leg up. That’s a common current running through this community – we don’t need the morning pick-me-up, but we sure do enjoy it. Not everyone likes coffee [1] or tea [2], though. And some people (like me) are just curious enough to want to try every other possibility available. It’s just fun to try new options.

Not every selection is buttressed by reams of clinical evidence. At the very least, it can’t really hurt to try and even if it doesn’t help wake you up, the other proven health benefits probably make it worthwhile. Let’s jump right in…

Coca Tea

Coca tea has quasi-legal status in many countries, including the United States. No one sells it here (legally), and you can’t buy it in any stores, but it is possible to order online [3]. Despite its reputation, coca leaf is not cocaine. To condemn coca leaf for its cocaine content would be to reject blueberries because they contain sugar. Powdered and isolated cocaine is a perversion of a legitimately beneficial herb with many different alkaloids. Coca provides smooth energy, perhaps partially because it promotes an increase in the use of fat as energy substrate during exercise [4] while sparing the breakdown of amino acids from muscle [5]. And yes, “exhaustive extraction [6]” from a gram of coca tea (the amount in a tea bag of standard size) nets about 5 mg of cocaine, about 1/8 the typical recreational dose of powdered cocaine, but brewing it in your kitchen produces far less. Traditionally, people would jam a wad of coca leaves and an alkali source (lime or sodium bicarbonate to enhance alkaloid availability) in their cheek and chew on it for an hour. You can empty out a bag of tea, add some baking soda, stuff it in your maw, and get similar results. Just be careful if you get drug tested, as coca tea can result in a false positive for cocaine [7] for at least three days.

Yerba Mate

Another South American hot herb drink with stimulating properties, yerba mate’s primary active compound is none other than caffeine. It’s got about the same amount as tea, less than coffee, plus other compounds (but none with proven stimulant qualities except for maybe theobromine). Caffeine is clearly the main player, and we all know that caffeine [8] works. There are correlational studies linking yerba mate [9] to esophageal and oral cancers, but that’s partially explained by the temperature at which the tea is commonly served [10]. Hot beverages in general have been linked to those same cancers, not just yerba mate. Depending on how it’s processed, yerba mate often contains significant amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons [11] (PAHs), a potential carcinogen that’s often found in other roasted plant-based infusion drinks (like coffee [12]). That’s because most commercial yerba mate is dried and smoked using burning wood [13] for up to a day – barbecued, basically. Yerba mate that’s air dried without smoke, like this one [14] or this one [15], should have fewer PAHs.

Hot Chocolate with Cayenne

That cayenne powder shot I mentioned a few weeks back [16] certainly wakes you up, but it’s not very pleasant and it involves consuming a large amount of very spicy powder in a single go – only the rare bird with a daily capsaicin habit will be able to use that one consistently. Instead, make real hot chocolate [17] with good, bitter cacao powder and spike it with as much cayenne as you can handle. The cocoa has stimulating alkaloids (like theobromine) and the cayenne resembles a more pleasant, delicious version of pulling a nose hair to wake up. Spicy food [18] also increases thermogenesis, especially paired with coconut [19].

Whey Protein Isolate (at Night)

Okay, so it’s not a quick fix when you’re feeling run down in the morning. You have to plan ahead and down it at night. But it works. Consuming the alpha-lactalbumin in whey (or milk) before you go to sleep increases tryptophan production at night which leads to increased wakefulness in the morning [20]. Plus, drinking whey isolate [21] at night also boosts morning energy expenditure [22] (hey, maybe that’s part of the reason why you’re more alert – you’re utilizing more energy!), improves cognitive performance [23], and elevates mood [24]. Who wouldn’t want to start the day with all that going on?

Protein and Fat

If you’re going to eat something in the morning, make sure it has protein and fat. A few eggs [25], maybe a bowl of Greek yogurt [26], a steak [27], whatever. Your breakfast should be protein- and fat-centric [28]. Eat some fruit [29] or something if you feel like it, but don’t go too heavy on the carbs. They offer quick but short-lived energy that often contributes to the midday crash (and excessive snacking), whereas protein and fat (especially combined) provide sustained energy you can coast on through to the afternoon.

Coffee Bean

I know I said “that aren’t traditional coffee,” but I’m talking about adding entire beans to your morning smoothie. Eating beans is definitely a non-traditional way to consume coffee and since consuming the entire bean means consuming every last physiologically relevant coffee [30] compound available, it’s a different feeling than a regular hot water extraction, and you don’t actually need as many beans as you’d need to brew a pot. A tablespoon or two of good quality coffee beans will do. I find the stimulation from whole beans far smoother than brewed. Not that coffee gives me the jitters on a regular basis, but it never does when I eat the whole bean.

Medium Chain Triglycerides/Coconut Oil

Consuming MCT oil or coconut oil [31] provides instant substrate for ketone production. You don’t need to eliminate all carbs, fast for 24 hours, or limit protein. You just eat a tablespoon or two and get “mild, sustained ketonemia [32]” that contributes about 9% of the brain’s energy requirements. It’s also a well-known promoter of diet-induced thermogenesis [19]. Basically, MCTs and to a lesser extent coconut oil provide a nice whack of free fatty acids ready to be burned for energy – if you’ve got the proper metabolic machinery set up to take advantage of them. If you’re a fat-burning beast [33], it’ll wake you up. I experienced the energizing potential of MCT oil [34] firsthand when I made mayonnaise [35] with two or three tablespoons of it and consumed the entire batch in a sitting. A “nervous” energy pulsed through me almost right away, almost a queasiness. Honestly? It was unpleasant and it was just too big a dose of straight-up MCTs. A tablespoon is a better dosage to start with.

Rhodiola Rosea

If you find yourself dragging in the morning, noon, and night because of mounting stress [36], consider rhodiola rosea. It’s an adaptogenic herb that’s been used for hundreds of years to combat stress-related fatigue. Rather than a quick fix, however, rhodiola rosea is all about the long game. Taking it once might not do much. Taking it once a day for a couple weeks could bring you back to baseline [37] and reduce mental fatigue [38], which feels incredibly energizing when you’ve been floundering in the basement for so long. Be consistent with it if you’re going to use it, as I am with Primal Calm [39].

Sparkling Mineral Water with Salt and Citrus

As you know, I’m not a big “8 glasses of water a day minimum or else you’ll shrivel up” kinda guy [40]. Just listen to your body, drink when thirsty, and you’ll be fine. That said, if you wake up feeling run down with an almost imperceptible inkling of a headache emerging and a dry mouth, I find that a tall glass of sparkling mineral water, a healthy shake of salt [41] (sea, Himalayan, Celtic, Hawaiian, your choice), and the juice from one lime or lemon (give it a good roll on the counter first to break up the cells and liberate the juice) will have you feeling better, faster, than anything else on this list. Or off it. Even if you’re not dehydrated, water-soluble, easily-absorbed minerals are a great way to start the day.

An “All of the Above” Smoothie

Yes, it’s possible to combine all of the above ingredients into a somewhat palatable smoothie. I haven’t yet discovered the formula, but it must exist as some Platonic ideal. Right?

That’s it for today.

And if anyone does figure out the perfect recipe that incorporates all the mentioned ingredients into a palatable (or at least edible) smoothie, please let us know in the comment section. I’d love to try it.

Thanks for reading, everyone.