Coffee drinking boosts brain function but there is more to it than just caffeine.

Jul 07, 2023

Coffee drinking boosts brain function but there is more to it than just caffeine.

We all associate a cup of coffee with a boost in alertness but to investigate the mechanisms that underly our brain boosting cupper researchers have started to tease apart the effects of coffee from caffeine.

To do this, regular coffee drinkers were given hot water with equal amounts of caffeine added making the drink equally caffeine loaded as their regular cup of coffee.

They then used brain scanning technology 1 hour before the loaded drink and 30 minutes after to observe the effects on brain function compared to that of drinking a regular cup of coffee.

Both the coffee and water loaded drinkers demonstrated enhanced brain activity associated with self-reflection seen in the rested state. This state improves our ability to move from a state of rest to taking on a task related activity.

However, coffee drinkers showed enhanced activity within the area of the brain linked with our visual centres, memory and conscious through processes. This was not seen in the water-caffeine drinkers.

Exactly why coffee vs caffeine can have such effects is not yet fully understood. It might reflect the influences of other organic compounds found in coffee that are obviously absent in a simple caffeine infused hot water drink or it may even extend to more psychological associations with the taste and aroma of coffee drinking. Either way, the study does clarify that coffee drinking increases alertness and cognitive function.

If coffee is not your thing or it gives you unpleasant effects then all is not lost when it comes to boosting your level of alertness.

Are there alternatives?

Studies on the powdered Ashwagandha root (sometimes known as ‘Indian ginseng’) have concluded that it offers improved cognitive function, visual memory, reaction time and an improved stress response when taken for 30-days. These effects are not due to the actions of caffeine, as this root does not contain it, but possibly a group of compounds known as withanolides. These is not a great deal of information available on these compounds in connection with brain function but some studies on Ashwagandha with higher levels of withanolides has been shown to be more effective in easing insomnia. Moderate levels may improve both energy levels and total sleep time, while unstandardized ashwagandha may only be effective in increasing energy levels.

Other non-caffeine / coffee alternatives include Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Siberian ginseng, or Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus).

In general, Korean ginseng is considered to offer a more powerful stimulant effect due its ginsenosides content compared to the Siberian variety which contains the active compounds known as eleutherosides.

Green tea, or more specifically its L-theanine component, has been the subject of study for many years. As a chemical it is structurally similar to certain naturally occurring brain chemicals. L-theanine has been shown to have positive effects on cognitive function and on easing the impact of stress on the nervous system. 

Link in with the science and research;

These links take you to the research publications which are written for the scientific community. The language is technical but the abstracts and conclusions are readable and understandable. Naturally, these often represent ongoing studies and can't be used as the basis of a treatment plan without first discussing it with your doctor or health professional.

Effects of L-Theanine Administration on Stress-Related Symptoms and Cognitive Functions in Healthy Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial

Siberian Ginseng: A Review of the Literature

Cognition enhancing effect of panax ginseng in Korean volunteers with mild cognitive impairment: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial

Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract on Cognitive Functions in Healthy, Stressed Adults: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study

Coffee consumption decreases the connectivity of the posterior Default Mode Network (DMN) at rest