Caffeine: Seeking Natural Alternatives

Wendy Daly, MD

It seems as if every day there is a new study released on caffeine. A recent published study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings looked at 43,727 men and women ages 20-87 and found that men under 55 who drank more than 4 cups of coffee per day had a 56% higher all-cause mortality risk and women in that age group had a 113% higher risk.1

However, there are other studies telling us that coffee is actually good for us. For example, Harvard's School of Public Health revealed that consuming between 2-4 cups a day may reduce risk of suicide in adults by 50%.2 The American Cancer Society has shown that drinking four or more cups may reduce mortality from mouth and throat cancer.3

I am unsure if this type of information is helping anyone to decide. I, as a pediatrician, am very concerned about the use of caffeine in children and teens. It's a time we should be focusing on how to help them learn and prepare for their future. But in a society that believes the answer for every time one is tired is caffeine; the use of caffeine in children is growing faster and in higher amounts than ever before.

I am alarmed to see that the market is encouraging our youth to choose caffeine for energy. Our children need a healthy diet and proper sleep (not caffeine) for energy.

Teenagers are back in school and even more prone to use energy drinks as they get into the day to day grind. Typical diets are so far from perfect. I believe we need to supplement their diet choices. But not only due to their food choices, the fact that we eat a majority of food that is pre-prepared for us already means that food has lost a great amount of nutrition. Nutrition studies indicate that once we wash, prepare, or cook foods there is a great loss of the nutrient value. Preston Andrews, PhD, a plant researcher and associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University states, “the nutrients in most fruits and vegetables start to diminish as soon as they are picked.” These already-prepared meals are even a stronger reason we should supplement with the daily essential vitamins and minerals they are lacking. Children need B vitamins, Vitamin C, and minerals like magnesium for energy, not caffeine.

Lately I have looked at Rhodiola rosea as a caffeine alternative for young adults. Thinking on how this appears to help provide energy but doesn’t appear to interfere with the health of the body as caffeine can. Is this a great way to start to re-educate the population on energy drinks. Can we find a better alternative? Would this not be better for the body and the brain? If we can re-educate the adult population to look for healthier alternatives will our children grow up to not think caffeine is the be-all?

Let’s do some comparisons.


Rhodiola rosea should be standardized for 3% rosavins and 1% salidroside, matching clinical trials. In a double-blind randomized placebo controlled study on rhodiola for 20 days, students in the rhodiola group had significant improvement in physical fitness, mental fatigue and neuromotor tests. The self-assessment of the general well-being was also significantly better in the rhodiola group.13

A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 56 physicians on night-duty evaluated the potential benefits of rhodiola for maintaining mental acuity. Participants received either placebo or rhodiola extract (170 mg daily) for a period of 2 weeks. The results showed that participants taking rhodiola retained a higher level of mental function as measured by tests, such as mental arithmetic.14

Another double-blind, placebo-controlled study evaluated one-time use of the same rhodiola extract (at a dose of 370 mg or 555 mg) in 161 male military cadets undergoing occasional sleep deprivation and stress. The results showed that rhodiola, at either dose, was more effective than placebo at fighting the effects of fatigue.15


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