I have been fairly outspoken in the past when it comes to my disdain and relative distaste for most energy drinks. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still a huge fan of products that will naturally enhance my energy levels, but it’s just that many of the stimulants on the market lately (energy drinks, pre-workouts, boosters, pumpers, whatever you want to call them) are mostly overhyped and will often leave you with the jitters, a lack of focus, and a short-lived high followed by a massive slump in energy levels.
Given these side effects and relatively little benefit, I’ve become a bit skeptical of the dizzying array of compounds, powders, and blends out there and thus tend to be extremely selective and calculated when it comes to seeking out natural energy drink alternatives for a bit of a *boost*—whether that be during the workday or during a workout. Bear in mind that this is coming from a guy who, especially during my bodybuilding and Ironman triathlon days, used to live and die by pre-workout supplements that were basically a potent cocktail of vasodilators, caffeine and ephedra overdoses that would leave me feeling sweaty-palmed with a racing heart during every workout, usually followed by a disturbing post-workout crash phenomenon and near adrenal burnout from hefty overuse of such compounds.
Additionally, I tend to get a ton of questions about, and requests for recommendations for, pre-workout supplements and natural energy drink alternatives. Just recently, I was asked in this Q&A episode whether I know of good late afternoon or early evening pre-workout or pre-“cocktail dinner” stimulants that won’t disrupt sleep or keep you up at night. (Hint: they exist, and you’ll learn below about each and every one of them I’ve used.)
So, for today’s article, I’m going to give you a brief rundown of just a few of the many problems with energy drinks and pre-workouts, my top 10 compounds and done-for-your concoctions, and (as an added bonus for you serious energy-seekers out there) two pretty decent, tried-and-true, pre-workout formula stacks—all of which will allow for a more natural way to achieve that extra pep in your step you seek…minus all of the downsides.
Now, I realize there are quite a few options that follow here, so lest you think I’m some kind of stimulant junkie, understand that I still use and recommend you this stuff sparingly, meaning not because you took it the day before and found it to work, but rather because you’re listening to your own biology, your brain and body are sluggish and sending you signals you could actually use it.
The Problem With Energy Drinks
One six-ounce cup of coffee has anywhere from 80 to 150 mg of caffeine (and also comes with avast array of health benefits). Your average energy drink, on the other hand, can have upwards of 500 mg of caffeine—with one popular energy drink “shot” topping out at 570mg, giving you the equivalent of about three and a half cups of coffee with a single sip!—and comes with a vast array of problems such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, and various acids.
What’s the problem with too much caffeine, sugar, and acid?
Let’s start with caffeine. Caffeine forces your adrenal glands to secrete enormous amounts of adrenaline and “energy” hormones, even when those glands are depleted. The result is a growing tolerance to the effects of caffeine, eventual burnout, and severe adrenal depletion. This is accompanied by a feeling of increasing tiredness and a need for higher and higher amounts of caffeine to achieve an energy boost. Attempts at quitting the addiction can result in withdrawal symptoms such as severe headaches and complete loss of mental focus and function. As I highlight in my book Boundless, high levels of caffeine consumption have been associated with an increased risk of stroke and arthritis, insomnia, heart palpitations, tremors, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, chest pain, and neurological symptoms!
Next, there’s the problem of sugar, a major component of most energy drinks (or agave, or cane syrup, or fruit juice concentrate – it’s all mostly equivalent). Too much sugar causes your pancreas to create a literal flood of insulin in an attempt to manage all the extra glucose (sugar) that ends up in your bloodstream. Some of this sugar may be used by your muscles, but usually only if you are exercising quite frequently. The remainder of the sugar is converted into fat by your liver. In addition, your body releases both epinephrine and cortisol from your adrenal glands (as if they weren’t already stressed enough from the caffeine!). The result is a quick swing in energy, followed by a subsequent crash, a severely compromised immune system, a surge of cell-damaging “free radicals,” thickened blood, and an eventual insensitivity to insulin, often manifesting as a gradual onset of type II diabetes. Check out my podcast “The Case Against Sugar: Is Gary Taubes Full Of Sweet Lies & Deception, Or Is Sugar Really Making Us Fat?” for more on these potential dangers of excess sugar consumption.
Given these potential dangers of swigging down your favorite carbonated can of a short-lived and unhealthy energy boosting surge, let’s dive into some of my favorite energy drink alternatives.
10 Natural Sources Of Energy
As I already alluded to in the intro, this isn’t a “more is more” type of situation. Yes, as you’ll discover towards the end of this list, certain supplements such as essential amino acids (EAAs), creatine, and ketones make an effective and safe stack, but that doesn’t mean you should dump everything on this list into your huge blender bottle and chug it all before hitting the gym.
This word of caution is especially important for number 1 on this list, nicotine. As you’re probably already aware, nicotine is highly addictive, so it should only be used in moderation, and you should remain mindful of your dependence upon it.
In addition to the above, nicotine acts as a neuroprotective (meaning, it can reduce inflammation in the brain) and has been studied and shown to be beneficial for treating at least three different neurodegenerative conditions: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Tourette’s.
Lucy Gum is one of my go-to nicotine sources not only because of its superior texture and taste (compared with run-of-the-mill options like Nicorette) but more importantly because of its absence of many of the problems that most nicotine gums and sprays have (being chock full of artificial sweeteners and chemical fillers). If you’re the DIY type and feel like purchasing a bit of pharmaceutical-grade nicotine to combine with a sweetener such as monk fruit or stevia, you can check out my Sour Green Apple Nicotine Spray recipe here. I’ve been making this formula lately and even adding a touch of the nootropic methylene blue for a bit of a smurf-like brain booster effect. (For more on methylene blue, listen to my podcast with Dr. Ted Achacoso here)
On a daily average, I probably consume close to 3 to 4 milligrams of nicotine, usually chewing on a couple of pieces of nicotine gum a day (which I often include pre-workout). If I find I’m tired at the end of the day and maybe want to be a little bit more wakeful during dinner, I’ll sometimes also chew on a piece in the evenings, as it seems to get in and out of the system relatively quickly compared to an evening cup of coffee, thus not disrupting sleep.
To echo the previous word of caution: Nicotine is a substance you do need to be careful with. It is addictive, and similar to if you attempted to quit smoking cigarettes, issues like strong cravings, increased appetite, sleep disturbances, and a little bit of irritability or restlessness can be common when trying to quit nicotine. I recommend taking it slowly and limiting yourself to no more than 1-2 pieces of gum per day and only using on more cognitively demanding days. And if you want to skirt any of the consumption issues or microdose with a slow bleed of nicotine, you can simply use a nicotine patch like this.
A promoter of mental clarity, focus, and memory, lion’s mane is an edible mushroom that is full of nerve growth factor, which has amazing benefits for neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and cognition. When you see lion’s mane growing in nature, it looks like a cluster of axons and dendrites, which is an interesting obsearvation because these are how your nerves communicate with one another. Given the curious similarities, this relates to nature’s “doctrine of signatures” hypothesis I’ve discussed in the past (the way that things look in nature indicate the biological impact they might have on your body). If google images are the closest you can get to seeing lion’s mane in the wild, and you’re curious to see it in full mushroom format, lion’s mane can also be found in gourmet food stores and is also available in a supplement form and as a tea.
When it comes to the array of choices and the increasing popularity of mushroom extracts, unfortunately not all are created equal. Medicinal mushrooms such as lion’s mane have different benefits depending on how they are grown, what stage they are harvested in, or where they are sourced. The majority of products on the market are grown in laboratories on something like brown rice, for example, which results in the end product being only 50 to 30% mushroom (the other 50 to 70% is actually the brown rice) with fewer bioactive compounds than had the mushroom been grown in its natural environment. What you want to look for is lion’s mane grown on a mycelium medium, and my podcast with “Real Mushrooms” founder Jeff Chilton takes a deeper dive into the reasons behind this.
I take lion’s mane (about 1g in supplement form, or a cup of lion’s mane tea) a lot of times in the later afternoon or the evening for its mild stimulant effects that give me an increase in alertness without fear it will disrupt my sleep. It tends to go quite well with a microdose of psilocybin and niacin, but that’s a story for another day. (Dig into the psychedelics section of my book Boundless for more on that.)
An organic acid naturally produced in your body from other amino acids, creatine is found in foods such as meats, eggs, and fish, and is commonly deficient in heavily exercising individuals, the elderly, and people who eat a primarily plant-based diet.
With everything I’ve learned, and after 20+ years of use, I truly believe pure creatine monohydrate from a high-quality source is one of the most potent components of any smartly-designed supplementation protocol—even if you’re not a serious athlete or trying to put on slabs and slabs of muscle. My go-to source is Kion Creatine, which is derived from Creapure, a micronized form of creatine monohydrate that’s colorless, odorless, and has highly enhanced solubility (so it mixes well with water, juice, smoothies, or just about anything you toss it into).
When it comes to dosage, you may have heard about needing to load, de-load, or cycle creatine, with complex protocols of taking 20g for multiple days, then tapering down (the above article dives into the details on why you can forget all that), but I like to keep it simple. For as long as I can remember, I’ve taken just 5 grams of creatine per day, simply adding 2.5 grams to my morning smoothie, then taking the second dose of 2.5 grams later in the evening—or, as explained below, as part of a stack with EAAs, ZEN Nasal Spray, and ketones.
Essential amino acids can boost your energy, fuel your workout, and stave off cravings. While some amino acids can be synthesized by your body, other amino acids—specifically the ones you’ll find in most EAAs supplements—must come from food or supplementation.
As a quick side note: There’s plenty of misinformation out there about something called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which have remained popular among bodybuilders despite their now well-known inferiority to EAAs. I cover this in-depth in my amino acids article, but the gist is that BCAAs contain only 3 amino acids, and you need more than just leucine, isoleucine, and valine to repair your muscle after a workout. EAAs, on the other hand, contain everything your body needs for protein repair and don’t spike your insulin; and having high blood levels of EAAs (NOT BCAAs) allows your body and brain to both repair and to work hard instead of getting cannibalized and shutting down.
I like to take 10g of EAAs about 30 minutes before a hard weight training or HIIT workout, and I find this to be optimal timing to ensure I’m going into my workout with high blood levels of amino acids. For longer workouts, such as an endurance training session, I’ll repeat this dose once every hour of exercise. To avoid competition among other amino acids and increase absorption, I also avoid taking with most other protein sources (though you can take it with whey protein powder as it has actually been shown to increase absorption) or with fat, such as MCT oil or caprylic acid. This one also works well before bed to support sleep, or at any time during the day if you are fasting. It can also be used for post-workout recovery, or, as outlined below, as part of a stack with creatine, ZEN Nasal Spray, and ketones.
The impact of ketones on the brain is an exciting experimental area. It is only since 2017—when exogenous ketones became more commercially-available and thus unlocked the ability to study the state of ketosis “on-demand”—that a number of research programs, sports practices, and hobbyist experimentation could get off the ground. In the article “How To Use Exogenous Ketones For Recovery, Cognition, Sleep & Beyond,” you can learn more about this and discover some not yet widely discussed or understood uses for ketones (including recovery, cognition, sleep, anti-catabolic applications, and more).
With that said, the effects of elevated ketone levels on cognition have already been studied quite a bit and have shown:
Of course, there are also plenty of anecdotal cases in which the use of ketones as an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing agent) ahead of big presentations or talks allows users to be more present or more “in flow.” For example, Dr. Rhonda Patrick on the Joe Rogan podcast has talked about using ketones before taping her own podcast. There have been a number of animal studies in this area that propose mechanisms, but nothing has yet been formally published in humans.
Now, when it comes to the use of exogenous ketones, there are an increasing array of products on the market which tend to be in the form of either ketone salts or ketone esters. An ester is simply an organic molecule that has an oxygen double bond between different components. There are monoesters with one ester bond and diesters with two ester bonds. A ketone ester basically delivers 100% BHB equivalent, versus a ketone salt, which delivers over half of its molecular weight in minerals. My podcast with H.V.M.N. (Health Via Modern Nutrition) co-founder and CEO Geoffrey Woo takes a deep dive into this as well as the differences in potency (and the pros and cons) between ketone salts and esters.
L-theanine is an amino acid that increases alpha brain wave activity and produces a dose-dependent state of relaxed alertness about 45 minutes after you ingest it. You’ll find it in green tea, and it’s got two components in it (theophylline and theobromine) that can enter your brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier. This is what increases the formation of alpha brainwaves (giving you an “alert relaxation” feeling) and affects GABA and dopamine pathways in such a way that increases attention and brain function.
If I ever happen to have made the mistake of having too much coffee and find I need to make caffeine a bit less stimulative, I’ll simply take around 100mg L-theanine. It’s also something that I will take by itself (I find around 100-200 milligrams to be the sweet spot) for improved focus and mood. You could take it with lion’s mane, or stack it with anything I’ve described here really.
ZEN Nasal Spray is made from Amazonian Rapé and peppermint, eucalyptus, and rosemary essential oils, and its intended use is for anxiety and stress reduction, or for preparing the brain and body for more hefty plant medicine journeys or psychedelic microdosing. Quite paradoxically, because it serves as a potent pre-workout stimulant, I find this stuff is also great if you need help calming and quieting your mind, such as before a meditation session. It also stimulates the vagal nerve, increases the brain-blood flow, and affects the release of stimulatory neurotransmitters leading to antidepressive and stimulatory effects while simultaneously heightening focus, concentration, and memory. While one version on Dr. John Lieurance’s site is simply the Amazonian Rapé, the version marked “EO” contains the following essential oils:
There are many uses and applications for ZEN Nasal Spray, but my specific go-to for pre-workout is 2 sprays per nostril, followed by about 30 seconds of deep nasal “huffing” to really drive it home into the olfactory nerves. It’s not as intense as snorting Rapé itself directly via a Kuripe pipe (which lights you up for a few hours and involves a protocol you can read up on here), but I find this specific blend to work extremely well. As you’ll discover below, you can also include ZEN as part of a stack with EAAs, creatine, and ketones.
When talking about seeking a boost, I’d be remiss not to include the nootropic blend Qualia Mind on this list (which I reported on in my God pill article here). This is the best “done for you” nootropic stack I’ve come across that combines effective and research-proven brain-enhancing compounds such as N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, which has been shown in clinical trials to improve cognitive performance in people placed under extreme stress; alpha-GPC, which increases acetylcholine levels in the brain (a primary executive neurotransmitter in humans), leading to faster information processing, faster memory recall, and faster reaction times; and Bacopa monnieri extract, which has also been shown to improve cognitive function.
In addition, Qualia Mind contains dozens of other nootropic compounds, vitamins, antioxidants, adaptogens, amino acids, herbal tonics, and lipids to improve your focus, memory, and drive, including:
So as you can see, it’s kind a “shotgun formula”. If I need to crush a day of work, I’ll take anywhere from six to eight capsules of this in the morning. I prefer the caffeine-free version in the morning because I still like to have a cup of coffee to start my day, and this allows me to experience all of the brain-boosting effects of Qualia Mind without doubling up on my caffeine. If I just need a little pick-me-up in the evening, I’ll take a half dose without fear of it interfering with my sleep. The standard dose for most people is 7 capsules, but the optimal dosage can vary based on weight and sensitivity. Finally, those who microdose with LSA or LSD, including myself, find that 6-8 capsules of Qualia Mind combined with about 10-20mcg of LSA or LSD can be one of the best stacks for creativity and productivity out there.
Royal Jelly – Rich in valuable nutrients and antioxidants, royal jelly may support hormonal balance & brain health thanks to rare beneficial compounds that may help to improve cognition and fend off deterioration. For example, royal jelly contains 10-HDA, an ultra-unique fatty acid that nourishes the brain & supports the production of BDNF, which actively fends off brain fog. Royal Jelly is a thick milky substance, which allows the queen bee to get 40% larger and live 40 times longer than the worker bee. In the past, I’ve mixed this stuff up on its own with chia seeds and bee pollen to nurse during a race.
Bee Pollen – Bee pollen is rich in easily absorbable B vitamins, minerals, free-forming amino acids, and antioxidants. As a clean source of energizing nutrients, some professional athletes even supplement with bee pollen to fuel their strength, endurance, and workout recovery.
Propolis – Containing 300+ beneficial compounds, propolis is an antioxidant-dense bee product with powerful protective properties. For bees, it is used to line the hive walls to keep germs out. For humans, it supports the immune system, soothes scratchy throats, and helps combat free radical damage in the body.
I find organic honey to be nature’s most perfect nutrient-dense sweetener. The glycemic index (a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels) of honey varies from 32 to 85, depending on the botanical source, and while honey can have a relatively high glycemic index, the glycemic load (how much the food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it) is relatively low.
Optimal electrolyte balance supports performance before, during, and after high-intensity activities. On the muscular level, electrolytes help conduct nerve impulses throughout your body, thus allowing your muscles to contract. When your body loses enough water and/or electrolytes, the nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles become deranged which makes your muscles cramp. Electrolytes can help you to restore this important balance. Balanced electrolytes help fight fatigue, promote calorie control, and help fuel your muscles and brain. Thorne Catalyte is an electrolyte powder that has a balanced ratio of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium based on the ratio that you typically see lost through sweat. It is low in calories and is perfect before, during, and after a workout.
Here’s what the complete profile of a good electrolyte formula like Catalyte looks like:
Calcium (Lactate) – 80mg
Chloride (Sodium Chloride) – 80mg
Chromium (Nicotinate Glycinate) – 15mcg
Folate (L-5-MTHF) – 33.3mcg DFE
Magnesium (Lysinate Glycinate) – 40mg
Potassium (Citrate) – 96mg
Sodium (Chloride) and Disodium (Phosphate) – 485mg
Taurine – 500mg
Vitamin B1 (Thiamin HCI) – 1mg
Vitamin B12 (Methylcobalamin) – 6mcg
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin 5′-Phosphate Sodium) – 2mg
Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) – 4mg
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxal 5′-Phosphate) – 2mg
Vitamin C (Sodium Ascorbate) – 100mg
Zinc (Bisglycinate) – 5mg
I’ve used Catalyte (1 scoop with at least 12 ounces of water) in a stack blended with ketones and EAAs many times during very long workouts and noticed good clean-burning energy from it. This is likely because many hard-charging athletes and active individuals like myself tend to be mineral depleted, which can hamper adrenaline production, and also because low-carb exercise enthusiasts (also like myself) tend to have lower glycogen and mineral stores, and notice a benefit from consistent electrolyte consumption.
When it comes to pre-workout nutrition and methods to get that extra shot of energy without oodles of caffeine and other stimulants, there’s probably no population on the face of the planet as immersed in that sector than the bodybuilding community. In my conversation with professional bodybuilder Milos Sarcev, he outlines his personal pre-workout formula, which I thought would be helpful to include here if you’re looking for a simple but effective pre-workout stack, particularly for a longer weight training workout. It was such a fascinating discussion that I’d be remiss not to mention his stack, which, especially for a more hard-charging or high-volume athlete, would combine well with many of the options above. Below Milos’s stack, I’ve also included one of my own favorite pre-workout stacks of late, which combines several of the elements you’ve already read about in this article.
Milos Sarcev’s Pre-Workout Formula:
My Personal Go-to Stack:
Each can be taken around 30-45 minutes prior to a workout for a quick, clean burst of energy without any of the drawbacks of those canned energy drinks you’ll find at your local gym.
Not only are many of the claims and promises of traditional energy drinks vastly overstated, but they can also be downright dangerous. As you learned earlier, something as simple as a cup of coffee is harmless, but caffeine in high amounts, which is very easy to overconsume from most pre-workout stimulants, can cause dizziness, anxiety, and even cardiac arrest, along with deleteriously affecting sleep architecture and causing heart arrhythmias for some people. When paired with the artificial sweeteners and other stimulants found in most pre-workout formulas, this can spell biological disaster for most folks, especially with long-term use.
Beginning in my college years and beyond, I have certainly been guilty of turning to the more convenient and common energy boosts, often for years drinking 2-3 energy drinks a day, nearly every day—so I’ve experienced these effects firsthand, particularly in terms of sleep destruction and adrenal exhaustion. I’ve since weaned myself off of that habit and now lean on these natural energy drink alternatives (albeit in moderation) in order to keep that edge.
Most of the compounds I’ve mentioned throughout this article can be kept in your energy toolkit and used as needed – but remember that does not necessarily mean using them every day or prior to or during every single training session. There are some that can be incorporated as part of a daily supplement routine (such as EAAs, creatine, lion’s mane, and perhaps regular use of electrolytes), whereas compounds such as exogenous ketones, L-theanine, ZEN spray, Qualia Mind, and honey are those you can mix in on an as-needed basis. Listen to your body, folks.
So there you have it. What about you? Have you tried any of these natural energy drink alternatives? Or, did I miss any? Leave your comments, questions, and thoughts below!