I do not condone substance abuse, but, as a single mom and full-time writer, there are times that I need a bit of a stimulant-boost to keep going. If my daughter’s kept me busy all day and I have twelve articles due by morning, I’m left with only one viable option– herbal stimulants.
Despite their reputation, herbal stimulants can be surprisingly safe and effective. In fact, caffeine is the primary active component of most herbal stimulants– and 90% of adults use it daily without a second thought. Here are some of the most popular herbal stimulants and comparisons of their safety.
Safest Herbal Stimulants
The safest herbal stimulants are those used as ordinary foods and beverages. Black tea, green tea, coffee, natural cola, and chocolate all contain stimulants to varying degrees. Caffeine, which is safe in moderate doses for most adults, is the primary active stimulant in tea, cola and coffee. It stimulates the central nervous system and improves mental focus and alertness.
Caffeine itself can trigger anxiety, palpitations, insomnia and other problems in moderate doses, but serious side effects are rare unless the person uses excessive amounts. Stimulant foods such as chocolate contain caffeine as well as theobromine, another comparatively safe stimulant.
Moderately Safe Herbal Stimulants
Other, less popular herbal stimulants also contain caffeine, but some also contain other compounds which may be less safe. Guarana and yerba mate are both popular herbal stimulants used in South America. They contain caffeine, but they also provide other compounds of unknown safety. Over an extended period of time, yerba mate may increase the risk of some types of cancer.
Nevertheless, it’s generally safe to use these herbal stimulants in moderation on an occasional basis. As a daily pick-me-up, though, you’re better off sticking to coffees and teas, which are proven to have multiple health-boosting properties that outweigh their comparative safety concerns.
Unsafe Herbal Stimulants
Even if you are in good health, some herbal supplements are best avoided entirely. Most notoriously, the Chinese herb ephedra can cause serious adverse reactions. Although ephedra can be used medicinally in low doses, it is an easily abused substance and an extremely powerful central nervous system stimulant. It has caused several deaths in otherwise-healthy people. Avoid all herbs containing ephedrine, including country mallow (heartleaf) and ephedra.
Additionally, shy away from bitter orange, which contains synephrine– which is chemically very similar to ephedrine and probably just as dangerous. Another dangerous herbal stimulant, yohimbe, can cause heart problems, blood pressure fluctuations, liver failure, coma and death. Use these with extreme caution, if at all.
The occasional cup of green tea or natural cola will have no serious consequences from your health unless you have a medical condition that makes caffeine use inadvisable. However, other herbal stimulants are best left untouched. Consult an herbalist or physician about the comparative safety of herbal stimulants.
Black Tea (NIH)
Bitter Orange (Mayo Clinic)
Yerba Mate (Mayo Clinic)