This time of year I often find myself telling myself “I should drink less coffee”. I’m not sure why that is; but if I venture to guess, it has to do with the already shortened daylight hours, and the feeling that I have to force my body and mind awake against their better judgement. Drinking coffee in the still-dark hours of the morning when my mind says, “I’d rather be sleeping” sometimes feels a little forceful. So this time of year I often start to look for warm-beverage alternatives to coffee in the morning.
During my master’s program in Nutrition, I had the opportunity to take a pharmacognosy class. Pharmacognosy is the study of the medicinal qualities of plants, and how we can apply those qualities to promote and restore health. This was a very hands-on class; we were given weekly assignments to make teas, tincture, soaps, and other tonics using different herbs and plants. Shortly after that class ended back in 2014, I decided to replace my morning coffee for ten days with licorice root and stinging nettle.
Licorice Root was my first go-to warm beverage replacement for coffee because of its ability to slow the body’s breakdown of cortisol (1). Specifically, there is a component of licorice root known as glycyrrhizic acid (GA) that has been shown to inhibit enzymes in the body that would normally break down cortisol (1). In the morning, when we are waking up naturally (i.e. without stimulants like coffee), our healthy bodies will produce cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is secreted throughout the night, peaking around 9:00 AM (2). The roles of cortisol are varied, but generally speaking, cortisol’s primary role is to restore the body back to homeostasis after “stress” (3). Understanding that almost everything we encounter in our day-to-day lives (aka survival) could be considered “stressors”, it would follow that cortisol has a big job to do restoring homeostasis over night after each day we’ve “survived”.
Where licorice root delays the breakdown of cortisol, coffee (specifically the caffeine in the coffee) actually stimulates the body’s production of cortisol (4). In my ten-day experiment in 2014, I found that by the third of ten days, my body was waking so much more easily and readily without my normal, regular caffeine intake. I found myself waking well before my alarm, and practically ready to jump out of bed to get my day started.
Lately, I am not coffee-free every day. Some days I drink 1 cup of coffee (about 10 ounces, which can be anywhere from 100-150 mg of caffeine, approximately) or two. So while I may be abnormally boosting my cortisol on the coffee mornings, I have been enjoying the slightly-more-normal wake up on my licorice tea mornings. In addition to slowing the degradation of cortisol, licorice root is also known for it’s anti-inflammatory and antiviral effects (1).
I have been sipping on Egyptian Licorice tea from Yogi Tea, and sometimes their Egyptian Licorice Mint, too! Typically I steep just one tea bag in 10 ounces of water. For a more potent effect and flavor, you can try steeping two bags in 10-12 ounces of water.
While I enjoy a cup of licorice root in the early morning or mid afternoon (when cortisol levels generally have a second peak for the day), I absolutely love the feeling of drinking warm nettle tea throughout the day, and even into the evening. While stinging nettle use is commonly associated with urinary tract infections and hay fever (1, 5), I find this tea to be totally soothing and healing to my whole body. Stinging nettle has also been used historically to treat painful muscles and joints (1, 5).
To prepare stinging nettle, I buy the ground, dried leaves in bulk. I prefer to brew a big pot of stinging nettle, steeping 4-5 heaping tablespoons (not packed) of the dry herb in 32 ounces of just-boiled water for ten minutes. Typically I will brew this in the morning, have a cup when the steeping is finished, and then bring the rest of the tea with me in a thermos to sip on throughout the day.
What alternatives to coffee have you tried and enjoyed? Please share your ideas in the comments section below!
- Braun, Lesley, and Cohen, Marc. Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide, 3rd ed. Eslevier Australia: 2010.
- Husdon, Tori, and Bush, Bradley. The Cortisol-Sleep Connection. Townsend Letter: November 2010.
- Randall, Michael. The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science: Feb 3, 2011. Available at: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/#.WgYFbGhSw2w.
- Lovallo William R, Whitsett Thomas L, asl’Absi Mustafa, et al. Caffeine Stimulation of Cortisol Secretion Across the Waking Hours in Relation to Caffeine Intake Levels. Psychosom Med: Feb 27, 2008. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2257922/.
- Stinging Nettle. University of Maryland Medical Center: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Guide. Updated on Jan 1, 2017. Available at: http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/stinging-nettle.