5 coffee alternatives to boost energy

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published December 8, 2020

Key Takeaways

For many people, a good old cup of coffee is the go-to panacea for everyday low energy and fatigue. But is coffee the only way to get energized? 

Fatigue is characterized as a lack of energy or motivation, and it can be a normal physiologic response to emotional stress, physical activity, boredom, or lack of sleep. In the United States, the use of herbal supplements to combat fatigue is on the rise, with 80% of those with chronic fatigue turning to herbs, as well as other forms of complementary/alternative medicine.

Here are five foods and supplements that will help battle fatigue without the need to make a coffee run.

Rhodiola rosea 

The perennial flowering plant Rhodiola rosea is endemic to high, northern latitudes, and is thought to be an adaptogena group of herbs and mushrooms that boost the body’s ability to cope with (ie, adapt to) stress. R. rosea has also been assessed for potential performance-enhancing and therapeutic effects.

In a randomized-controlled trial, investigators from Sweden found that R. rosea exerted “an anti-fatigue effect that increases mental performance, particularly the ability to concentrate, and decreases cortisol response to awakening stress in burnout patients with fatigue syndrome.” In the trial, 30 participants received four R. rosea extract tablets daily (576 mg extract/day) for 28 days, and 30 participants received four placebo tablets daily. Fatigue was assessed using questionnaires. 

Other clinical studies have examined the use of R. rosea-only products topping off at a dosage of 1,500 mg/day. The drug appeared to have a large margin of safety, with relief of mental fatigue reported at doses between 100 mg/day and 576 mg/day. A positive effect on physical performance was noted between 200 mg/day and 680 mg/day, according to the results of a systematic review published in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies. 

The authors of the review noted that although the bioactive components of R. rosea remain to be elucidated, pharmacologic preparations of the drug are standardized to specific levels of the marker compounds rosavin and salidroside, with the former being unique to the plant.

Asian ginseng

In Western countries, many people have taken Asian ginseng for stress, improved health, and fatigue—and apparently with good reason. Results of a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Korean Medical Science found that Asian ginseng significantly reduced stress in several randomized control trials.

As for possible mechanisms, the researchers wrote, “Regarding mental fatigue, although a human study indicated that ginseng increases cognitive performance, its mechanisms remain not known, but may be related to the ginseng's glycemic properties. Ginseng affects brain activity, specifically by increasing cortical levels of dopamine, noradrenalin, serotonin, and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP).” 

On the other hand, Asian ginseng could help combat physical fatigue and heighten physical performance by “renewing or increasing energy stores in the body, facilitating the biochemical reactions that yield energy, reducing or neutralizing performance-inhibiting metabolic byproducts, and facilitating recovery,” the authors wrote. Of note, the researchers included studies that tested Asian ginseng at dosages between 350 mg/day and 3,000 mg/day.

Ginseng is generally recognized as safe. 

Fatty fish

Experts have found that higher intake of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are found naturally in fatty fish, could decrease fatigue. The effect may be due to reduced levels of inflammation associated with such consumption.

In a sample of 633 breast cancer survivors, researchers publishing in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that those with high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) had a 1.8 times greater likelihood of fatigue. Moreover, increased omega-6 PUFA relative to omega-3 PUFA intake was also related to increased CRP and boosted odds of fatigue.

“Results link higher intake of omega-3 PUFAs, decreased inflammation, and decreased physical aspects of fatigue,” they concluded. 

High levels of omega-6 PUFA are found in eggs, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.


In 1976, the American Egg Board created the slogan “The Incredible, Edible Egg.” This slogan became a pre-Internet meme of sorts, garnering what we would now refer to as viral status. Somewhere along the line, people developed a disdain for eggs due to concerns about cholesterol. However, studies on dietary lipids and CVD incidence have shown that dietary cholesterol is not an independent risk factor for heart disease.

Today, eggs remain both incredible and, well, edible. 

“High-quality proteins make a valuable contribution to the synthesis and maintenance of muscle and indirectly to the regulation of blood glucose levels, thus contributing to power, strength, and energy,” according to the authors of an article published in Nutrition Today. “Eggs have traditionally been used as the standard of comparison for measuring protein quality because of their essential amino acid (EAA) profile and high digestibility. They provide a nutrient-dense source of energy from protein and fat, approximately 75 kcal per large egg, as well as several B vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, folate, B12, and B6, which are required for the production of energy by the body.”

Vitamin D

There are several disorders in which fatigue is pronounced, and they typically trace their pathology back to mitochondrial dysfunction. Vitamin D deficiency—which is common worldwide—is a principal cause of such fatigue and myopathy.

Results from a small clinical study published in Endocrine Abstracts indicated that 10 to 12 weeks of cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) therapy enhanced muscle mitochondrial maximal oxidative phosphorylation after exercise in those with vitamin D deficiency. 

The authors wrote that “changes in mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation in skeletal muscle could at least be partly responsible for the fatigue experienced by these patients. For the first time, we demonstrate a link between vitamin D and the mitochondria in human skeletal muscle.” 

The recommended daily intake of vitamin D in those between the ages of 1 and 70 years is 600 IU, and 800 IU for people older than 70 years. 

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