When we think of coffee, we think caffeine. But coffee is more than just caffeine. Alongside this main character is a supporting cast of ingredients like catechins, flavanoids, and polyphenols that protect the brain and heart. All of these ingredients create a caffeine synergy, combining well together to amplify the effects of caffeine alone.
This synergy of ingredients within the coffee plant may have evolved as a mechanism for plants to communicate with humans. Yes, plants are talking to you, but not in the way that you think. According to longevity researcher, Dr. David Sinclair, plants like coffee produce chemicals that inform our body about conditions in the environment, such as drought, famine, or hardship. Humans have evolved alongside these plants and thus receive more benefits from all of them together rather than a single, isolated ingredient.
But we evolved alongside these plants in an ancestral environment, not an office building. It is obvious that caffeine alone was not designed for stable focus in the office. This raises a deeper question:
What ingredients might we add to caffeine to create a synergy that helps us focus in a modern work environment?
Nature provides some clues, particularly with green teas. But before we get to that, let’s talk about a popular human-designed forms of caffeine synergy: bulletproof coffee.
Bulletproof Caffeine Synergy
The inspiration for Bulletproof coffee came from yak butter tea, a beverage consumed in the Himalayan mountains to survive frigid temperatures. Trekking to Mount Kailash in Tibet, Dave Asprey stumbled into a one-bedroom mud hut, tasted his first yak butter tea, and brought the concoction to the west with his own unique twist.
In his Bulletproof coffee recipe, he combines black coffee with grass-fed butter and MCT oil. This is an example of caffeine synergy, pairing ingredients together to amplify the benefits of caffeine alone. The fats bind to caffeine in Bulletproof coffee so that it’s released over a longer period for sustained mental energy without the crash. The combination of ingredients is more effective than each individual part.
Finding different forms of caffeine synergy makes caffeine more sustainable and more effective. Beyond Bulletproof coffee, some of the best examples of caffeine synergy derive from natural plants and ingredients, such as tea and chocolate.
Nature’s Caffeine Synergy: Tea and Chocolate
Tea, and matcha green tea in particular, has multiple caffeine synergies. One ingredient in green tea is L-theanine, a non-essential amino acid, which pairs exceptionally well with caffeine. The L-theanine negates many of the side effects of caffeine, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. It also improves the positive aspects of caffeine by enhancing focus and concentration. Matcha also contains a catechin called EGCG, which can support liver, cardiovascular health, and serves as a neuroprotective.
Another natural form of caffeine synergy is cacao. A main ingredient of cacao is a molecule called theobromine, which is an alkaloid that provides an alternative type of stimulation. For instance, caffeine is a vasoconstrictor (makes the blood vessels smaller) while theobromine is a vasodilator (opens the blood vessels). People experience more euphoria with theobromine and ancient Mayan civilization considered cacao “heart opening” perhaps for this reason. A bar of dark chocolate can provide this caffeine synergy with as little as 1 ounce.
The Best of Both: A High Fat Latte Enhanced with Nature’s Synergy
Our coconut matcha latte includes coconut milk with MCT oil and matcha green tea with L-theanine and green tea extract (EGCG). This combines the principles of Bulletproof coffee with nature’s synergy to produce even greater cognitive benefits. We created a caffeine synergy stack, so to speak.
These synergistic ingredient extracts are delivered through the whole foods instead of isolating them: Quick energy from MCT oil and coconut milk. Boost mood and attention with L-theanine / EGCG and matcha green tea. We also added curcumin and turmeric root, a xanthine oxidase inhibitor that makes caffeine more effective for longer.
Pairing an extract with the corresponding whole food gives us the best of both: a high dose of the active compound (like L-theanine, for example) as well as a fuller representation of the whole plant and its many nutrients (like matcha green tea). The latte has scientifically-backed doses the way nature intended.
I like to add extra butter and sometimes cream to my morning coconut matcha latte. Even though it has 8 grams of prebiotic fiber, I noticed on my continuous glucose monitor (CGM) that my blood sugar response is the same as a cup of black coffee, which keeps me in ketosis, utilizing fat for energy. This is my favorite form of caffeine synergy, but there are many others, some of which you can create on your own.
More Approaches to Caffeine Synergy
The coconut matcha latte provides a whole-food nootropic approach to caffeine synergy, but there are other approaches that can work well. Some formulations focus heavily on complexity-science and physiology research. Others aim to combine traditional, herbal extracts and botanicals. Below are a couple of brands with reputable products and some assistance to “do it yourself” if you desire.
I’m friends with many members of the Neurohacker Collective (NHC) team and these guys know their stuff. Between the leadership of Daniel and James Schmachtenberger, medical direction of Dr. Daniel Stickler and formulation from Dr. Greg Kelly, the NHC has produced Qualia Mind with multiple forms of caffeine synergy.
Their source of caffeine comes from coffeeberry, the fruity outer layer of the coffee bean, which is filled with antioxidants and stimulates production of brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). The coffee skins alter the flavor of coffee, which is why it has become a waste product, but Qualia Mind incorporates even more of the coffee plant for cognitive benefits.
Using the entire coffeeberry extract values the full-plant in the way nature intended. It is often prudent to trust nature and represent as much of the whole food as possible. Qualia Mind is stronger than most other supplements in this regard, but it is still fundamentally a stack of isolated compounds. They include L-theanine to provide balanced, calm focus, theobromine for heart opening, and artichoke extract, which interacts positively with cellular metabolism.
I find that a full dose of Qualia Mind is too stimulating so I use a half-dose, which works better (and makes the product more affordable!) I am moving towards more real-food ingredients to achieve cognitive enhancements instead of isolated molecules, but if you are going the isolated molecules route, Qualia Mind is great.
Four Sigmatic has helped bring medicinal mushrooms into the mainstream, which are excellent, natural ingredients to pair with caffeine. The flagship mushroom coffee product includes coffee and the mushrooms lion’s mane and chaga plus an adaptogenic herb called rhodiola. Because of these mushrooms, each serving only has 50 mg of caffeine, which is a lower and more sustainable dose.
Lion’s mane mushroom supports memory formation and learning through the chemical BDNF (fertilizer for the brain). Rhodiola is an adaptogenic herb that supports concentration and sustained mental attention. The rhodiola rosea is an adequate dosage, but unfortunately the lion’s mane and chaga mushrooms are a bit on the low side.
This is a tasty, sustainable tool that you can use to make Bulletproof coffee with less caffeine and more medicinal goodies.
Do it yourself
I want you to have the tools to take advantage of caffeine synergy without purchasing any of these pre-made products if you desire. The simplest change you can make is to add L-theanine to your coffee. The combination of caffeine and L-theanine in a 1 to 2 ratio is considered a beginner nootropic (supplements that improve mental performance). I suggest using L-theanine capsules so you don’t alter the flavor of the coffee and don’t need a milligram scale to measure. If you drink a single 8 ounce cup of coffee, use 200 mg of L-theanine to maintain a 1:2 caffeine to L-theanine ratio.
Another trick I love is to eat dark chocolate in the afternoons. A small 1 ounce piece of 70% dark chocolate has 25 mg of caffeine, but also contains theobromine. It’s a perfect energy boost that avoids overusing caffeine.
These and other tools to increase mental performance have been a passion of mine for many years. I co-founded Pure Nootropics and Nootropedia as ways to share my personal experimentation with a wider audience. Years of self-exploration led me to the coconut matcha latte because it provides so many cognitive benefits within the safe context of real food ingredients. I encourage you to lean into these new forms of caffeine synergy to develop a more effective and sustainable relationship with caffeine for our modern work environment.