Guarana versus caffeine?

Dear Alice,

Is there a difference between guarana and caffeine? Is guarana better for you than caffeine?

Dear Reader, 

Browsing through the beverage aisle or even the supplement shop for a little get up and go could have anyone left wondering more about these substances. Guarana (Paullinia cupana), which has similar stimulatory effects to caffeine, has been used for centuries, originating in Brazil and Venezuela. Guarana extract contains a host of stimulants, such as caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine. Although guarana and caffeine have many similarities, some studies have demonstrated differences between the substances as well. Guarana contains many stimulants including caffeine, so the stimulant effects of guarana may feel greater and tend to last longer than just caffeine alone. Additionally, when mixed with sugar, such as in energy drinks, the effects of guarana may feel stronger than the caffeine you get from a cup of coffee. However, more research is needed to better understand how caffeine, guarana, and sugar interact to produce those energizing effects. 

Guarana has become increasingly popular as a food additive and dietary supplement in the United States. It can be found in energy and vitamin-enhanced drinks, reportedly added in order to provide energy and increase alertness. Studies haven’t indicated whether or not guarana is helpful when it comes to treating a wide variety of medical conditions. That being said, some of the reasons that people have used guarana include:  

  • Anxiety treatment 
  • Improvement in memory 
  • Weight loss 
  • Joint pain 
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome 
  • Headache treatment 
  • Enhanced athletic performance 

List adapted from Michigan Medicine.  

The use of guarana for these purposes hasn’t been backed by evidence at this time. If you’re considering using guarana, you may want to consider the dosage that you take. Working with a health care provider who is familiar with herbal supplements may be wise in order to help you find the dose that meets your health needs. As with many supplements that seem too good to be true, there may be some risks associated with this plant. Anecdotal reports and case studies have linked anxiety, heart palpitations, insomnia, headaches, seizures, and even death to high dose use of guarana supplements. Herbal remedies and dietary supplements don't have to be approved by the FDA, meaning their health claims aren't validated. Therefore, the amount of active ingredient in a guarana pill can vary greatly from what's on the bottle label. Some formulas may contain three times the extract-amount listed on the label, while another may not have any at all. Unfortunately for the consumer, there is no way to determine amounts without a laboratory test.

Certain populations may also want to consider consuming one over the other. For those that are pregnant, it's recommended that they are mindful of their use of guarana, if they use it at all. Additionally, for children, it's possible it may be safe in small amounts. If you’re a college athlete, you may have more reason to choose caffeine over guarana. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) lists stimulants and other nutritional supplements that aren't regulated, which includes guarana, as a banned substance. This is because caffeine in large doses may result in positive drug tests for performance-enhancing drugs. If you’re a college athlete or if you’re regularly drug tested, you may want to consider sticking with that cup of coffee for your energy boost. 

It seems that the key to successful guarana use would be to buy it from a trusted brand, use it sparingly, and see how it works for you before making it a regular part of your routine. While guarana seems to deliver the same pick-me-up that many coffee drinkers have come to rely on, if you're concerned about possible health risks, you may want to stick with a caffeine source more familiar to your body that is government regulated — coffee, tea, or even a swig of good old-fashioned cola. 

Last updated Mar 26, 2021
Originally published Dec 21, 2007

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