The Guarana plant (Paullinia cupana) is native to the Amazon basin and produces fruits and seeds that are sold for their stimulating effects. Extracts of this plant have been added to pills, powders, energy drinks and more, and it is commonly consumed throughout the United Kingdom and United States, as well as in its native Brazil.
There are some concerns about the overuse of Guarana extracts, some side effects to note, and also some possible health benefits to it.
The Health Benefits of Guarana
Guarana seems to have become a buzzword of sorts for the energy drink industry. They’ve turned it into some kind of magical, stimulating compound and they make mention of it on every can and in every advert. This has led to many of its health benefits being overlooked, as the general public just assumes it is as unhealthy as the drinks it is often added to.
But this isn’t the case. Sure, there are some concerns, and we’ll get to those shortly, but there are also many potential health benefits of guarana consumption, including…
1. It May Improve Athletic Performance
Guarana may provide some benefits to athletes looking for an edge. These benefits likely stem from its caffeine content, which is a known performance enhancer. In fact, many studies show that guarana can perform as well as caffeine at decreasing fatigue, increasing focus, and improving reaction time. (1)
It doesn’t perform better than caffeine in this area simply because caffeine is producing those effects. However, it is often preferred to caffeine pills and powder because it is said to offer many other benefits and is considered more natural than powder and pills. As discussed in our guide to decaf tea and coffee, caffeine powder is a byproduct of decaffeinating coffee, and this can be done using some very unpleasant and unpalatable techniques.
2. It Contains a Number of Antioxidants
Guarana contains some heavily studied antioxidant compounds, including theobromine, which is found in dark chocolate; tannins, which can be found in red wine and black tea; and catechins, which can be found in green tea, white tea, and other varieties of tea. It’s a who’s-who of antioxidants, and this could have a number of health benefits.
Studies suggest that consumption of antioxidant-dense whole foods, herbs, and spices can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including many forms of cancer. It’s worth noting, however, that the opposite seems to be true for mega doses of synthetic antioxidants, suggesting the variety and the addition of other nutrients makes these compounds so effective.
3. It Can Improve Brain Health and Performance
Caffeine has some notable effects on memory, focus, and concentration, so it will be no surprise to learn that guarana has some of the same benefits. However, some suggest it could be even more beneficial than pure caffeine in this respect, with one study comparing it to caffeine and noting that its effects “could not be attributed to caffeine alone”. (2)
This particular study tested several different doses of guarana, ranging from 35mg to 300mg, and found that doses around 75g worked best at improving cognitive function.
4. It Can Help with Digestive Ailments
Guarana is not the most obvious herbal remedy for treating digestive ailments, as caffeine can make such conditions worse. But early research suggests it could be beneficial in treating diarrhoea in small doses, with larger doses likely having the opposite effect. We’re much more dubious with this claim than we are with the others, but we’re happy to accept that it could be used to treat constipation while the high antioxidant level may also help ease inflammation in the gut.
So, while we wouldn’t recommend reaching for guarana if you have the runs, it might be worth giving it a shot if you’re constipated, bloated, and generally suffering from discomfort, providing that discomfort is related to food/drink as opposed to a medical condition.
Guarana versus Caffeine
There are a number of other benefits of guarana that we didn’t mention, simply because these seem to be the result of its caffeine content and we’ve talked about the benefits of caffeine at length on previous occasions. The good news is that there are still many benefits, including some of its stimulating properties, that are not related to its caffeine content, making it a viable alternative for pure caffeine powders.
Still, if you have a sensitivity to caffeine or simply want to avoid it for health reasons, then guarana is not a good substitute. In such cases, you may want to look into ginseng, a root that may help stimulate and decrease fatigue, or even ginger tea.
Nutrients in Guarana
There are very few micronutrients in guarana, and all of its health benefits derive from compounds like caffeine and catechins. It’s not completely devoid of nutrients (although it’s certainly nowhere near as nutrient-dense as moringa and other superfood plants) but the recommend doses are very low and, to get anywhere near your RDAs, you would be consuming a dangerous amount of caffeine.
The Dangers of Guarana
Guarana has earned a negative reputation because of its use in energy drinks, and not without reason. These drinks are packed full of caffeine and sugar, and in some cases, just two cans contain more than the recommended daily intake of caffeine. There have been a number of very concerning reports regarding energy drink consumption and the increased risk of myocardial infarction. (3)
This is not necessarily an issue with guarana itself, but if you’re consuming a guarana extract, it’s important to be aware of additional caffeine intake throughout the day. Many caffeine overdoses occur because the user doesn’t understand how much they’re consuming and how real the threat of overdose is.
If you would like to learn more about caffeine, we have published an extensive guide on the side effects of this common stimulant when consumed in excessive doses.
Side Effects of Guarana
Most of the side effects of this extract are the result of its caffeine content, and include tremors, anxiety, abdominal pain, and restlessness. It’s not recommended in large doses for anyone suffering from anxiety disorders, bleeding disorders, IBS, or heart problems, and such doses should also be avoided when pregnant or breastfeeding.
Small doses should be well tolerated, however, especially if the individual is not caffeine sensitive. To minimise the risk of adverse reactions, always consume small doses first and then work your way to a recommended dose.