Why most pre workout and energy drinks are SHIT.
Most of you that follow me know that I'm pretty outspoken when it comes to my disdain for products that contain ingredients that most of us don't even know are extremely harmful to our bodies.
Most of them are filled with artificial cancer causing ingredients. Not only that, they just don't work. You get jittery, perhaps get a small boost of energy and then have a massive crash. It's a waste.
The Problem With Energy Drinks
One six-ounce cup of coffee has anywhere from 80 to 150 mg of caffeine (and also comes with a vast array of health benefits). Your average energy drink, on the other hand, can have upwards of 500 mg of caffeine—with one popular energy drink “shot” topping out at 570mg, giving you the equivalent of about three and a half cups of coffee with a single sip!—and comes with a vast array of problems such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, and various acids.
What's the problem with too much caffeine, sugar, and acid?
Let's start with caffeine. Caffeine forces your adrenal glands to secrete enormous amounts of adrenaline and “energy” hormones, even when those glands are depleted. The result is a growing tolerance to the effects of caffeine, eventual burnout, and severe adrenal depletion. This is accompanied by a feeling of increasing tiredness and a need for higher and higher amounts of caffeine to achieve an energy boost. Attempts at quitting the addiction can result in withdrawal symptoms such as severe headaches and complete loss of mental focus and function. High levels of caffeine consumption have been associated with an increased risk of stroke and arthritis, insomnia, heart palpitations, tremors, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, chest pain, and neurological symptoms!
I also cycle off caffeine (i.e. take a week-long break from regular coffee and instead drink decaf about once every one to two months to allow my body to “reset” its sensitivity to caffeine.
Now, I don't think I really need to go into the MANY dangers of sugar. I'm sure most of you reading this are following my Keto program. Stay away from sugar like it's your job. Sugar has been proven to be more addictive than cocaine. Stay away.
But what about artificial sweeteners?
Unfortunately, research has shown that there is still a release of gastric hormones when you consume artificial sweeteners. This sends your brain a confusing message: food is present, but the food has no “calories.” The result is an appetite craving that often occurs anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes after consumption. Additionally, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Nutrasweet), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium, and sugar alcohols have been linked to upset stomachs, mood swings, cancer, diabetes, emotional disorders, epilepsy, seizures, a variety of neurological disorders, and even obesity.
Finally, excess amounts of carbonic acid, citric acid, and phosphoric acid in popular carbonated energy drinks can dissolve tooth enamel (causing tooth rot and yellow teeth), raise the risk of stomach damage and ulcers, cause bone breakdown, osteoporosis, and bone fractures, and upset the fragile “acid-alkaline” balance in your body.
So now let's talk about natural sources for energy.
First off I am absolutely NOT saying smoke cigarettes. No WAY. I am however a fan of nicotine as a cognitive stimulant for many reasons, one of which is its impact on wakefulness and motivation: Research suggests that nicotine can significantly change electrical activity in the brain. It is also known to have stimulating and arousing effects and a positive impact on memory and fine motor skills. New meta-analyses suggest that nicotine can positively affect the following areas of cognitive functioning:
Fine motor skills…
In addition to the above, nicotine acts as a neuroprotective (meaning, it can reduce inflammation in the brain) and has been studied and shown to be beneficial for treating at least three different neurodegenerative conditions: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Tourette's.
Lucy Gum is one of my go-to nicotine sources not only because of its superior texture and taste (compared with run-of-the-mill options like Nicorette) but more importantly because of its absence of many of the problems that most nicotine gums and sprays have (being chock full of artificial sweeteners and chemical fillers). If you're the DIY type and feel like purchasing a bit of pharmaceutical-grade nicotine to combine with a sweetener such as monk fruit or stevia, you can check out this Sour Green Apple Nicotine Spray recipe here. I've been making this formula lately and even adding a touch of the nootropic methylene blue for a bit of a smurf-like brain booster effect.
2. Lion's Mane
A promoter of mental clarity, focus, and memory, lion's mane is an edible mushroom that is full of nerve growth factor, which has amazing benefits for neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and cognition. When you see lion’s mane growing in nature, it looks like a cluster of axons and dendrites, which is an interesting observation because these are how your nerves communicate with one another. Given the curious similarities, this relates to nature's “doctrine of signatures” hypothesis I’ve discussed in the past (the way that things look in nature indicate the biological impact they might have on your body). If google images are the closest you can get to seeing lion’s mane in the wild, and you're curious to see it in full mushroom format, lion's mane can also be found in gourmet food stores and is also available in a supplement form and as a tea.
Just like many other functional mushrooms, lion’s mane is believed to offer benefits that go beyond nutrition. In one study, it was reported that the group taking lion's mane “…showed significantly increased scores on the cognitive function scale compared with the placebo group.” In another study, postmenopausal women who consumed lion's mane vs. those who didn't showed less anxiety and depression and improvements in their ability to concentrate.
When it comes to the array of choices and the increasing popularity of mushroom extracts, unfortunately not all are created equal. Medicinal mushrooms such as lion’s mane have different benefits depending on how they are grown, what stage they are harvested in, or where they are sourced. The majority of products on the market are grown in laboratories on something like brown rice, for example, which results in the end product being only 50 to 30% mushroom (the other 50 to 70% is actually the brown rice) with fewer bioactive compounds than had the mushroom been grown in its natural environment. What you want to look for is lion’s mane grown on a mycelium medium. In my opinion Real Mushrooms is by far the best product available. Click here to view on Amazon.
Creatine plays a crucial role in the production of cellular energy by making ATP, a molecule needed by all cells in your body. It has been shown to reverse “brain fog” symptoms and significantly improve central executive functioning, short-term memory, choice reaction time, balance, mood state, and effort at baseline in sleep-deprived individuals. The benefits of creatine reach far beyond cognition and include muscle recovery; strength, power, and endurance increases; age-related muscle loss prevention; heart health benefits, increased testosterone, bone health support, and more.
An organic acid naturally produced in your body from other amino acids, creatine is found in foods such as meats, eggs, and fish, and is commonly deficient in heavily exercising individuals, the elderly, and people who eat a primarily plant-based diet.
With everything I've learned, and after 20+ years of use, I truly believe pure creatine monohydrate from a high-quality source is one of the most potent components of any smartly-designed supplementation protocol—even if you're not a serious athlete or trying to put on slabs and slabs of muscle. My go-to source is Kion Creatine, which is derived from Creapure, a micronized form of creatine monohydrate that’s colorless, odorless, and has highly enhanced solubility (so it mixes well with water, juice, smoothies, or just about anything you toss it into).
When it comes to dosage, you may have heard about needing to load, de-load, or cycle creatine, with complex protocols of taking 20g for multiple days, this is not needed. I've taken just 5 grams of creatine per day, simply adding 2.5 grams to my morning smoothie, then taking the second dose of 2.5 grams later in the evening.
4. Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
Essential amino acids can boost your energy, fuel your workout, and stave off cravings. While some amino acids can be synthesized by your body, other amino acids—specifically the ones you'll find in most EAAs supplements—must come from food or supplementation.
Essential amino acids have been shown to have a muscle-preserving effect, especially during training in a fasted state or ketotic state. This basically means that if you popped some EAAs, even if you didn't eat anything, you wouldn't “cannibalize” as much lean muscle during a fasted workout session. Another study shows that consuming EAAs after resistance training increases muscle protein synthesis and net muscle protein balance, indicating that ingesting EAAs post-workout may stimulate faster muscle repair, recovery, and growth. Yet another study showed the potential for EAAs to cause muscle growth and regeneration through them being a potent rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) activator (activating cell growth), causing muscle satellite cell proliferation.
This is without a doubt one of the most versatile and useful supplements you could have in your health and performance toolbox.
Note that BCAA's are NOT the same at EAA's. BCAA's are not a complete amino acid profile and are a complete waste to take. I like to take 10g of EAAs about 30 minutes before a hard weight training or HIIT workout, and I find this to be optimal timing to ensure I'm going into my workout with high blood levels of amino acids. For longer workouts, such as an endurance training session, I’ll repeat this dose once every hour of exercise. To avoid competition among other amino acids and increase absorption, I also avoid taking with most other protein sources (though you can take it with protein powder as it has actually been shown to increase absorption) or with fat, such as MCT oil or caprylic acid.
5. Exogenous Ketones
The impact of ketones on the brain is an exciting experimental area. It is only since 2017—when exogenous ketones became more commercially-available and thus unlocked the ability to study the state of ketosis “on-demand”—that a number of research programs, sports practices, and hobbyist experimentation could get off the ground. In my article “How To Use Exogenous Ketones For Recovery, Cognition, Sleep & Beyond,” you can learn more about this and discover some not yet widely discussed or understood uses for ketones (including recovery, cognition, sleep, anti-catabolic applications, and more).
With that said, the effects of elevated ketone levels on cognition have already been studied quite a bit and have shown:
Cognitive function deficits due to low blood sugar were erased by increasing beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) through dietary medium-chain triglycerides. (Beta-hydroxybutyrate is one of the three “physiological” ketones that are produced by your body.)
Beta-hydroxybutyrate improved cognition in memory-impaired adults, and rising cognition scores positively correlated with a rise in ketone levels.
Memory improvements were seen in older adults consuming a low-carb diet. These memory improvements positively correlated with participants' ketone levels.
Of course, there are also plenty of anecdotal cases in which the use of ketones as an anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing agent) ahead of big presentations or talks allows users to be more present or more “in flow.” For example, Dr. Rhonda Patrick on the Joe Rogan podcast has talked about using ketones before taping her own podcast. There have been a number of animal studies in this area that propose mechanisms, but nothing has yet been formally published in humans.
Now, when it comes to the use of exogenous ketones, there are an increasing array of products on the market which tend to be in the form of either ketone salts or ketone esters. An ester is simply an organic molecule that has an oxygen double bond between different components. There are monoesters with one ester bond and diesters with two ester bonds. A ketone ester basically delivers 100% BHB equivalent, versus a ketone salt, which delivers over half of its molecular weight in minerals.
I have personally utilized ketone esters to great effect in the past, mixing two servings of ketone esters with 75 g of glucose to win my first Tough Mudder in Vegas. This combo was like metabolic “rocket fuel,” and has also been used as a protocol by cyclist Vittoria Bussi for her pre-race nutrition before setting the world record in the Hour back in 2018.
L-theanine is an amino acid that increases alpha brain wave activity and produces a dose-dependent state of relaxed alertness about 45 minutes after you ingest it. You'll find it in green tea, and it's got two components in it (theophylline and theobromine) that can enter your brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier. This is what increases the formation of alpha brainwaves (giving you an “alert relaxation” feeling) and affects GABA and dopamine pathways in such a way that increases attention and brain function.
One study of university students found that 200 mg of L-theanine led to increased brain alpha-waves and a subjective sense of relaxation. In the same study, L-theanine administration also caused a dose-dependent relaxed, yet alert, state of mind without sedation, beginning approximately 40 minutes after ingestion. Another study suggests that drinking green tea or taking L-theanine in a pill format can help reduce neurodegeneration.
If I ever happen to have made the mistake of having too much coffee and find I need to make caffeine a bit less stimulative, I’ll simply take around 100mg L-theanine. It's also something that I will take by itself (I find around 100-200 milligrams to be the sweet spot) for improved focus and mood. You could take it with lion's mane, or stack it with anything I've described here really.
You can get a good form of L-theanine here.
7. B·Powered Superfood Honey
This is not your ordinary, everyday honey. This potent concoction from my friends at BeeKeeper's Naturals combines all of the superfoods of the hive, including:
Honey – As one of the most nourishing foods on the planet, raw honey comes with impressive benefits. Packed with beneficial enzymes and easily digestible sugars, raw honey is an energizing source of fuel for the body. Additionally, it helps with the production of calming serotonin & melatonin in the brain.
Royal Jelly – Rich in valuable nutrients and antioxidants, royal jelly may support hormonal balance & brain health thanks to rare beneficial compounds that may help to improve cognition and fend off deterioration. For example, royal jelly contains 10-HDA, an ultra-unique fatty acid that nourishes the brain & supports the production of BDNF, which actively fends off brain fog. Royal Jelly is a thick milky substance, which allows the queen bee to get 40% larger and live 40 times longer than the worker bee. In the past, I've mixed this stuff up on its own with chia seeds and bee pollen to nurse during a race.
Bee Pollen – Bee pollen is rich in easily absorbable B vitamins, minerals, free-forming amino acids, and antioxidants. As a clean source of energizing nutrients, some professional athletes even supplement with bee pollen to fuel their strength, endurance, and workout recovery.
Propolis – Containing 300+ beneficial compounds, propolis is an antioxidant-dense bee product with powerful protective properties. For bees, it is used to line the hive walls to keep germs out. For humans, it supports the immune system, soothes scratchy throats, and helps combat free radical damage in the body.
With all of the above ingredients combined, B·Powered Superfood Honey is a great cognitive pick-me-up that can be utilized anytime without any negative side effects.
You can get B·Powered from Beekeeper's Naturals here.
Optimal electrolyte balance supports performance before, during, and after high-intensity activities. On the muscular level, electrolytes help conduct nerve impulses throughout your body, thus allowing your muscles to contract. When your body loses enough water and/or electrolytes, the nerve impulses from your brain to your muscles become deranged which makes your muscles cramp. Electrolytes can help you to restore this important balance. Balanced electrolytes help fight fatigue, promote calorie control, and help fuel your muscles and brain. Keto 1000 is an electrolyte powder that has a balanced ratio of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium based on the ratio that you typically see lost through sweat. It is low in calories and is perfect before, during, and after a workout.
I've used Keto 1000 (1 scoop with at least 12 ounces of water) in a stack blended with ketones and EAAs many times during very long workouts and noticed good clean-burning energy from it. This is likely because many hard-charging athletes and active individuals like myself tend to be mineral depleted, which can hamper adrenaline production, and also because low-carb exercise enthusiasts (also like myself) tend to have lower glycogen and mineral stores, and notice a benefit from consistent electrolyte consumption.
Bonus: Pre-Workout Stacks
When it comes to pre-workout nutrition and methods to get that extra shot of energy without oodles of caffeine and other stimulants, there's probably no population on the face of the planet as immersed in that sector than the bodybuilding community. In my conversation with professional bodybuilder Milos Sarcev, he outlines his personal pre-workout formula, which I thought would be helpful to include here if you’re looking for a simple but effective pre-workout stack, particularly for a longer weight training workout. It was such a fascinating discussion that I'd be remiss not to mention his stack, which, especially for a more hard-charging or high-volume athlete, would combine well with many of the options above. Below Milos's stack, I've also included one of my own favorite pre-workout stacks of late, which combines several of the elements you've already read about in this article.
Sean's Pre-Workout Formula:
10-15 g EAAs
5 g Leucine
10 g Glutamine
5-10 g Creatine depending on the athlete
5 g Citrulline
3 g Arginine
2-3 g Beta-Alanine
2-3 g L-Carnitine
2-3 g electrolyte drink powder
My Personal Go To Stack -
10 g Kion Aminos
5 g Kion Creatine
1 serving exogenous ketones
Each can be taken around 30-45 minutes prior to a workout for a quick, clean burst of energy without any of the drawbacks of those canned energy drinks you'll find at your local gym.
If you need extra help with your diet and exercise program mention this article and get $100 off my 90 Day 1 on 1 coaching program! Just click on the tab 1 on 1 coaching.