Guarana is the name for the seeds that come from the fruit of the Paullinia cupana shrub. Guarana looks like coffee beans and is also used to make a variety of caffeinated beverages that are popular in Paraguay, Brazil and surrounding countries. Over the last decade or so, guarana seed extract has become a relatively common ingredient in mainstream energy drinks found in North America and Europe. The roots of the shrub are neither used medicinally nor used to make beverages, although guarana root beer is a common flavor of soda pop in South America.
The fruit of the Paullinia cupana plant is a berry and it grows best in regions that border the Amazon River. The berries contain large guarana seeds, although they are sometimes called beans or pits. Guarana seeds contain very similar compounds to coffee beans, including caffeine and essential oils. As you are probably aware, caffeine is such a strong stimulant that it could even jump-start Sleeping Beauty at high doses, so that’s why guarana extract is used in energy drinks. Guarana seed is also ground into powder and used to make a bread-like food.
Although the roots of some plants such as ginseng and valerian have a variety of compounds that make them strong herbal medicines, guarana root is not one of them. The guarana berry and seed are the only products of the Paullinia cupana plant that are consumed. There is some confusion because of the popularity of guarana root beer soda in many South American countries. The soda pop actually has a root beer flavor with guarana seed extract, but not guarana root extract, added to it. Guarana roots are very fibrous and contain only a few nutrients, but they don't contain significant amounts of caffeine.
Benefits of Guarana
The benefits of consuming guarana are closely linked to the benefits of consuming caffeine. Interestingly, pound for pound, guarana seeds contain about twice the amount of caffeine that coffee beans do. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases brain activity, so it tends to improve cognition, short-term memory and alertness, while reducing drowsiness. Caffeine also impacts mood, stimulates metabolism and triggers the body to burn more fat. Caffeine can slightly increase energy levels via metabolism, but it’s usually the high-sugar content in energy drinks that provide the short-term boost. In other words, caffeine makes you think of and focus on all the errands you need to do, but it’s mainly the sugar that gets you moving.
The possibly harmful effects of guarana seeds are also related to caffeine. Moderate to heavy chronic use of caffeine may actually suppress metabolism, reduce blood flow to the brain and trigger adrenal gland fatigue. Caffeine is also a diuretic, which leads to more trips to the bathroom and increased risk of dehydration. Insomnia, headaches, nervousness and mood swings are common symptoms of caffeine over-dose. Daily caffeine doses of approximately 300 milligrams cause undesirable side effects in most people, whereas a dose of 7,000 milligrams is usually lethal.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- PDR for Herbal Medicines; PDR Medical Staff
- Human Biochemistry; Charles Dreiling
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.