Guarana (Paullinia cupana)


The Guarana plant is a woody climber that can reach 10 metres in height, although usually it adopts a shrubby habit, growing to a maximum 2 to 3 metres in height.
Cultivation of Guarana, dates back to pre-Columbian times to the Indian people, who were the first inhabitants of the Amazon. Botanists believe that plants found today are the remains of this cultivation, and currently grown by the indigenous Maués and Andira tribes from the 'lower Amazon'. The Indians initially used the stick of the Guarana for healing purposes, and grated it with the sharp, rasp-like tongue of the Pirarucu fish. The grated powder was then mixed into a drink with water and sugar.


Historical/medicinal uses of Guarana
Guarana seeds have a long history of usage as a stimulant by Amazonian tribesman. The stimulant properties are generally assumed to reflect the presence of caffeine, which comprises 2.5-5% of the extract's dry weight. However, the psychoactive properties of Guarana may also be attributable to a relatively high content of other potentially psychoactive components, including saponins and tannins. This may also account for antioxidant properties of the plant.


Energy and Motivation!
Ten years ago, researchers demonstrated that chronic (9 months) administration of a low dose of Guarana improved endurance exercise and motivated test subjects to complete tasks that they typically avoided completing. The same study found that chronic, low doses of Guarana could help prevent memory defects.

Sleep Deprived?
Not getting enough sleep is probably the leading cause of day-to-day fatigue. There is no escaping it and it is usually worse just after lunch - between 2-4pm. In one study, sleep- deprived individuals (lacking on average four hours sleep), found improvements in performance during these hours of the day (but interestingly not at other times), if they had consumed a drink containing 500mg of Guarana at 7.15AM.

Memory Defects?
A more recent study found that a 75mg dose of Guarana was capable of producing improvements in memory and speed of attention. People in the study were given tasks to test Maths and English skills, with one being given 75mg of Guarana, and the other given a placebo (containing no Guarana). The performance of particular subtraction sums and the speed of sentence verification was improved in the group taking Guarana, whilst there was no improvement in the placebo group.

Cognitive Benefits
A very more study (2007), examined the effects on healthy, young, non-sleep deprived individuals. The individuals were broken into four groups with each group receiving four different amounts of Guarana, and each capsule containing 37.5mg, 75mg, 150mg, 300mg, or 0mg of Guarana (placebo). The study found that Guarana improved mood with dose-dependent increases in alertness and cognitive ability. Interestingly, the two lower doses in this study provided more beneficial cognitive effects than the two higher doses, probably because the individuals that consumed more Guarana were actually too stimulated to concentrate properly. Conversely, only the highest dose increased alertness ratings significantly.

Caffeine Content
Given that the Guarana extract studied contained only 11-12% caffeine, it seems unlikely that the effects seen here can be solely attributed to Guarana’s caffeine content. The highest dose of Guarana contained around 36mg of caffeine, which is enough to have a slight effect on the mind. However the fact that only the 37.5mg and 75mg doses (containing 4.5mg caffeine and 9mg caffeine respectively), produced beneficial cognitive effects, lends further support to this proposal. To put this into perspective, instant coffee contains 65-100mg of caffeine and drip coffee can contain up to (an amazing) 175mg of caffeine! Thus it is best to choose the dose of this herb based on what effect you want it to have! Smaller doses may be enough to improve your energy and thinking.

Drug Interactions with Guarana
Although Guarana (as with any herbal medicine), can conflict with medications, no significant herb/drug interactions with Guarana have been reported. (Stephen, what about the very recent report of the young trail bike rider who nearly died from drinking a whole lot of cans of Red Bull! It was on the news – did you see it??) However, as a precaution it is advised that before using this herb or any other herbal preparation, to consult with your health care professional. It has been demonstrated that Guarana can thin the blood, so it should be avoided with people on blood thinning medication or at risk of stroke.

Therapeutic/safe dosages of Guarana
Guarana can be purchased in most health food stores around Australia. Apart from some individuals being sensitive to it, Guarana is remarkably safe and with up to 2 grams a day being able to be consumed without adverse effects. However, most trials use 1-1.5g per day. For the benefits listed in this article 150-300mg of the concentrated extract daily is suitable for most applications.

With regard to long-term consumption, studies have found that Guarana is beneficial for the treatment of mental fatigue and concentration issues. Further, extended intake of Guarana has been associated with enhanced sporting performance. Doses of up to 2 grams has been taken for extended periods of time (years) without adverse effects. However, most herbalists discourage the long term consumption of any stimulant because of the potential adverse effects on the body (i.e. adrenal fatigue) and because of the addictive nature of natural and artificial stimulants.

Other herbs that can be used with Guarana
As with many herbs, combinations can be used to improve the therapeutic value. The following is a list of herbs that can be prescribed with Guarana to boost its therapeutic properties:

  • Ginkgo. In many ways the actions of Ginkgo are similar to Guarana. However, Ginkgo may be a more potent inducer of blood flow to the brain, whereas Guarana is more effective at stimulating the brain into action.
  • Korean Ginseng. Best known for it’s use as an adaptogen (a herb that improves a wide variety of functions in the body, while also helping the body deal with stress), Korean Ginseng fights fatigue through its ability as an adrenal tonic. While some herbalists used to discourage the long term consumption of Korean Ginseng, recent research suggests this herb is beneficial when taken long-term. Traditional consumption of Korean Ginseng also supports the notion of long term consumption and may benefit fatigue, poor concentration and problem solving.
  • Liquorice. Often combined with Korean Ginseng, Liquorice also helps to improve the function of the adrenal hormone cortisol in the body, thus reducing the need for the adrenals to pump out excessive levels of cortisol itself. However, Liquorice should be avoided by pregnant women and people with high blood pressure.
  • Brahmi. It is best to combine Brahmi with Guarana when there is a need to improve memory and to benefit concentration. Brahmi works by improving the function of the brain by increasing blood flow to the brain and improving neurotransmitter function in the brain.
  • Withania. One of the best all-round herbal adaptogens, Withania is a brilliant anti-fatigue herb. It also helps to improve sporting performance.

Guarana is a highly popular herbal medicine for those of us who find ourselves lacking sleep, or simply needing a pick-me-up after a late night. It was once thought that the beneficial properties of this herb were largely due to the caffeine content, yet the total amount of caffeine in this herb is comparatively minimal. However, if you are on medication of any kind, especially the blood-thinning drug Warfarin, please check with your health care professional before taking this or any other herb.

Henman A R (1982) Guarana (Paullinia cupana var. Sorbilis): ecological and social perspective on an economic plant of the central Amazon Basin. J Ethnopharmacol 6: 311-338

Weckerle C S, Stutz M A, Baumann T W (2003) Purine alkaloids in Paullinia. Phytochemistry 64: 735-742

Mattei R, Dias R F, Espinola E B, Carlini E A, Barros S B M (1998) Guarana (Paullinia cupana): toxic behavioural effects in laboratory animals and antioxidant activity in vitro. J Ethnopharmacol 60: 111-116

Espinola E B, Dias R F, Mattei R, Carlini E A (1997) Pharmacological activity of Guarana (Paullinia cupana Mart.) in laboratory animals. J Ethnopharmacol 55: 223-229

Alford C, Atkins I (2003) Comparative effects of Red Bull and Guarana in reversing the effects of 4 hours sleep restriction. J Psychopharm 17: A61

Kennedy D O, Haskell C F, Wesnes K A, Scholey A B (2004) Improved cognitive performance in human volunteers following administration of guarana (Paullinia cupana) extract: comparison and interaction with Panax ginseng. Pharmacol, Biochem Behav 79: 401-411

Haskell, C.F., D.O. Kennedy, K.A. Wesnes, A.L. Milne, and A.B. Scholey. "A double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-dose evaluation of the acute behavioural effects of guarana in humans.(Original Papers)." Journal of Psychopharmacology 21.1 (Jan 2007): 65(6). 

Haskell, C.F., D.O. Kennedy, K.A. Wesnes, A.L. Milne, and A.B. Scholey. "A double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-dose evaluation of the acute behavioural effects of guarana in humans.(Original Papers)." Journal of Psychopharmacology 21.1 (Jan 2007): 65(6). 

Bydlowski, S. P., et al.  A novel property of an aqueous guarana extract (Paullinia cupana):  inhibition of platelet aggregation in vitro and in vivo.  Braz J Med Biol Res.  21(3):535-538, 1988.

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