There's always something new in the world of wellness, and the latest buzz is all about chicory root. With a look and flavor that resembles coffee, the brewed herb is growing in popularity as an alternative to caffeine. But if you can't imagine starting the day without a jolt, you may be wondering: Is chicory root better for you than coffee, and should you consider replacing it with your morning java?
For starters, Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and author of the upcoming book, The Collagen Diet (Dec 31), explains the basics between the root and the bean. "Chicory root comes from an herbaceous plant in the dandelion family," he tells The Zoe Report. "It’s roasted, ground, and brewed to make a nutty-tasting beverage. [It's] caffeine-free, unlike coffee, [and] makes a good substitute for coffee since it has a creamy 'mouthfeel' and somewhat bitter but toasty/nutty taste."
For some, this herb's lack of caffeine (plus a few other potential benefits) makes it a preferable substitute for traditional coffee bean brew. And with searches for chicory root benefits up 91 percent on Pinterest, it appears that many are thinking about making the switch.
If your health-centered New Year's resolutions include reducing your caffeine intake — or you're wondering whether you should even consider it — read on. Ahead, experts unpack the pros and cons of drinking chicory root to help you determine whether it should become part of your morning ritual.
The Case For Cutting Back On Caffeine
Before you decide to quit coffee cold turkey and subject yourself to headache-inducing withdrawal symptoms (more on that later), decide whether limiting caffeine will benefit you, at all. "Coffee is not inherently good or bad — no one food is," points out Krista King, MS, RDN, LDN, IFNCP, CLT, CPT, an Integrative Dietitian and Certified Health Coach. Her expertise is in holistically remedying hormone and digestive issues. "[You] have to look at it through the lens of [your] own story and body and understand your body’s reaction to caffeine."
That said, some are genetically predisposed to being more sensitive to the stimulant, and she explains why those people, especially, may want to limit the buzz. "When we’re stressed, we’re stimulating cortisol, our 'fight or flight' hormone. The result in the body is an increase in blood sugar, blood pressure, and breathing rate. This has a downstream negative effect on our digestive system and overall hormone balance, which can over time lead to conditions like IBS, thyroid issues, or menstrual irregularities or conditions like PMS, PCOS, irregular or missing menstrual cycles."
As it turns out, caffeine can chemically exacerbate these stress-related issues. "Coffee stimulates cortisol, so our already-filled stress bucket is filling up and spilling over, which can lead to or worsen hormone imbalances over time," she says.
Health Benefits Of Both Chicory Root & Coffee
As mentioned, coffee itself isn't necessarily bad for you and, as a matter of fact, both coffee and chicory root have health-boosting qualities. "Both have some anti-inflammatory capabilities and may help control appetite and decrease blood sugar," says Dr. Axe. "Depending on the person, chicory may help improve digestive function and coffee may help improve energy, focus, mood, and cognitive health."
But for some, the root-based tea may have an edge. "Another reason that chicory is consumed is because it provides prebiotic fiber, which has benefits for digestion, gut health, and more," Dr. Axe continues. "The plant contains inulin, meaning it has a fibrous chemical composition that allows it to travel through the human GI tract mostly undigested, which is useful for helping to relieve constipation and feeding healthy probiotic bacteria in the gut."
Bart Wolbers, chief science writer at Alex Fergus, agrees. "Chicory, specifically, has some research supporting its effects on regulating hunger, improving gut bacteria function, improving insulin sensitivity (so that carbohydrates that you eat are stored in your muscles instead of as body fat), and helping your immune system perform well," he says.
Potential Downsides To Chicory Root
While the herb is generally considered safe, it's not for everyone — and, as with everything, moderation is key. (As always, be sure to consult with a healthcare professional before making any major dietary changes.) For instance, if you drink multiple cups of coffee throughout the day, you shouldn't substitute chicory root, cup for cup. "Excess fiber can lead to digestive distress symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or stomach cramping," warns King. To that, those with digestion issues such as IBS or FODMAP sensitivities may also experience gastrointestinal discomfort.
Further, those with certain allergies, or women who are expecting or nursing, should probably steer clear. "Chicory root can trigger allergic responses in people who are sensitive to ragweed or birch pollen, so it should be avoided in this case," says Dr. Axe. "It’s also considered unsafe for pregnant women according to most experts, so it shouldn’t be used during pregnancy."
Making The Switch
So after doing some research, you've made the decision to ease off on the espresso. Woldbers shares some tips for keeping the dreaded withdrawal symptoms at bay. "For many people, quitting caffeine cold turkey gives them horrible anxiety, headaches, insomnia, poor energy, mood problems, and sleepiness during the day," he explains. "The only way to get off caffeine symptom-free is to very gradually lower your usage. Usually, that gradual process entails cutting out one cup of coffee from your daily routine every week. Once you're at one cup, lower your intake by a quarter cup per week."
Dr. Axe adds that during the transition period, you may want to arm yourself with a few extra tools. "Drink plenty of water during this time, but steer clear of other caffeine sources like soda and energy drinks. If you’re dealing with issues like caffeine headaches or brain fog, some of these tips can help: Get fresh air throughout the day and take breaks from working; exercise; get a bit more sleep; use peppermint oil to reduce headache pain; and if you need to, take an ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)."
That said, Ariane Resnick, CNC, a best-selling author and certified nutritionist who works with celebs, notes that you can reap health benefits by decreasing your caffeine intake without eliminating it entirely. "Chicory versus coffee doesn't have to be an either/or situation," she points out. "If you're worried about your caffeine consumption or want to lower it, sub out a fraction of your cup of coffee, or your afternoon caffeine drink, for chicory."
How To Prepare A Cup Of Chicory Root
To that, Resnick has a few tips for preparing the herbal alternative so it's a satisfactory substitute. "You can use a powdered coffee alternative exactly as you would coffee, but it's vital to note that it is generally weaker, cup for cup, so you'll want to add extra powder to your beverage," she advises. "If trying to simulate an espresso drink, you'll want to prepare it in a particularly concentrated manner, to get the most similar result."
The nutritionist's favorite caffeine-free beverage is Dandy Blend, made with a mixture that includes chicory and dandelion root. "I've found it resembles coffee, provided you use about double the serving size," she says. But if the aforementioned half-caff plan sounds like the best one for you (at least, to begin with), she recommends products like "The Big Easy" blend by Groundwork, which blend coffee and chicory root together for a subtle perk plus herbal benefits.