A Beginner's Guide to... Functionals21 February 2023
Functionals are one of the most intriguing and fastest-growing elements of the alcohol-free space. But what are they, and how do they work? Our 60-second guide gets you up and running fast
OK, so what are functionals?
Essentially, they’re drinks that have an effect on the drinker; that give them a reason to drink something besides it just tasting good.
What, like Red Bull?
We said ‘tasting good’, remember? Energy drinks are an example. But in the alcohol-free space it’s become more about fitness, mental performance and health than sugar-and-caffeine filled stimulation.
So they’re a new thing, right?
Absolutely not. Humankind has enjoyed stimulating effects from plants for millennia. Think tea and coffee – even chocolate. And the medical effects of everything from wormwood and echinacea to manuka and ashwagandha have been well known for a very long time.
So why are we talking about them now?
Because there’s a growing interest in wellness. That ties in well with giving up booze, and they’re a growing part of the alcohol-free scene. You’ll find them in everything from wines to spirits to beers and, of course, in RTDs.
What kind of things do they do?
They can pick you up, calm you down, help your body cope with stress, even give you a bit of a buzz.
What do I need to look out for?
There are probably five main classifications of Functional. Adaptogens use plants that contain powerful compounds to help your body to adapt or deal with stressors. They support your natural homeostatic levels and help your internal systems to function at their best. Think ashwagandha, ginger, ginseng and some functional mushrooms.
Like magic mushrooms?
No – you’re thinking of mushrooms that contain psylocibin. They’re illegal. These are well-known superfoods like chaga or Lions Mane – which is a nootropic – the second category.
Nootropic. They’re products that increase your mental performance. Things like caffeine and green-tea extract. Plus Lion’s Mane as we said.
What are the other categories?
Basically, products that are immune-boosting or good for your gut health. Oh, and CBD of course.
That’s the non-psychoactive bit of cannabis isn’t it?
Yep. It’s reckoned to be an effective treatment for everything from joint pain to restlessness to epilepsy. But it needs to be in a high-enough dose to be impactful. There’s plenty of people making claims for it that may not be true.
You mean functionals might not be effective?
Yes and no. They’re very different from alcohol. They’re gentler in their effect, for a start. Ethanol is basically a poison and it’s fast-acting. Caffeine is rapid, too. But functional drinks are much slower in their effect. Many are more of a consistent part of your lifestyle than taken as a one-off. And, of course, everyone is affected differently, too. CBD might make some people sleepy, while others see no difference. And – as we alluded to before, drinks with higher doses will have more of an impact than ones with trace amounts.
So they’re gentle, natural and essentially good for you?
Yes. But one of the most interesting new creations is drinks that include GABA.
What, have they reformed?
GABA, not Abba. It stands for Gamma Aminobutyric Acid. It’s a kind of chemical messenger in your brain and when it’s released it makes you relaxed, chatty and gregarious. Scientists reckon it’s a way of getting a bit of a buzz but without alcohol.
Sounds like there’s a lot going on
There is. And it’s changing all the time. Fans of functionals say they shift the narrative from being a drink without something (ie alcohol) to a drink with something. And that more positive message is only just getting started.