Tea can help you slow down, and it's a little more than marketing or placebo effects.
L-theanine is a type of amino-acids most commonly found in tea leaves. First identified by a group of Japanese scientists in 1949, L-theanine can also be found in some types of mushrooms. It is thought to be a source of the famous umami flavor.
L-theanine is a powerful compound. Despite accounting for only between 1-2% of weight of dry tea leaves, L-theanine is believed to be the key behind the soothing effect we have come to enjoy in drinking tea.
And it’s not just a placebo feeling that has been heavily marketed. Studies have shown that L-theanine can create a sense of relaxation approximately 30-40 minutes after oral ingestion.
These studies also discovered how: by blocking the release of dopamine and serotonin and by stimulating the formation of alpha brain waves.
Alpha brain waves are associated with a state of “wakeful relaxation” (Berger, 1929). You most often experience the effect of alpha brain waves during deep meditation, when you first wake up in the morning, or just before you go to sleep. L-theanine triggers an influx of alpha waves, helping tea drinkers slow down and improving their focus and creativity.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which affects every part of our bodies. Its biological function is complex and multifaceted. There are over 14 serotonin receptors which have diverse effects on mood, sleep, appetite, temperature, eating behavior, sexual behavior, movements, and even gastrointestinal motility [read vomiting] (Beattie and Smith, 2008).
Dopamine is another neurotransmitter which plays a pivotal role in our natural reward system. Media and pop culture have described dopamine as the main chemical of pleasure, but the experts’ current opinion is that dopamine controls motivational salience – attention that drives you towards or away from an object, event, or outcome (Wenzel, Rauscher, et al 2015).
It is one of the reasons why people are addicted to drugs, why you get excited for your Instagram likes, it's instrumental for our currently booming attention economy.
L-theanine appears to play a role in the production of a neurotransmitter called Gamma Amino Butyric Acid – or GABA for short. GABA is another neurotransmitter. Together with serotonin and dopamine, GABA works to regulate a vast number of functions in our body and mind.
There’s one important difference: GABA formed from L-theanine could be associated with regulation of both dopamine and serotonin. This means that we can calm down our excitatory neurotransmitters, lower our blood pressure, decrease our heart rates, and ultimately slow down and relax by drinking high quality tea.
Teas are known for their complex content of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and caffeine. Here’s a few other compounds we think are worth noting:
Both flavonoids and polyphenols are natural antioxidants found in tea. As the name "antioxidants" suggest, they are substances that can prevent or slow some types of cell damage. They act to counter the harmful effect of "free radicals" (i.e., unstable molecules that attack other molecules in the body). Free radicals can cause "oxidative stress," a process that can trigger cell damage. Antioxidants can have a positive impact in reducing risk of a number of diseases including cancer, diabetes, and age-related macular degeneration.
Caffeine is far more recognized than L-theanine, mostly because it's commonly found in coffee, and coffee has "gone viral" since the early 1900s. But many of us have a love-hate relationship with caffeine. It is what kept us awake for the morning meetings, and it is what got us through the sleepless nights when we're trying to finish work. But when the magic faded away, we're often met with the so-called "caffeine crash". That includes but is not limited to fatigue, headache, unable to focus, agitation, intense mood swing, so to sum it up, "it feels like shit!"
The same caffeine is also found in tea leaves. But unlike coffee, the L-theanine in tea can act to correct the negative effects of caffeine. Which makes sense if you think about it, caffeine causes anxiety, restlessness and increased heart rate. Whereas L-theanine induces relaxation, regulates excitatory response. When you combine them, you get a bit of both!
It moderate the intensity of caffeine effect, and helps the body gently absorb it across longer span of time, resulting in a much more gentle withdraw.
Furthermore, L-theanine eliminates caffeine's ability to constrict blood vessel, meaning that it prevents the boosts of heart rate and blood pressure resulted from caffeine. The best part? L-theanine ease off the drawbacks of caffeine, but also preserved the kicks of it. It moderate the intensity of caffeine effect, and helps the body gently absorb it across longer span of time, resulting in a much more gentle withdraw.
As an example, L-theanine eliminates caffeine’s ability to constrict blood vessels, preventing increases in heart rate and blood pressure caused by caffeine intake. This harmonious combination could be the reason why monks and artists of the East have long preferred loose-leaf tea to accompany their meditation, creative process, and to calm their restless minds.
The best part? L-theanine moderates the intensity of caffeine’s effects. It helps the body absorb caffeine slower, resulting in a gentler withdrawal. It is clarity without intoxication.
We write about tea. But most of all, we write about what it means to slow-down in the 21th century. Stay tuned, we're just getting started.