I mentioned theanine (C7H14N2O3) in the first post of my caffeine trilogy, but I haven’t really gone into any detail about it. I suppose now is as good a time as any.
Theanine (or more precisely, L-theanine) is an amino acid found in tea, guayusa, and certain mushrooms. It acts as a relaxant, helps to improve concentration, and adds a savory (umami) flavor to whatever it’s added to. Most importantly — at least when we’re talking about tea — is what it does when combined with caffeine.
At the 2012 World Tea Expo, I attended a session entitled “Tea, Nutrition and Health: Myths and Truths for the Layman,” presented by Kyle Stewart and Neva Cochrane. They discussed the relaxation and alertness affect of tea, and also noted that a “2012 study found tea was associated with increased work performance and reduced tiredness, especially when consumed without milk or sugar.”
This caught my attention not only because of the increased work performance, but because it validated my personal preference for tea without sweetener or milk.
Stewart and Cochrane attributed the increased work performance to the combination of caffeine, theanine, theophylline, and theobromine. There have been some excellent articles on theanine, including Tony Gebely’s “Theanine: a 4000 Year Old Mind-Hack” and RateTea’s “L-Theanine and Tea.”
Both of them agree with the conclusion that theanine coupled with caffeine produces a seemingly-contradictory combination of relaxation and alertness. This isn’t news to tea aficionados, of course. People have been relaxing and focusing themselves with tea for millennia. Many of the health benefits of tea come from the caffeine, and those obviously apply to theanine-free drinks like coffee, cola, and cocoa.
Caffeine by itself doesn’t work quite the same way, however.
The “spike & crash” affect of caffeine is well known to any coffee drinker. You’re droopy and tired, you have your morning cup, and you swiftly find yourself wide awake and full of energy. A while later, bam! You’re back where you started, and possibly in a pissier mood than when you started. Yes, I said “pissier.” It’s a technical term. When drinking tea, thanks in large part to the theanine content, the effects take longer to kick in, and also take longer to wear off. Mixing a relaxant (theanine) with a stimulant (caffeine) works quite well in this case.
Wikipedia summarizes a half-dozen studies with this statement:
“Theanine has been studied for its potential ability to reduce mental and physical stress, improve cognition, and boost mood and cognitive performance in a synergistic manner with caffeine.”
“Boost mood,” eh? As I wrote last week, there has been at least one study that indicates tea improves mood. That study, however, defined a good mood as decreased fatigue. It appears that there may be more to the mood-enhancing effects of tea than my previous post indicated!
I have heard it since I was a kid: Drink plenty of fluids means water. It doesn’t include caffeinated beverages like tea. That statement didn’t come with much explanation when I was little. Later, Mom explained that only clear liquids count. I couldn’t figure out why 7-Up was okay when I was sick, but iced tea wasn’t. When I got married, my wife explained to me that it was the caffeine that caused the problem. Caffeine, you see, is a diuretic. That means it makes you pee. The more you drink, the less hydrated you are. This explanation has always bothered me, but I never went to the trouble to research it for myself.
I came across a paper entitled Caffeine ingestion and fluid balance: a review, by R.J. Maughan and J. Griffin. They reached the conclusion that large amounts of caffeine consumed by people unused to caffeine can, indeed, cause dehydration. On the other hand, people who regularly drink caffeine can consume quite a bit of it without a problem. To quote their results directly:
“The available literature suggests that acute ingestion of caffeine in large doses (at least 250-300 mg, equivalent to the amount found in 2-3 cups of coffee or 5-8 cups of tea) results in a short-term stimulation of urine output in individuals who have been deprived of caffeine for a period of days or weeks. A profound tolerance to the diuretic and other effects of caffeine develops, however, and the actions are much diminished in individuals who regularly consume tea or coffee. Doses of caffeine equivalent to the amount normally found in standard servings of tea, coffee and carbonated soft drinks appear to have no diuretic action.”
In conclusion, when I am sick and/or dehydrated, I may feel free to drink my tea.
But wait! It gets better! I came across another paper entitled The effect of drinking tea at high altitude on hydration status and mood by D. Scott, J.A. Rycroft, J. Aspen, C. Chapman, and B. Brown. This is an absolutely awesome study, simply because they performed it at Mt. Everest base camp. It’s not a statistically valid sampling (only 13 people participated), and I’m not sure how valid a study performed at 17,500 feet altitude is for us lowlanders at 5,500 feet. But, hey, it was done at Mt. Everest base camp, and the procedure they used in the study does seem reasonably rigorous.
To put the results in their own words:
“The study shows therefore that even when drunk at high altitude where fluid balance is stressed, there is no evidence that tea acts as a diuretic when consumed through natural routes of ingestion by regular tea drinkers, but that it does have a positive effect on mood.”
Immediately upon reading this, I began putting together a list of people that might benefit from a few cups of tea. There are even those rare occasions when my own mood is not particularly sunny and bright. Not many, of course, but I must be prepared and have some good tea set aside for those moments.
Alas, upon closer reading I discovered that the “positive effect on mood” is actually “subjects reporting reduced fatigue when tea was included in the diet.” Oh, well. If you think about it, tea has long been touted as a good relaxant, so this particular finding makes sense.
With my hopes for a worldwide cure for bad moods rudely dashed, I shall have to fall back on tea as a way to hydrate and reduce fatigue. Sounds like the perfect thing to have along on a hike or at the gym. Surely that’s no surprise to my tea-loving readers!