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!
If you’re looking for a whole afternoon of spirited discussion, ask an herbalist, a tea expert, and a doctor about the relaxing properties of tea. Any such discussion is immensely complicated by the dizzying variety of tea available, the thousands of herbal blends (“tisanes”) that herbalists call tea, and the dearth of comparative scientific studies.
My wife and I attended several sessions at World Tea Expo this month that discussed caffeine and health benefits of tea, and (since our tea bar is in our bookstore) I’ve read quite a bit on the subject. I think I know less now than I did when I started, but let me pass on a little of what I’ve learned.
All generalizations are wrong (including this one)
Virtually all of the comforting over-generalizations we pick up from Oprah or Dr. Oz are wrong. Green tea has no caffeine? Yes, it does. In fact, matcha (powdered Japanese green tea) had the highest caffeine content of any tea tested in the study presented at World Tea Expo 2012. White tea has the most antioxidants? Again, not necessarily. Oolong is just black tea that wasn’t allowed to ferment all the way? Wrong on two counts! Black tea isn’t fermented (it’s oxidized — pu-erh tea is fermented), and oolong uses a completely different process from black tea.
I have a different take on the subject, though. When I’m thoroughly stressed out and I fix a cup of tea, I don’t attribute the calming effects of the tea on chemical content, antioxidants, caffeine levels, or mystical magical herbal properties. I believe there are three factors at play: ritual, scent/taste memory, interruption, and expectation.
Even before I have my first sip of the completed beverage, I can feel the stress slipping away just by going through the ritual of getting out my favorite cup, heating the water, measuring the leaves, and steeping the tea. Ritual is comforting and familiar; it is the basis of techniques like yoga.
When I got sick as a little boy, the ritual was always the same: my mother would tuck me in to bed and make me a hot cup of tea and a couple of pieces of toast. Then, it was just cheap teabags and white toast. Today, it would be Huang Jin Gui oolong and rye toast. But either way, the ritual has a soothing effect all its own.
This is one of the advantages to brewing a fresh cup of tea instead of pouring some iced tea from a pitcher or popping the top off of a can or bottle.
Much has been written about the power of scent memory. A whiff of rose and I’m transported back 25 years, walking through a rose garden in San Jose, California with my wife. One sniff of skunk and I’m in junior high school with my best friend, Brian, rubbing tomato juice into his dog’s fur. A hint of rum and … well, let’s not go there.
If tea is a part of your relaxation ritual and you make a point of relaxing with a cup of tea, then the aroma and taste of tea will have a calming effect, whether your tea of choice is a strong malty Assam, a delicate silver needle, or a rich shu pu-erh. Slurping down a bottle of RTD (ready-to-drink) tea just isn’t the same as savoring the aroma of a fresh-brewed cup of tea and swirling that first taste around your mouth.
Never underestimate the power of interruption. My father always told me when I got frustrated or angry I should take a break and do something else. When I hit a roadblock in my writing, I can often get past it by stepping away from the keyboard for a little while. Again, this is why it works to prepare a cup of tea. The whole time you’re putting the water on to steep and browsing the cabinet for the right tea to drink, you are focused on something other than the problems of the day. Take a deep breath, take your time, and you’ll feel the soothing effects of the tea before you even drink the tea.
If you think something will calm you down, it will. Doctors call this the placebo effect, and it really does work — it’s the entire basis of homeopathy, for example, where they give you very expensive water and it actually has an effect on some people because they believe it will work. Since the word “placebo” carries negative connotations, I will just refer to the power of expectation.
This works with no appeal to authority at all, but it works better when someone you trust makes the suggestion. If a shady-looking huckster on a street corner sells you some tea that’s “guaranteed to mellow you out,” it probably won’t help you. If a doctor (or herbalist, or your mother) gives you the exact same tea and says it will calm and relax you, it probably will.
If you put all of these elements together, you realize that there’s no magic to the relaxing properties of tea. It works, and it works for a lot of reasons. In fact, it worked very well for me earlier today. So grab a spot of tea, keep calm, and stay relaxed!