L-Theanine: Everything You Need To Know About This Plant-Based Powerhouse

Photo: Nataša Mandić

Have we found and isolated the secret ingredient that gives tea its powerfully calming-yet-focused effect?

L- theanine might be the closest thing we’ve got so far to meditation in a capsule. The traditional therapeutic use of green tea dates back to China 4,700 years ago, and the Japanese regard tea so highly they’ve created a ceremony for it and a separate teahouse in which to serve it. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master and global spiritual leader, describes tea drinking as a spiritual, meditative act: "Tea is an act complete in its simplicity... This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act, the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed: all the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose..."

Today, drinking tea still symbolizes psychological calm and contentment for most, and now science is starting to explain the physiological reasons and mechanisms behind these effects. Several scientific publications including clinical and epidemiological studies are beginning to back up the health benefits of both black and green teas, with particular focus on L-theanine—a calming amino acid found to promote alpha-wave brain production, an index of wakeful relaxation similar to that experienced during and directly after meditation. Here's all you need to know about nature's powerful relaxant.

What is L-theanine? More than just "umami," it turns out.

L- theanine is a neurologically active organic compound present almost solely in the green tea plant (Camellia sinensis, and certain other species of Camellia) with the exception of a kind of edible mushroom (the bay boletes). L-theanine is the main component responsible for the exotic savory taste of green tea known as "umami."

Within around 30 minutes of consumption, L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier, where it appears to smooth out brain waves, without flattening them as visualized on an EEG and improving cognition in humans in interesting ways.

L-theanine promotes alpha waves—the same brain bandwidth seen during the deepest states of meditation.

L-theanine has been shown to significantly increase alpha waves and promote relaxation without drowsiness or sedation, making it an ideal mental state for, well, most things.

Alpha brain-wave production also happens during deep meditation, when sensory inputs are minimized and the mind is generally clear of unwanted thoughts or distractions. Interestingly, stimulating alpha waves has also been shown to boost creativity and alleviate depression.

Photo: Nataša Mandić

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L-theanine has been shown to boost attention and working memory.

Green tea consumption appeared to enhance performance on a test of working memory by increasing connectivity between frontal and parietal brain regions during working memory processing. This is a fascinating discovery because activity in the frontal region of the brain is correlated to executive function, while the parietal region handles sensory input. L- theanine has a similar chemical structure to glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter related to memory.

L-theanine might reduce or slow cognitive decline.

Because of its antagonistic effects on glutamate receptors and how it affects overall cognition, L-theanine seems to have neuroprotective and cognitive-enhancing abilities. Researchers observed that elderly individuals who consumed green tea powder enriched with L-theanine (47.5 mg theanine per day) had reduced cognitive decline, compared to the placebo group. Other preliminary studies show promise for L-theanine as an agent to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease.

L-theanine may improve mood.

By helping to improve the production of the inhibitory relaxing neurotransmitter GABA, L-theanine plays a key role in mood support. GABA is important for nervous system function, often used as a natural supplement to promote sleep, improve mood, and ease anxiety. L-theanine has also been shown to have a similar boosting effect on dopamine as well as serotonin levels in the brain; although, so far only in animal neurochemistry studies, so more research is warranted.

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L-theanine might help improve the symptoms of schizophrenia.

L-theanine has also been the subject of human studies in patients with schizophrenia. It has so far demonstrated reductions in anxiety and general symptoms of psychopathology as well as sleep quality, since it's known to block glutamate receptors and stabilizing excitatory stimuli in the brain.

L-theanine increases resilience to acute stress and balances out sympathetic nervous activation.

There are several studies detailing that L-theanine supplementation prevents the abrupt rise in blood pressure and reduces salivary immunoglobulin A (s-IgA)—responses usually associated with stressful situations. Not only does L-theanine reduce feelings of stress and anxiety in the first place, but it also attenuates the effects of a high-stress response right after the fact!

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L-theanine can improve sleep quality (including for children with ADHD).

Not surprisingly, L-theanine has been shown to help sleep in a number of ways, including promoting relaxation pre-bedtime (with the added bonus of not inducing the drowsy sedation often associated with other sleep aids or anxiolytics). Researchers in Japan gave volunteers 200 mg of L-theanine daily and recorded their sleep patterns on wearable sleep devices. Sleep quality, recovery from exhaustion, and refreshed feelings were all enhanced by L-theanine.

There’s evidence that L-theanine may help improve sleep quality in children with (ADHD). A study examined the effects of L-theanine on the sleep of boys ages 8 through 12 and found that the supplement worked safely and effectively (at a dose of 400 mg daily) to improve the quality of their sleep.

How to take L-theanine.

As much as possible, get your daily dose of L-theanine through diet first, as a functional food/beverage, in the form of tea!

L-theanine is available in green, black, and white teas, with green tea containing the most L-theanine (hello, matcha everything!). Green tea contains small amounts of caffeine but, if you can tolerate it, has the added bonus of containing healthy catechins and flavonols that offer further overall health-protective benefits.

The L-theanine content of tea varies considerably, with estimates around 1 to 2 percent of the dry weight of leaves and a single cup of tea containing around 25 to 60 mg of L-theanine. Data indicates that L-theanine, at "realistic dietary levels" as low as 50 mg has a significant mental effect (on alertness or arousal).

Some ideas to get L-theanine in on the regular:

  • Just regular high-quality green tea, with or without a squeeze and slice of fresh lemon
  • Green tea blended with MCT oil (Tibetan-inspired butter tea, anyone?)
  • Green iced tea infused with berries, lemon, cucumber, and mint
  • Matcha latte
  • Matcha chia pudding
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Supplementation, safety, and typical dose:

L-theanine is generally well-tolerated by healthy adults, for whom typical doses range between 100 and 400 milligrams for specific conditions.

L-theanine may lower blood pressure and thus could interfere with blood pressure medications/supplements, as well as with stimulating agents, including supplements that contain caffeine. As always, consult your doctor or integrative or functional medicine practitioner before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. Together you can go over any possible interactions/side effects and find the kind, dose, and brand that’s best for you depending on your unique current health profile.

When considering a supplement, try to find out as much as you can about regulation, quality, and sourcing as well as bioavailability.

Possible side effects of L-theanine:

L-theanine appears to be remarkably safe with no observed adverse effects recorded in human studies so far. In animal research, L-theanine appears to be safe even at very high doses (4000 mg/kg bw/day was the highest dose tested). Still, it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor first because everyone's reactions to foods, supplements, and medications are different, and ever-changing depending on several individual factors. L-Theanine has been safely consumed by humans in the form of tea for many thousands of years, with no recorded significant side effects, so your best bet might be getting it in the traditional way—in the form of organic green tea.

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