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L-theanine: A Better Alternative to Coffee?

Here in the West, most of us don’t feel fully awake without a trip to the coffee machine or our local Starbucks.

Millions of people rely on a cup – or five ­– of Joe to feel awake, alert, and stimulated all day long. Others prefer to get their oomph in a can, downing energy drinks such as Red Bull like they’re water.

But there may be an even better way to get your buzz.

In fact, there’s an intriguing substance found in the leaves of a simple plant – one that promises a gentle energy boost, combined with feeling of calmness.

In other words, you could feel more alert and less anxious. It might even improve your brainpower. So where can you find this remarkable product?

It could be in your pantry right now.

Everyone’s Cup of Tea…

The key to more energy may be found in your teacup. Sure, you’re thinking. But coffee is so much stronger! Why would I bother with tea?

Well, tea – and green tea in particular ­– contains a special substance that appears to both increase alertness and help relieve stress.

You might associate it with English grandmothers and childhood tea parties, but tea actually has a long history of use as a health beverage.

As I’ve discussed here before, a large body of research shows that EGCG, a polyphenol compound found in green tea, may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as some types of cancer.

Now, studies suggest another impressive benefit for green tea, or at least one of its active ingredient.

See, green tea has a long history of use in China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and other Asian countries, where it’s believed that Buddhist monks relied on the drink to help stay calm and alert during long meditation sessions.

Those monks may have been on to something. In 1949, Japanese researchers discovered L-theanine. This amino acid makes up about 1% to 3% of tea leaves (Camillia sinensis), with green tea being the richest source and black tea containing smaller amounts.

Soon, scientists confirmed its calming properties. By 1964, L-theanine was approved as a food additive in Japan and added to everything from chocolate to soft drinks. Today, L-theanine is so popular that it’s sold as supplements, too.

But is it really as impressive as manufacturers would have you believe?

Benefits are Brewing…

Research suggests that L-theanine may work in part by increasing the activity of alpha brain waves, which are present when we are alert, awake, and relaxed. Alpha waves also help us concentrate and focus.

For example, in one study, 35 people took either 50 mg of L-theanine or a placebo pill. Researchers used electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to measure alpha wave activity. They found that people who took L-theanine had a greater increase in alpha wave activity, compared to those who took a placebo.1

Plus, L-theanine has a similar chemical structure to glutamine, a neurotransmitter that’s involved with learning and memory. But unlike glutamine, which can eventually damage nerve cells, L-theanine actually calms and protects networks of nerves.

L-theanine also boosts production of GABA and dopamine, which translates to a decreased nervous system response to stress.

The amino acid may even improve brain function in people with mild memory problems. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled Korean study, researchers gave 91 people with mild cognitive impairment either 1,680 mg of L-theanine or a placebo daily.

After 16 weeks, they found that people who supplemented with L-theanine had better memory, selective attention, and cognitive alertness – as measured by EEG tests, memory tests, and word tests – compared to placebo.2

While more research is needed, L-theanine may even benefit people with certain conditions. For example, one 2008 study suggests that the supplement might help improve symptoms of Parkinson’s disease – at least in laboratory animals. Researchers discovered that L-theanine protected dopamine-producing nerve cells from damage by pesticides that have been previously found in higher levels in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease.1

Double the Power…

Why does green tea give you the same lift as coffee, but without the jitters? Scientists credit L-theanine. Even though tea contains both caffeine and this amino acid, L-theanine appears to balance the former, so you feel energized and calm at the same time.

So it stands to reason that a supplement (or beverage) that contains both caffeine and L-theanine could pack a one-two punch when it comes to energy and cognitive alertness. Some studies suggest just that. 3,4,5,6,7

For instance, one study looked at the effect of L-theanine combined with caffeine on cognition and mood. They gave 27 people supplemental caffeine, caffeine plus L-theanine, or a placebo pill and then measured their performance on a variety of cognitive tests up to 90 minutes later.

They found that people who took the caffeine–L-theanine combination had improved speed and accuracy in certain tasks, as well as decreased distraction during a memory test, compared to those who took a placebo pill or caffeine alone.4

However, I don’t recommend this combination, because as I reported here other research indicates caffeine sets of your fight-or-flight stress response leading to a host of symptoms including insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, and more.

A cup of green tea contains 15-60 mg of caffeine, so drinking it can cause problems, particularly if you are sensitive to the substance. And as you’d have to drink several cups to get the same dosages of either l-theanine or caffeine in these studies, that only multiples the problem.

So the question is: Can you get the calm, alert feeling and cognitive benefits l-theanine provides without the problems caffeine causes?

Today you can…

Buzz in a Bottle…

L-theanine now comes in supplemental form, and it’s safe for most people. Experts recommend a dose of 50 mg to 200 mg a day. Its effects are said to last 8 to 10 hours, and you should start to notice them within about 30 minutes of taking L-theanine.

You may want to avoid this supplement if you take medications or herbs to lower blood pressure, as it may amplify their effects. The same goes for other stimulant drugs. And keep in mind L-theanine may trigger side effects in some people, including dizziness, headaches, and gastrointestinal woes.

Because we don’t fully know the effects of L-theanine in people with certain conditions, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor before taking it if you have liver or kidney disease.

But if you’re in good health and want to replicate that gentle, feel-good green tea buzz throughout the day, without the problems caffeine represents – or if you need to stay especially alert or are dealing with high levels of stress – L-theanine supplements could help.

I wouldn’t rely on green tea for L-theanine, though: You would have to drink many cups of it each day to reach these dosages, and that would mean consuming a lot of stress-promoting caffeine at the same time.

Remember, keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.

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