For more than 5000 years, humans have consumed L-Theanine for its medicinal and brain enhancing benefits. Despite only first being discovered in 1949 by a group of Japanese scientists, and subsequently extracted in 1950, L-theanine has undeniably improved the lives of many people long before the technology to identify this fascinating compound was invented.
What is L-Theanine?
L-Theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid with concentrated amounts found in green tea like Matcha and Japanese Gyokuro as well as some fungal species like the Bay Bolete mushroom. It elicits an umami taste and is the reason why your green tea is flavourful, brothy, and savory. With advancements in science, l-theanine is now available as a powdered extract and is often taken to help calm the mind, while enhancing attention, focus, and cognitive function. Unaware of the actual compound itself, Zen Buddhist monks benefited from l-theanine by way of drinking green tea, a ritual that helped to increase attention and focus during long meditative sits.
L-Theanine, Meditation and Buddhism Tea Culture
Shennong, a legendary Chinese herbalist and emperor, is believed to have been the earliest known person to drink tea. Thirsty and sitting atop a hillside with his army, Shennong’s servant began to boil some water. As legend has it, a leaf, blown by the wind, found its way into Shennong’s cup. Infatuated by the distinct colour and flavor, Shennong began to share his discovery with others.
It wasn't until the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) did tea drinking begin to become incorporated in Chinese Buddhist culture. Unlike most religions, the practice of Buddhism does not pay tribute to a deity, creator, or origin story. Instead, Buddhism teaches awareness, paying attention to the details of one’s own personal journey throughout life, while moving ever forward along a path to enlightenment. Over the years, Buddhism began to branch off into different sects as knowledge spread to neighboring countries like Japan.
Dissatisfied with the state of Buddhism in Japan, a monk named Eisai travelled to China to study it’s origins. In 1911, after his second trip, Eisai returned to Japan as a master, bringing with him Zen scriptures and tea seeds. Credited for bringing Zen Buddhism and tea culture to Japan, Eisai encouraged drinking green tea as a tool to aid in meditation.
Traditionally revered for its medicinal benefits, tea drinking really took hold in Zen Buddhism as a way to cultivate the mind and body. The aim of Zen Buddhism is to discipline the mind so that the energy of the unconscious can break through into the conscious and achieve enlightenment. For Zen budhist monks, both preparing and drinking tea became a meditative practice itself. Typically consumed throughout the day, tea helped monks stay awake during long periods of meditation. In addition to caffeine, it’s safe to say that l-theanine likely played a significant role in their ability to maintain attention and focus as they attempted to free themselves of consciousness and thought for hours on end.
How Does L-Theanine Work?
Once ingested, l-theanine is absorbed by the small intestine and crosses the blood-brain barrier, registering a number of pharmacological effects. In the brain, l-theanine triggers elevated levels of alpha-waves, often present during meditation practice, creativity, and REM sleep, creating a relaxed yet wakeful state.*1 2 L-theanine also increases neurotransmitters GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. Like alpha-waves, GABA, serotonin, and dopamine, promote a relaxed state without causing sedation and work to regulate mood, emotion, attention, concentration, and other cognitive processes.3 L-theanine regulates stress and anxiety, protecting the brain against age related cognitive decline.* In addition to stimulating neurotransmitters in the brain, l-theanine increases the expression of BDNF, a protein in the hippocampus responsible for neuron health, neuron repair, and neurogenesis.*4
The Health Benefits of L-Theanine May Help:
- Reduces stress and create a calming effect*
- Enhance cognitive performance, attention and focus*
- Protect and aging brain from cognitive decline*
- Prevent stroke and cardiovascular disease*
- Improve sleep quality and duration*
L-Theanine is Calming and Reduces Stress
Stress is your body’s natural response mechanism to any form of physical or mental demand. Many types of stress are actually healthy and can even strengthen your immune system. Unfortunately, chronic levels of stress can lead to serious health consequences such as diabetes, ulcers, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.5
L-theanine helps to reduce stress by blocking glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter and signaling chemical in the brain.6 7 By binding to its receptors, l-theanine inhibits glutamate production, initiating a calming and antianxiety-like effect in people.*8
In one study measuring the presence of L-Theanine induced alpha brain waves, 8 university students were split into two groups, one with severe anxiety and another with little to no anxiety. After ingesting 200mg of L-Theanine, the group with the highest degree of anxiety showed a significant increase in alpha-brain waves compared to the less-anxious group. This study suggests that l-theanine has a much more pronounced effect when you need it most.*9
In addition to the inhibitory effect on glutamate, l-theanine has been shown to elevate GABA levels in the brain.3 Another inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA prevents neuronal excitability in the central nervous system by attaching to a protein called a GABA receptor. By increasing GABA levels, l-theanine produces a calming effect, preventing feelings of stress and anxiety without causing drowsiness and affecting motor behavior.*10
L-Theanine Enhances Cognitive Performance
A growing body of research looking at the relationship between stress, anxiety, and cognitive performance is starting to support the hypothesis that daily or chronic stress can negatively affect cognitive function, eventually leading to inflammation and even accelerate cognitive decline.11
Acting as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, l-theanine works to improve cognitive performance by blocking glutamate and increasing levels of GABA in the brain.*6 7 3
Researchers in one study were able to demonstrate these effects at doses lower than than most clinical trials. Participants were given 50mg of l-theanine, the equivalent of 2.5 cups of black tea, and were examined during both resting and passive activity. Measuring results using an electroencephalograph (EEG), researchers found that even at realistic dietary levels, L-Theanine has a significant effect on mental alertness and arousal. The data suggests that l-theanine could improve alertness, while keeping the mind calm by stimulating alpha-wave activity.*2
L-Theanine Protects the Brains and Slows Cognitive Decline
Glutamate is an important neurotransmitter involved in learning, memory, and motor function. However, prolonged activation of glutamate receptors known as excitotoxicity can cause toxic neuronal death in postsynaptic neurons. Excitotoxicity has been linked to neuronal death observed in stroke, and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.12
By inhibiting neuron excitation, oral intake of l-theanine has been shown to cause anti-stress effects that could help prevent excitotoxicity-induced cognitive decline.*13
Although more human studies are required, animal research has demonstrated that l-theanine can have a significant protective effect on cognition. In one study, researchers found that cognitive impairments and oxidative damage caused by chronic stress could potentially be reversed through administration of l-theanine treatment therapy.14 This study suggests that l-theanine could provide a protective effect against stress-induced neurological disorders.*
L-Theanine May Prevent Stroke and Cardiovascular Disease
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that a stroke, a type of cardiovascular disorder, is the second leading cause of death in the world. A stroke is caused by the constriction or blockage of blood vessels, preventing oxygen or nutrients from flowing to the brain. It is also the leading cause of neurological disorders such depression and dementia.15
Studies have shown that l-theanine helps to regulate nitric oxide production, a signalling molecule that is responsible for vasodilation.16 As a result, l-theanine could help to mediate vascular health, reducing the chances of a stroke and cardiovascular disease.*
In another study, researchers found that l-theanine could help reduce the chances of artery blockages and therefore stroke, by blocking molecules that adhere to the cellular wall of blood vessels.*17
Interestingly, l-theanine may also be an effective treatment in helping people not only prevent but recover from stroke. In one animal study for example, researchers found that l-theanine, when administered immediately after experiencing a stroke, helped to protect brain cells, while limiting the size of the affected area.*18
L-Theanine May Improve Sleep Quality and Duration
L-theanine has been shown to promote a relaxed state by lowering heart rate, blocking excitatory neurotransmitters and elevating alpha-waves in the brain.19 1 2 3 These effects indicate that l-theanine supplementation could help improve overall sleep quality, while reducing the time it actually takes to fall asleep.*
In a double-blind placebo controlled study, researchers looked at the effects of l-theanine as a possible treatment to improve sleep quality in boys aged 8-12 years old who were suffering from ADHD. The findings showed that l-theanine, when administered at a dose of 400mg, significantly improved sleep percentages and sleep efficiency scores when compared to the placebo group.*20
Ingesting caffeine 6 hours before bed significantly disrupts sleep quality and duration. 21 Interestingly, l-theanine could help to mitigate these effects. In one animal study, researchers found that l-theanine partially counteracted caffeine induced sleep disturbances in rats by blocking the excitatory effects in the brain. 22
While more research is needed, the potential therapeutic benefits of l-theanine on sleep quality and duration are certainly promising.
L-Theanine and Caffeine:
Caffeine is a stimulant that acts on the central nervous system and prevents drowsiness by blocking adenosine from binding to its receptors. As the world’s most popular psychoactive drug, caffeine is commonly consumed in the form of coffee, tea or natural herbal extracts such as guarana.
Although caffeine is relatively safe in low-to-moderate amounts, higher doses can cause unpleasant side effects such as anxiety, nervousness, high blood pressure, and insomnia.
Many studies now suggest that l-theanine has a synergistic effect when combined with caffeine.
In a double-blind placebo controlled study, researchers found that l-theanine, when combined with caffeine, improved both attention tasks and overall mood ratings in subjects. The results of this study also showed that l-theanine mitigated the negative vasoconstrictive and behavioural effects of caffeine.23
Summary: The Health Benefits of L-Theanine
L-Theanine is a naturally occurring amino acid with concentrated amounts found in green tea like Matcha and Japanese Gyokuro as well as some fungal species. Long before the discovery of the compound, its benefits were enjoyed by Buddhist monks as a function of tea culture in both China and Japan. Favoured as a meditation tool, tea drinking was a ritualistic component to daily practice as a way to maintain attention and focus for hours on end.
With the help of modern research, we now understand why tea may have been such a beneficial tool. L-theanine, one of the active compounds in green tea has been shown to trigger alpha-waves in the brain, resulting in a relaxed yet wakeful state of consciousness.*
In addition to its nootropic effects on the brain, l-theanine has been shown to potentially protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline, improve sleep quality and regulate vascular health.*
Mind Flora, our natural plant and functional mushroom-based formula designed to support wakefulness contains 200mg of L-Theanine. Intended to work synergistically with Guarana, the L-Theanine produces a calm, focused state, while mitigating the potential jittery effects of Guarana’s caffeine content.* Try Mind Flora today.
*The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Any products mentioned are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is intended for educational purposes. The information is not intended to replace medical advice offered by licensed medical physicians. Please consult your doctor or health practitioner for any medical advice.