Though health benefits claimed in tea marketing are often exaggerated or just plain untrue, a cup of tea does contain many natural compounds that are good for the body and mind. One of the most fascinating is L-Theanine, an amino acid first isolated from tea in 1949. Found in only three plants across the world, theanine is key to the unique characteristics that have made tea so popular for thousands of years.
Studies have shown that L-Theanine can reduce stress and induce relaxation by inducing alpha wave brain activity and prompting production of dopamine - a neurotransmitter that causes feelings of happiness and well-being. It can be used to treat anxiety, reduce blood pressure in high stress situations, and improve sleep, all without the common negative side effects of conventional medications. However, tea drinkers often benefit most from the natural duality found in tea: theanine and caffeine.
In combination with caffeine, theanine has been shown to improve focus and cognitive performance. When compared to coffee, lower levels of caffeine combine with theanine in tea to avoid jittery and distracted side effects, as well as the withdrawal symptoms that come with caffeine addiction. Though many people drink tea for the caffeine content, it is the pairing with theanine that aids productivity by producing relaxed alertness.
Theanine also has desirable effects on tea flavor, where it adds a notable “umami” quality that is most recognizable in shade-grown japanese green teas like gyokuro or high quality matcha. When exposed to sun, tea leaves convert naturally sweet theanine compounds to polyphenols, which are typically astringent. Teas grown without much direct sun exposure (like those plucked in early spring or shaded during growth), therefore have less astringency and more sweet umami flavor, thanks to their higher levels of theanine.
As with caffeine, evidence quantifying theanine on a per-cup basis is highly variable, with contradictory results regarding general tea types. Our recommendation, as ever, is to approach tea with flavor in mind first, since any tea must be brewed and sipped to offer any benefits. Try a fresh spring green tea for a bright, crisp pick-me-up, or settle in with a rich cup of black tea. No matter which tea you choose, every cup will provide the natural benefits of theanine.
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