Theanine is Nature's Smart Drug
In the search for the best nootropics (brain boosters) that nature has to offer, we fell in love with L-theanine. What separates theanine from most cognitive enhancing supplements is that it has immediate effects, unlike many others which require weeks of consistent use before any benefits are seen.
We understand too. Everyone needs a little bit of a boost in memory, accuracy, and attention span, especially with all of the distractions draining our cognitive resources on a daily basis. This badass amino acid deserves much more recognition than it is given, but there are also some prevalent myths out there about how it can affect mood state, neurotransmitters, and more. We’re here to give you the straight truth about what the research shows so far.
Theanine is an amino acid which is almost predominantly found in tea, with the exception being a few varieties of mushroom. This does not include herbal teas, but only a few species in the camellia genus like c. sinensis and c. japonica. This includes things like white tea, green tea, black tea, and oolong tea - pretty much any variety of tea which comes from these plants using different processing methods. While the concentration of theanine has been demonstrated to vary slightly between processing methods, it is not by very much and shouldn’t be seen as reason to discriminate between types of teas when considering theanine content.
How Theanine Affects the Brain
L-theanine is actually able to cross the blood-brain barrier (important when considering anything touted as being a brain enhancer) and has been demonstrated to increase alpha wave activity of the brain. Alpha waves are associated with a mental state of calm, relaxation, and focus. We like to call theanine the herbal equivalent to meditation because of this.
Theanine also has a weak affinity for glutamate receptors, and essentially can slightly block their actions, which may underlie some of the relaxation benefits we see when it is supplemented.
Now, you may have heard a variety of claims made about theanine because it has become a decently popular brain supplement, especially among the biohacking crowd. In regards to these purported benefits, here’s what we found.
Relaxation and Anxiety Reduction
Alongside the increase in alpha wave activity of the brain, subjects receiving theanine report an increase in relaxation when compared to placebo. This effect seems to be most present in subjects with a higher anxiety level, where a slight reduction in overall anxiety has been noted.
What we find interesting is that when theanine is consumed on its own, it appears to have the majority of its relaxation and attention improving effects in people with high anxiety, but has failed to produce significant results in those with lower anxiety levels. There also doesn’t appear to be a reduction in state anxiety, which means that theanine is likely very selective when addressing the different types of anxiety.
Another study where theanine was compared to alprazolam (a common benzodiazepine for anxiety) failed to find any significant reductions in anticipatory anxiety for either. What does this all mean? Simply that theanine isn’t very good at reducing anxiety overall and may be better suited to helping to promote relaxation and a better state of mind. I find that theanine on its own is great for helping to reduce mind wandering and stressing about things. If you’re looking for something that’s been shown to be much better for stress and anxiety overall, check out our page on ashwagandha.
The part we’ve all been waiting for! The direct effects of theanine alone on cognition aren’t very pronounced. It appears that in order for theanine to contribute to better reaction time, accuracy, processing speed, and for people to have less distraction, they need to have a high level of anxiety from the start. It seems that theanine may also have benefits for preserving memory during acute and long term stress, at least in mice. Stressed and anxious people may derive the most benefits from a theanine supplement on its own, so considering that the majority of people fall into those categories, it may have overall benefits for most. What if you’re already chilled out though?
Before you write off theanine or throw your current bottle in the trash, listen up because here’s where it gets really interesting!
Theanine with Caffeine
This amazing combo is the bread and butter of cognitive supplement stacks! Theanine plus caffeine has been demonstrated to improve multiple parameters of cognition and mental performance including:
This means that theanine is highly synergistic with caffeine and these mental performance benefits occur in healthy people without anxiety, stress, or cognitive impairment. The plethora of mental benefits of this combo is interesting considering that theanine and caffeine naturally occur alongside one another in tea. However, in order to reach the maximum cognitive benefits, it would require around 6-10 cups of tea in order to reach the doses of caffeine and theanine used in the studies. This is great for Southerners like us who love tea, but if you’re more of a coffee drinker, you can pop 100-200 mg of theanine with a cup of coffee to replicate the studied doses.
It’s also good to note that theanine can reduce the negative side effects of caffeine like headaches, jitters, nervousness, and anxiety, and theanine has actually been demonstrated to stop caffeine induced seizures. This is great news for those sensitive to caffeine. I personally have used theanine as a means of reducing those negative side effects when I’ve accidentally drank far too much coffee (we’re talking about when things start to get shimmery and shaky and you feel like you’re about to puke!).
Only one study we could find has demonstrated an improvement in sleep in young boys with ADHD taking 200 mg of theanine three times per day. These boys experienced better sleep efficiency and appeared to have reduced sleep activity (like twitching and restless leg syndrome). It hasn’t been extensively studied elsewhere, but theanine has failed to produce an outright sedative effect like other sleep aids despite it increasing relaxation.
I find that theanine before bed tends to help reduce the mental wandering and overthinking that occurs at night, which works somewhat for helping me get to sleep, but I wouldn’t really call it too much of an overall sleep aid! It seems to work well in combination with other herbal sedatives, at least according to anecdotes, but it’s unclear whether or not the theanine has much of an effect in those formulations!
Boosting Neurotransmitters Like Dopamine and Serotonin
This one is passed around almost everywhere that discusses supplements and we’re about to see why actually reading the studies is important before jumping to conclusions. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in things like pleasure, reward, and motivation, and theanine is said to help boost levels as a means of contributing to some of the cognitive benefits. Even though the studies on theanine’s effects on dopamine were in rats, it’s interesting that they show that oral intake of theanine does not significantly influence dopamine levels. However, direct injections of theanine into the striatum of rats has caused significant increases in dopamine based on the dose used. So unless you can figure out a way to inject theanine into your brain, it hasn’t actually been shown to raise dopamine after oral intake (swallowing a pill or drinking tea).
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter which is important to various processes and serves functions related to happiness and perception. Apparently, it is also supposed to be increased with theanine, but again the research falls flat here. The same study investigating oral theanine’s effects on dopamine didn’t find an increase in serotonin either. A super high dose of oral theanine was actually found to reduce serotonin concentrations in rats.
I’m not sure where people really get this claim from, unless they aren’t looking at the administration methods. It’s kind of like the old supplement chrysin where rat studies showed an increase in testosterone...when injected directly into the testicles, but not taken orally. Pills don’t appear to equal injections!
Increasing Alcohol Metabolism
If you’re going out drinking tonight and need something to help you speed up alcohol metabolism so you don’t wake up feeling like death, then read on.
An interesting study found that rats receiving theanine actually had an increased rate of alcohol metabolism through an increase in alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase. These rats also experienced less liver damage as a result of their wild night on the town and appeared not to wake up next to a stranger they met at the bar.
Just kidding about the last part.
Anyway, this means that theanine may be an effective pre-game supplement to help mitigate the side effects of alcohol. From personal experience, I’ve definitely felt less of the negative side effects from drinking after taking theanine, but it also appeared to make me feel the alcohol less than I do without it. I’ll leave that up to you to decide what you want to do with that information, but just be smart and don’t think theanine will prevent you from getting alcohol poisoning.
Other Things Attributed to Tea
There are some other interesting things that are attributed to theanine, but may actually be more attributed to the consumption of green tea catechins or just green tea as a beverage with the naturally occuring theanine and catechins like EGCG. However, we’ll leave those for when we do our review on green tea!
Doses and Sourcing
Doses of theanine used in the studies to achieve the cognitive benefits were at anywhere from 100-200 mg of theanine combined with 100-200 mg of caffeine. If avoiding caffeine, theanine may work for those with stress and anxiety at the same dose.
The sleep benefits were seen in the boys with ADHD at 200 mg three times per day, and I’ve found it effective when taken with “late in the day caffeine” in order to help prevent the loss of sleep quality.
For sourcing, there’s a brand of theanine which is supposed to be 99% pure theanine by weight called SunTheanine. It’s found in multiple supplements and is my go to when looking for theanine in a supplement form.
You can also just drink tea, but in order to get the amount of theanine used in the studies, you’d have to be drinking almost a half a gallon per day (Southerners rejoice!). Also worth mentioning is that theanine may actually have reduced absorption when drank in large amounts as tea, but this hasn’t been demonstrated yet in humans.
Side Effects and Toxicity
There are pretty much no side effects and no demonstrated toxicity from theanine even at extremely high doses. There may be a possible reduction in blood pressure which could cause hypotension in some people, but that’s about it. No nausea or anything. It actually caused many people less side effects from caffeine when they were combined in the aforementioned studies. That’s another reason I love this stuff so much.
I think most people should give theanine a try, especially for a regular consumer of coffee or other forms of caffeine. I started taking it with my morning coffee and any other sources of caffeine just to get the brain enhancement benefits, and I do really feel a difference as do many other people. It’s relatively cheap and worth trying out mostly as a brain boosting supplement and is one of the few nootropics which actually has some good quality research backing it. The best part is that it is effective immediately and doesn’t require weeks or months to see the benefits.
Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed this article. Be sure to check out our podcast episode on magnesium on iTunes and Spotify, or by clicking here. Like us on Facebook, and follow us on Instagram for updates, and be sure to subscribe to our mailing list. Until next time, always remember that H = Health!