Why Doesn’t Tea Make Me Wired?

The Dreaded Lunchtime Seminar

It is 12:05 and the coffee and cookies still have not arrived. 12:10. No coffee in sight. 12:15. To my dismay, the speaker is going to begin! No caffeine to keep me awake. No cookies to make up for the lunch I forgot to bring.

The lights go out, the projector goes on, and this week’s speaker begins a fifty-minute drone. Picture after picture of indecipherable graphs. Endless hesitations and false starts. Blank stares—on the part of the speaker and the audience—at irrelevant content; puzzlement as to why that image is in this particular spot. AARGH! Why has the clock stopped and why is this room so hot? And why oh why didn’t the coffee get here in time?

Because caffeine can spell the difference—between counting ceiling tiles and speaker “um”s in a desperate attempt to remain conscious . . . and actually being alert enough to attend to a mind-numbing lecture.

Because caffeine can do wonderful things for the sleep-deprived or the disengaged.

And I’m talking about the jolt we get from coffee. Few are reaching for the teapot here.

So What’s the Difference? Why Not the Teapot?

Because there is less caffeine in brewed tea than in brewed coffee, right?

That’s true, but it isn’t the entire story.

The plants that we process for coffee, tea, chocolate, and mate all contain methylxanthines—which have real health benefits (see my last post), impart flavor (that bitterness? blame some of that on the caffeine), and are used in medicines.

chart

Because they easily cross the blood-brain barrier, methylxanthines directly affect our bodies. However, the various xanthines work differently, in ways that are not always well understood.

For example, we all know that eating chocolate will not hit like a shot of espresso, due presumably to its lower caffeine content—but the exact reason remains under study, with scientists looking at such things as plasma concentration, half life, and targets for specific xanthines. And while caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine each work differently with our brain’s adenosine receptors—with caffeine keeping us awake and theobromine possibly boosting sleep duration—there is also some indication that the caffeine and theobromine in cacao work together as a psychostimulant. Well that muddies things up.

Still, we know that if we really need to pay attention and not drift off, chocolate isn’t going to do it, but mate might and coffee probably will. And tea?

The Secret Ingredient

Brewed tea does have caffeine. Less than brewed coffee, but caffeine is caffeine. It’s that extra component, the theanine—or L-theanine more specifically—that makes us bypass the teacup and reach for the coffee mug when we want caffeine right now!

Theanine is a unique amino acid, found in tea and the Boletus radius mushroom. Theanines comprise the bulk of tea’s amino acids, giving tea its umami flavor. Because sunlight converts these amino acids to polyphenols, tea grown in shade retains more of its theanine while that grown in sunlight has less (resulting in flavor differences).

The great thing about the L-theanine, though, is that it directly impacts the brain, significantly increasing alpha brain wave activity.

And that means?

The alpha waves are the goal of biofeedback and meditation and mindfulness—the brain waves that relax us. And, caffeine and L-theanine work synergistically to improve brain function and attention.

This is a double win: relaxation coupled with alertness!

So Why Not the Teapot?!

To truly pay attention to that tedious lecture, perhaps I should be pulling out the teapot. Alpha waves, calm alertness. Seems that would enable active listening. . . . versus being wired, ready to pounce if the speaker says “ummm” one more bleeping time!

COMING UP:  A look at what determines how much caffeine is in your cup of tea.


Sources:
–”Alpha brain waves boost creativity and reduce depression,” by C. Bergland, Psychology Today. April 17, 2015. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201504/alpha-brain-waves-boost-creativey-and-reduce-depression.
–”Health benefits of methylxanthines in cacao and chocolate,” by R. Franco et al., Nutrients 5(10):4159–4173. October 2013.
–”Chemical compounds in tea,” by T. Gebely, Tea Education. 2015. http://www.worldoftea.org/category/tea-education.

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