On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
Caffeine is the one drug most people just can’t do without. For those times when you’re stressed about some looming duty or deadline, but almost too dead tired to do anything about it, it’s the most reliable tool to help you boss up and keep moving. But chances are that, after pounding down enough coffee, Red Bull, or strong black tea, most folks will start to feel jittery, tense, and all around tweaked out. They may be awake, but they may feel even more strung out and anxious than when they started out.
This is the tradeoff most of us accept in caffeine: It can jolt us up and offer some real long-term health benefits, possibly even mitigating the side effects of chronic stress. But it also spikes the immediate production of stress hormones and raises blood pressure, precipitating or exacerbating short-term stress. The potency of this effect varies by individual; according to James O’Keefe, a cardiologist who’s studied caffeine’s effects, it hits people who don’t often consume caffeine the hardest.
But for most, four to five cups of coffee over the course of a day may make your body act like it’s under stress for a spell—even if it wasn’t already. Usually it takes more tea to feel the same thing, but anyone who’s inhaled a pot of black Assam brewed at triple strength knows, in the right context—e.g. empty stomach and jangled nerves—even one potent cuppa can send someone over the edge.
But there is a way to get caffeine’s benefits—the clarity that can help you dig your way out of a chaotic situation or hack through looming workloads—without suffering most of its stressing consequences so readily. It’s just the simple process of knowing how to pick and brew the right kinds of tea. There are a few brews that, thanks to a unique chemical balance, seem to boost caffeine’s positive and all but eliminate its negative effects.
Some are so potently calming that, if you pound them back fast enough, instead of getting the shakes there’s a good chance you slip into what some tea aficionados refer to as tea drunkenness. But actually, this altered state is more like a mellow high that just loosens you up and clears your head. It’s a bit like taking a few hits of a sativa-dominant hybrid strain. It’s not going to distract you, like jitters and palpitations. It’s just another level of calm focus.
All tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinensis. They take on differing hues, tastes, and other properties based on how they are harvested, processed, or stored. But they all contain, albeit in differing quantities, an amino acid known as L-Theanine. First identified by Japanese scientists in 1949, it’s a rare compound, found (to our current knowledge) in only one other food: an obscure mushroom. There’s been a lot of hype about L-Theanine’s potential health benefits in recent years. Some believe it may have the potential to, among other things, prevent Alzheimer’s disease or boost the efficacy of cancer drugs. So of course it’s been turned into a supplement. However most of L-Theanine’s effects are still vague; almost every claim requires loads of further research.
But we know one thing about L-Theanine with relative certainty, O’Keefe says. In study after study, it’s been shown to “lower post-stress cortisol levels and also reduce subjective feelings of anxiety and stress.” And it can chill you out in stressful contexts without making you drowsy.
While the jury’s still out on just how much L-Theanine can do for your alertness on its own, there's also a fair body of research suggesting that when consumed along side caffeine, it boosts that substance’s positive effects on clarity and cognition. Meanwhile, it also seemingly mitigates caffeine’s tendency to raise our stress hormone levels and blood pressure—curbing its downsides.
Some doubt that the amount of L-Theanine in tea, one to two percent of each leaf’s weight, is enough to convey its benefits—at least without drinking absurd amounts of it. But Keiko Unno of Japan’s University of Shizuoka, a leading L-Theanine researcher, says it can impart its anti-stress effects even at low doses. Those who come from a tea-drinking culture may get an extra boost of tranquility from merely putting water on the boil or holding a mug, too. “The aromatic additions and the social atmosphere around tea drinking may be associated with comfort,” explains Mustafa al’Absi, a University of Minnesota medical professor who studies caffeine.
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“The combination of theanine with caffeine makes tea a unique beverage that promotes mental focus, increases energy, yet reduces anxiety and subjective feelings of stress,” O’Keefe says. “We have nothing in our armamentarium of prescription drugs that does this.”
But there is a hitch: Each of the 1,500 or so varieties of tea has a different caffeine-L-Theanine ratio and, O’Keefe says, we don’t know what the optimal balance to attain clarity without jittery tension is yet. There’s a good chance that it could vary from person to person, based on sensitivities to each compound. Unno’s studies focus on low caffeine, high theanine teas, suggesting that they may have the highest potential, or at least that we’re the most certain of their benefits. Unfortunately most of the teas consumed in the world are black varieties, which have some of the highest caffeine and lowest L-Theanine levels of all the teas out there.
This means that if one wants to get the most stress relief, the least tweak inducement, out of their tea, they likely have to go beyond the most accessible black varieties in offices, cafes, and supermarkets. They may even have to go beyond just switching to green teas, because while these varieties have a higher ratio of L-Theanine and far less caffeine, they are far from uniform.
Green teas grown in shade for at least 20 days before they’re harvested yield some of the highest L-Theanine levels. They also have more caffeine than the average green tea, but still less than most black teas. Leaves grown to these specifications cost a little more, but are still easy to find: Gyokuro and tencha, the variety used to make matcha, are fairly ubiquitous in America now. Matcha is an especially good tea for a calm energy and focus boost, as one is drinking a suspension of ground leaves rather than an infusion, digesting its whole load of caffeine and L-Theanine rather than just whatever leached into the water.
Tea aficionados usually slide into tea drunkenness, also commonly referred to as cha qi, when drinking matcha and other high-L-Theanine teas. But you’re not going to reach this altered state unless you really go for it. None of the tea experts I’ve spoken to agree on how much you have to consume, or how you have to do so, and academics and doctors do not seem to have studied the phenomenon. Roughly speaking, though, we’re talking something like throwing back five cups of high-grade matcha in one go or guzzling a whole pot of highly concentrated gyokuro. So it’s not a cheap high, especially for one so mild. But some tea nuts go overboard trying to experience it.
However anyone looking to invest in a high-L-Theanine tea should exercise caution, as there’s a lot of shitty tea in America. The matcha craze especially has led to an influx of cheaper milled green teas, falsely labeled as matcha, which have far less L-Theanine. Fortunately there are guides for scoping out good matcha. And in general, it’s best to opt for loose-leaf teas, check that they have the vibrant green color that comes from shade growth, and accept a high price point rather than seek a bargain to guarantee a high tea grade. From there, it’s just a process of trying different high-L-Theanine teas until one finds the variety that seems to work for them.
High-L-Theanine teas are not a quick fix for stress. They’re a serious investment, and finding the right one for the right individual can take a fair bit of time and effort at the outset. They also offer only temporary relief. But for those moments when one is in an acute period of stress—facing those looming deadlines or duties in the wee hours—they’re great tools to have. And they’re definitely, as O’Keefe pointed out, “safe and much healthier than many other traditional ways of coping with stress, such as alcohol, cigarettes, opioids, benzodiazepines, etc.”
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