Theanine in Tea
In our recent article on Caffeine in tea we noted the British Prime Minister William Gladstone's well known verse description of the effects of tea drinking - in summary: warming, cooling, cheering and calming.
These welcome but antagonistic effects are provided by two physiologically active components of tea - caffeine and theanine. Most tea drinkers are familiar with the stimulating effects of caffeine but tea's unique mind enhancing amino acid theanine, discovered as recently as 1949, has important and balancing effects of its own. Yet, tea's ability to refresh body and mind had been recognised for millennia; long before biochemists discovered theanine. Chinese poet Lu Tung Pin described tea's effects thus:
"The first bowl sleekly moistened throat and lips,
The second banished all my loneliness
The third expelled the dullness from my mind, Sharpening inspiration gained from all the books I've read
The fourth brought forth light perspiration, Dispersing a lifetime's troubles through my pores"
Lu Tung Pin, On Drinking Tea (around 780 AD)
We had to wait until the 19th Century to attribute the fourth cup's effect to its caffeine component, and again until the 21st Century to understand that the very welcome effects of drinking the third cup are due to its theanine content.
So what is theanine? Amino acids are the water soluble building blocks that form insoluble proteins in plants and animals. Nearly half of a tea plant's amino acids is theanine (or more correctly L- theanine, and not to be confused with tannin which is completely different). Theanine is produced by the roots and transported to the young growing leaves where, with sunlight, it converts to the antioxidant catechins that tea is justly famous for.
But theanine is not just a chemical building block in the plant - for the tea drinker it has some very important effects to offer.
- * Theanine stimulates brain alpha wave activity - the alpha state is one of relaxation without drowsiness. In this state of concentration is enhanced and focused thought learning and remembering are improved, and worry is reduced
* Theanine increases production of a chemical in the brain called GABA (actually Gamma- Amino Butyric Acid). This also relaxes your mental state and creates a sense of well being while reducing anxiety. Note that coffee actually decreases GABA!
* Theanine also increases dopamine levels in the brain, another natural mood enhancing compound often associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and motivation.
* Theanine can improve your immune system according to some research - for example Bukowski et al, Proc Nat Acad Sci, April 2006 - showing that the body can break down theanine into alkylamine antigens that produce infection fighting antibodies.
* Theanine also helps improve the taste of your tea - it has a sweetish flavour that off sets the astringency of some teas.
Well, the big packers are just realising what a wonderful set of natural benefits they have in tea but are still working on promotion of the health benefits of antioxidants and want to keep their marketing message simple. But Lipton for one has run test advertising campaigns on L-theanine.
In Australia they have promoted tea drinking at work with theanine as the antidote to profit reducing "fuzzy thinking" (based on research at Oxford University) and on their website picture an amazing brain cross section showing the alpha wave activity from 45 minutes to 105 minutes after drinking 50 mg of theanine (the amount in an average cup of tea). For this insight click here: and move the slider below the picture.
Returning to the tea bush, we find that the highest level of theanine is concentrated in the youngest tender buds and leaves - and this of course is the fresh material plucked exclusively for making specialty teas - and whether they are processed into green, white, oolong or black tea, all teas from these tender tips contain high levels of theanine.
Older leaf, from further down the stem, contains less theanine and tends to be harvested for tea bag teas.
Theanine content in teas also varies by country:
Japan average 0.86% theanine
North India average 0.91% theanine
Argentina average 1.41% theanine
South India average 1.48% theanine
Malawi average 2.10% theanine
Note the very high theanine levels present in Malawi teas and it is from these very same bushes that Nothing But Tea is pioneering the production of our range of hand made African White Teas. In fact two of the cultivars we currently use for Malawi White Tea production weigh in at 2.2% theanine (Chilwa) and 3.1% theanine (Salima) - way above the norm for the rest of the world's teas. If you are seeking the benefits of theanine these teas possibly give the highest levels in the world.
Chilwa Needles WM05
Salima Needles WM04
And for high theanine plus unique flavour don't forget the, never seen before, heavenly Antlers d'Amour WM07