You can get a stimulating jolt (or at least a gentle nudge) from drinking tea, but did you know it’s also considered a smart drug?
There are stimulants in tea which are so effective at boosting mental alertness, they’re often extracted for use in so-called smart pills.
Translation: a more healthier, less-jittery alternative to coffee.
Yes, tea is a nootropic
Tea has caffeine, but it also has two other compounds related to caffeine that, after you ingest them, cross over from the blood stream to work their magic in the brain. The result: a smarter, calmer mind and an incredible ability to focus.
They’re called theobromine and theophylline and although not “stimulants” in the sense we’re used to, they do provide the brain with stimulant-like effects.
Then there’s also L-Theanine, a component of tea that’s associated with an increased ability to pay attention. More on all these to come.
How stimulants work in coffee vs tea
While coffee contains more caffeine than tea (1) (200 mg vs 70 mg (black) or 45 (green)), tea is said to provide a more stable and long-lasting effect minus the jittery jolt you get from coffee.
While jittery jolts have their place, many people prefer the gentler effect of the stimulants in tea, achievable without quite so much caffeine. Tea works because what caffeine it does have, works synergistically with these other compounds (mentioned just above) to provide an overall stimulating effect without the jittery jolt.
Here’s how that works, compound by compound…
L-theanine increases alertness
L-theanine is found in tea and chocolate but it’s not a stimulant in the traditional sense of the word. An amino acid, it has been shown to have a direct effect on the brain but unlike a stimulant, it works to actually relax the mind. Yet like a stimulant it does play a crucial role in mental alertness.
In a study involving black tea and its affect on mental state, participants were given either a placebo or a normal serving of black tea containing 50 mg of L-theanine. Those given the black tea showed a greater increase in “alpha activity” in the brain within 2 hours of drinking the tea (2) .
How does it do this? L-Theanine’s structure mimics a naturally-occurring amino acid in the human body, glutamate. Glutamate helps transmit impulses in the brain, and some studies show evidence that theanine does the same. And usually when something assists neural pathways, the brain performs better.
About that “synergistic” relationship between caffeine and L-theanine: it looks like they may boost each other’s beneficial effects on your brain’s alertness.
A 2007 study published by Biological Psychology (3) took a look at the effect of L-theanine when combined with caffeine, as opposed to L-theanine acting alone. They found significant increases in the following, when the two compounds were consumed together rather than separately:
- fewer headaches
- fewer participants felt tired
- alertness increased
- improved delayed word recognition reaction time
Theobromine: a stimulant without the jitters
Like caffeine, theobromine is a methyl xanthine that’s also found in cocoa and coffee.
But here’s where tea really shines over coffee: the big difference is that theobromine is hardly present at all in coffee, while tea contains a good amount of theobromine (1.4 mg/cup to 4.4 mg/cup) (4) although cocoa has the most.
Theobromine is thought to play a role in widening the blood vessels, which means it can lower blood pressure. It also acts to relax bronchi muscles in the lungs, making it a particularly relevant compound for treating coughs (5).
And the main reason theobromine (and hence tea) is wonderful: it acts as a stimulant but does not affect the central nervous system.
Theophylline: another stimulant
Theophylline is very similar to theobromine: it’s also a xanthinine and very prevalent in cocoa. It relaxes smooth muscles and is used to treat asthma and bronchitis.
Most important here, it too has ‘nootropic’ effects on the brain: it’s been shown to increase blood flow to the brain in rats and similar effects are assumed for humans (6).
But are these compounds considered “stimulants”? Are they bad for you?
Stimulants get a bad rap these days, what with the likes of Adderall, cocaine, and nicotine among their rank. But technically, stimulants are “drugs that make you feel more alert” (7), which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad for you.
Like anything, moderation is the key. If you’re trying to prop up your brain and your body for day on end drinking tea, it’s not going to end well. Too much tea will lead to bigger problems than your becoming a jittery mess…consider the man who drank a gallon a day and caused his kidneys to fail! (8). Too much of anything will hurt you, even oxygen, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for you in reasonable quantities.
If you’re concerned about over-stimulating your heart or your central nervous system with caffeine, then tea is a viable alternative to coffee (see above for the huge difference in caffeine content between the two). Tea still provides a nice buzz to keep you going because it has compounds in quantities that coffee doesn’t, plus a whole array of other health benefits we haven’t even hit upon here.
- Caffeine content for coffee, tea, soda and more. The Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20049372
- Nobre AC, Rao A, Owen GN. L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. The US National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296328
- Haskell, Crystal et al. The effects of l-theanine, caffeine and their combination on cognition and mood. Biological Psychology vol 77 issue 2. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301051107001573
- Blauch, Joan et al. HPLC Determination of Caffeine and Theobromine in Coffee, Tea, and Instant Hot Cocoa Mixes.
- BBC News. ‘Chocolate cough remedy’ in sight. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-12048275
- Morton, Douglas et al. Systemic Theophylline Augments the Blood Oxygen Level—Dependent Response to Forepaw Stimulation in Rats. American Journal of Neuroradiology.Retrieved from http://www.ajnr.org/content/23/4/588.full
- What are stimulants? Science Museum. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/WhoAmI/FindOutMore/Yourbrain/Howdodrugsaffectyourbrain/Whatarestimulants.aspx
- Cantor, Matt. Excessive ice tea leads to man’s kidney failure.USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/04/02/excessive-ice-tea-leads-to-mans-kidney-failure/70821424/