Year after year, science studies more and more about the compounds found in traditional medicine, herbal remedies, and common healthy beverages. Green tea, Camellia sinensis, is one of the most well-studied, but even now science is working to understand what compounds within it lead to what benefits.
One such compound is L-theanine. L-theanine, also known simply as theanine, "is a non-protein amino acid mainly found naturally in green tea (Camellia sinensis) and some mushrooms (Boletus badius). Theanine is related to glutamine, is speculated to increase levels of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine." – Science Direct.
As one of the beneficial compounds in green tea, it stands to reason that theanine can find a home elsewhere as an isolated supplement. The question is, is it worthwhile when added to something like coffee, or is it better to stick with the tea?
The Benefits of Theanine
So what does theanine bring to the table? It's important to understand each supplement you consider taking, so you don't take supplements at odds with one another, like mixing uppers and downers.
The primary benefit many people cite for theanine is its ability to promote relaxation without the drowsiness that comes with many other relaxation aids, like diphenhydramine or melatonin. Theanine allows you to relax without putting you to sleep, which is important for stress reduction and focus while working or completing tasks.
There are other benefits as well.
Theanine can help with anxiety. Studies comparing theanine to other anti-anxiety medications, or simply to a cup of tea, indicate that it works best in people with high levels of generalized anxiety. In particular, studies showed that it promoted a sense of relaxation without the associated drowsiness or reduced heart rate of other relaxing drugs.
Theanine can improve focus. One of the primary effects of theanine is seen when it is paired with caffeine, which is what the bulk of this article will be about. The journal Nutritional Neuroscience performed a study on the combination of caffeine and theanine and found that taking the combination can promote relaxation and focus during demanding tasks. It can also begin to take effect in as little as 30 minutes, unlike some drugs that take hours to fully kick in.
Theanine might be able to bolster the immune system. A couple of different studies have been performed into theanine's ability to enhance the immune system. One found that there's a potential that theanine might be able to reduce the rate of upper respiratory tract infections. Another discovered that theanine may reduce inflammation in the intestines. Research is thin on the ground for these benefits, however, so this may or may not be a provable and repeatable effect.
Theanine may enhance cancer treatments. Theanine itself is not a cure or treatment for cancer, nor does it prevent cancer. One study indicated that it may enhance the efficacy of chemotherapy drugs, which could mean supplemental theanine might make those treatments more effective. More study is needed to fully understand the effects, however.
Theanine can improve sleep quality. One of the most well-studied effects of theanine is its ability to enhance relaxation, including sleep. While it will not necessarily put you to sleep itself, it can relax you and make it easier to fall into a deeper and more restful sleep. Doses of 200mg showed a marked reduction in resting heart rate amongst some groups of people. Another study indicated that it can relax children with ADHD. Some other studies versus placebos found that theanine's use over time could enhance overall sleep quality.
Theanine and Coffee
One of the most studied uses of theanine is its mixture with caffeine. This is a natural combination in green tea, which has caffeine and theanine both naturally. However, studies have been performed using caffeine and theanine that are isolated from tea, to remove other compounds that might make it more difficult to isolate the effects.
In one study, 50mg of caffeine is used with and without 100mg of theanine alongside it, in a test of cognition and mood. Caffeine alone improves memory, focus, and attention-switching. Theanine added to it further improves those, as well as reducing the susceptibility to distractions. Of course, this study only had 27 participants, so it's difficult to say how widespread the results would be.
Other studies, such as this one, show interesting results. Theanine alone showed no improvement in cognitive function and task completion, but the addition of theanine to caffeine improved the effects of caffeine. Again, though, this only had sixteen participants, so it's difficult to conclude.
The combination of theanine and caffeine is unexpectedly potent. Caffeine is, as we know, a stimulant with powerful nootropic effects. It's among the most widely-used drugs in the world and is especially beloved as part of coffee culture in America. It's no wonder that it's used and abused in just about every manner imaginable.
The addition of theanine to the standard cup of coffee seems to have some astonishing effects. It helps to reduce the amount of caffeine you need to get the same effects, making each cup of coffee more powerful. It also seems to help reduce some of the side effects of the caffeine, by regulating mood and blood pressure.
How to Use Theanine with Coffee
So how do you go about taking advantage of the power of theanine alongside your morning cup of joe?
A single cup of coffee typically has about 100mg of caffeine in it, though this can vary widely depending on the kind of coffee you get and the size of your "cup". We're talking about an 8 fluid ounce cup here. Some coffee drinks can contain up to 200mg, while others are lighter on the drug.
Generally, you want to include theanine at a 1:2 ratio of caffeine to theanine. So for a single cup of coffee that contains roughly 100mg of caffeine, you want to add about 200mg of theanine for the best effects.
You have two options for taking theanine alongside your coffee. The first is to take a theanine capsule alongside your coffee. A single 100mg pill or two of them to reach your 200mg for a cup of coffee works just fine. Theanine comes in capsule form from many health foods and supplement stores.
The other option is to add your theanine directly to your cup of coffee. You can buy theanine in the form of powder similar to other powdered supplements, and simply add an appropriately-sized scoop to your coffee when you brew it. Theanine does not have much of a flavor – it's slightly savory and slightly tastes like plants – so it will be virtually undetectable from within your coffee itself.
We recommend that you take your theanine and coffee together, about half an hour before you want the effects to start kicking in. It usually takes around 30-60 minutes for the combination to take full effect, and it can last about 4-6 hours depending on the strength of your coffee.
A word of caution: start small. Theanine enhances the power of caffeine. If you're a regular coffee drinker, you have probably built up a tolerance to caffeine, and you may be drinking four or more cups of strong coffee per day just for the energy.
Don't just add theanine to your routine and call it a day. Instead, dial back on the coffee and add theanine in proportion. See how the effects hit you, and adjust from there. The last thing you want is to "overdose" on the combination, which could end up disturbing your sleep in the evening or giving you too much energy to sit still.
Generally, the purpose of theanine is to balance out caffeine, allowing you to use the energy it gives you with less of the side effects like stress, irritability, and indigestion. It's not likely to be a miracle effect, you just need to be cautious about its use.
The Risks of Theanine
While theanine has a list of potential benefits that is quite lengthy, it's worth paying attention to the potential side effects of any drug, natural or otherwise, that you regularly consume.
Luckily, theanine on its own does not have much in the way of side effects.
"Luckily, l-theanine has been shown to have (basically) zero levels of toxicity, dependency, or tolerance, meaning you could theoretically take large doses every day without negative side effects."
Many of the observed side effects come from beverages like tea, which are full of other compounds. For example, while the theanine in tea can enhance the efficacy of certain chemotherapy drugs, the EGCG in the drink can reduce the efficacy of others. That's why it's important to consult with your doctor if you're considering using theanine in tea form as a treatment.
In general, the risks of theanine in coffee come more from caffeine than anything else. Excess caffeine can lead to jitters, as well as side effects like nausea, digestive issues, and irritability. Additionally, caffeine builds up a tolerance very quickly. You need to take progressively more of it to keep the same level of effect, and you can start to experience negative side effects more often and more strongly with ongoing consumption. Specifically, headaches, dehydration, and mood issues are all common.
Unlike many other herbal remedies, theanine does not have any warnings about taking it while pregnant. Caffeine does, but you should know just about all there is to know about caffeine by this point, and if you don't, we can help.
Finally, it's worth remembering that not all studies show positive results with the combination of theanine and caffeine. Many studies have been performed, but many of them are very small, so their ability to represent a broad population is questionable. Other studies have tried to replicate the results and have been unsuccessful. More research is necessary to fully ascertain the truth of the mixture.
What Else Can You Add?
If you're loading up your coffee with theanine to help you out throughout the day, you're probably willing to add even more. So what other ingredients can you add to your coffee to give even more positive effects?
Tyrosine. L-tyrosine is another amino acid, commonly found in cheese. It's non-essential, meaning your body is capable of producing it, but you can also find it as a dietary supplement. Tyrosine enhances stress relief and resilience, as well as alertness. Adding some to your coffee can help with memory and focus.
Alpha GPC. The shortened name for a lengthy compound (L-Alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine), this is another chemical produced naturally in the body and available as a supplement. It has been studied for its effects in promoting memory and fighting off Alzheimer's. It does so by enhancing the brain's production of acetylcholine.
Taurine. Taurine is another amino acid, and it's very commonly found in both energy blends and relaxation blends of natural ingredients. It helps balance minerals and electrolytes in the body, regulates the nervous system, and enhances the immune system. It helps stabilize caffeine and reduce its side effects, which is why you often see them paired together in energy drinks.
B vitamins. The vitamins B6 and B12 are both essential vitamins found in food sources. B6 helps improve memory, both short- and long-term. B12 helps with focus and concentration.
Adding together all of these ingredients in careful proportions can turn your morning coffee into a super blend of powerful nootropics, boosting focus, energy, concentration, memory, and learning. It might take some experimentation to dial in the exact right combination and proportions of each ingredient, but that's not a tall order. Anyone used to supplementing with nootropics should be familiar with adjusting doses and watching their own responses to figure out what works best.
Just remember to go easy on the caffeine in a day. While all of these other ingredients are generally safe, caffeine has an upper limit you should avoid exceeding, which is around 400mg per day. So why not take some supplements to enhance the caffeine's effect, rather than just taking more caffeine?