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21Oct2020
Most people don't know why... What really makes tea so special?

Most people don't know why... What really makes tea so special?

By: Dan & Eileen DurandComments: 0

There’s a saying in the tea business that “tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world after water”.  Most of the world either greatly prefers tea, or there's balance between tea/coffee preference. But in the United States, coffee is consumed much more than tea, and therefore tea is not as well understood. This gives Trailhead Tea an opportunity to provide information for our customers to better understand some advantages of drinking tea.

Many tea drinkers have heard or read in the press (or from Dr. Oz) regarding the health benefits of tea, especially the rich source of flavonoid antioxidants. These antioxidants are credited for anti-aging, reducing risk of stroke and heart attack, helping with weight loss, boosting our immune systems, aiding the digestive system, having an antiseptic quality that helps against cavities and mouth disease, and even fighting cancer. These benefits are not always conclusive, but have been supported by numerous medical studies over the last 10 plus years. Also, most studies of these benefits are attributed to longstanding tea drinkers (maybe a couple of cups a day, or at least three cups a week in some tests). We will try to summarize many of these benefits in future newsletters.

Another side benefit for tea drinkers (as we mentioned in last month's newsletter) is that the caffeine level of tea is usually about a half or less than coffee (about 20-60mg vs 120-130mg) .  Tea provides a gentler energy 'lift' in contrast to coffee 'afterburners'.

But there is another very important property/element of “true” tea, from the camellia sinensis plant, that few tea drinkers are aware of.

Amino acids are called the building blocks of life, because several are essential for life to function while others are just helpful, like Vitamin C.  But there is one amino acid uniquely found in the tea plant, and in lessor amounts in Bay Bolete mushrooms, called L-theanine.  L-theanine is similar to a naturally occurring amino acid found in the human body, glutamate or glutamic acid, which helps transmit nerve impulses to the brain. Some of the effects of ingesting L-theanine in tea appear to be similar to glutamate’s mechanism, and some effects seem to imply glutamate being blocked. Evidence from human electroencephalograph (EEG) studies show that L-theanine has a direct effect on the brain, naturally influencing aspects of brain function. L-theanine can significantly increase activity in the alpha-frequency band.  Alpha activity is known to play an important role in critical aspects of focus and attention. This indicates that L-theanine relaxes the mind without inducing drowsiness.

When you consume a typical cup of tea, you might ingest about 20mg or less of L-theanine, which helps act like a “YIN & YANG” to the caffeine which is also present. This might explain why drinking tea doesn’t cause the same shakiness of drinking coffee for many people. You get the energy boost but you still feel calm. The effects of L-theanine are even more interesting at higher doses (approx. 50mg and more), where it has a more significant effect on the general state of mental alertness or arousal.  Higher doses can be taken by:

  • Drinking many cups of tea (the term “tea drunk” is often used, but it is an exaggeration of the slight light and tipsy feeling people describe)
  • Drinking tea with much higher than normal L-theanine levels. We explain and give examples of this a little later… below.
  • Or taking concentrated supplements of L-theanine. Certainly not as delicious, enjoyable, and natural as drinking tea.

Scientific research with higher doses of L-theanine has been done comparing 1) Doses of 100 mg of L-theanine consumed before an exam, vs 2) Combination doses of L-theanine with caffeine (ranges of 30-100+ mg of caffeine with 12-100+ mg of L-theanine) consumed before an exam:

  • Mental performance - Ingesting L-theanine before a test seems to help reduce errors. Ingesting L-theanine with caffeine seems to improve a person's ability to switch attention between different tasks.
  • Attention/ADHD - Early research shows that taking 200 mg of L-theanine before a test improves attention. Taking L-theanine with caffeine seems to work better than taking L-theanine alone. Taking lower doses of L-theanine might not improve attention. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) early research shows that taking 200 mg of L-theanine by mouth twice daily for 6 weeks increases restful sleep and decreases nightly activity during sleep in boys ages 8-12 diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Mild mental impairment - Early research shows that taking a product containing L-theanine and green tea might improve memory or attention in people with mild mental impairment.
  • Depression - Early research shows that taking L-theanine by mouth at bedtime for 8 weeks decreases symptoms and improves sleep in people with depression.
  • Stress - The effects of L-theanine on stress are conflicting. Some early research shows that taking 200 mg of L-theanine before an exam reduces anxiety and may prevent blood pressure from increasing due to stress. Other early research shows that taking 200 mg of L-theanine twice daily before and during study/test practice decreases stress levels. However, another early study shows that taking 200 mg of L-theanine helps promote tranquility in people who are already relaxed. But it doesn't work in people who are stressed. Reasons for the conflicting results are not yet clear.
  • Lower blood pressure - L-theanine hasn't been linked to any adverse side effects or symptoms in the neuropharmacology sphere, but bear in mind that it should not be mixed with medications taken for high blood pressure because L-theanine usually reduces blood pressure. As with all new supplements and medications, consult with your healthcare provider and ask questions.
  • Taste! - L-theanine smells a little sweet to our nose, and tastes somewhat sweet to our tongue. That gives tea some natural, subtle sweetness, with the level helping indicate the amount of L-theanine. This is why the tea master would influence the sweetness during production.

There are specific green, white, oolong, black, and PuEr teas known for higher levels of L-theanine. Your tea merchant can assist with identifying these. Some of these teas occur naturally in uncommon situations, some are randomly found, and some can also be influenced by the tea master at a much higher cost of production. Examples found include:

  • Anji Bai Cha green tea - We have offered this tea as Tea-Of-The-Month in the past, and you have seen it in in prior newsletters. Anji Bia Cha or "white tea from Anji" due to its ghostly light green color, but it is really processed and recognized as a green tea. It is fairly rare and expensive, grown uniquely in Anji County, Zhejiang Province, at the foot of Tianmu Mountain in southwest China (near the bamboo forest where Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed). Anji tea plants are very temperature sensitive, so when picked in very early spring (at between high 60's and just below the average 72°F days), they have less chlorophyll and lighter green color while not absorbing as much sunlight. There is a natural yearly drop in photosynthesis in these specific tea plants and trees. The leaves then have extraordinary (2-4 times the normal) amino acid levels than usual green tea, giving them the sweetest, most refreshing taste, with the L-Theanine amino acid providing a satisfying and calming effect to the body (some refer to as a tea drunk). As the daily temperature warms a few weeks later, the leaves turn darker green as it again absorbs sunlight, the L-Theanine level dropping back to normal and become less desirable than that ideal "white tea" period.
  • Shou Mei white tea - This is an example where it’s partially predictable, yet still random. When Chinese tea drinkers discover a tea that we would say has signs of higher L-theanine, they refer to the tea as having good “Qui” or energy. With our Shou Mei white, it is picked from older and wild tea trees, has many unopened buds (more caffeine), is aged a few years, and has the subtle sweetness. These criteria do not insure more L-theanine, so there’s still randomness in this example. But you can stumble on specialized green, white, black, oolong, or PuEr tea with similar traits as our Shou Mei, and possibly enjoy the extra benefit.
  • Gyokuro green tea and Matcha green tea (where it's made from unfinished Gyokuro called tencha) - are Japanese green teas that are “shade grown”.  That is, shade cloth is placed over the entire tea garden three weeks before harvesting. The shade blocks about 80% of the sunlight, so the tea struggles during photosynthesis. It was discovered many years ago that this causes the L-theanine level, and sweetness, to rise significantly. It’s very labor intensive and expensive to do this, as well as it produces a lower harvest yield. The result is a more expensive tea. High grades of Matcha (like ceremonial or higher) are similarly shade grown before they are carefully ground into powder. Note that low Matcha grades are not given this same expensive process. While healthy and still enjoyable, they are not as sweet with the higher L-theanine.

Whether you’re just an occasional tea fan or a tenacious tea connoisseur, your mind and body will enjoy the benefits of adding L-theanine to your life.

To recap those tea benefits: Reduced levels of stress and anxiety, Increased sleep quality, Increased focus, attention, and memory, Increased immune function, Increased cardiovascular health, & antioxidative properties.

Let us know if this helps your understanding, and if you have any questions.

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