There are 4 substances in the tea that are capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier to provide a stimulating effect.
On the one hand we have the usual good caffeine, which can also be obtained from coffee and soft drinks.
Then we have two substances related to caffeine, theobromine and theophylline.
And finally we have a rather unique amino acid called L-Theanine, which has some very interesting effects on the brain.
This article explains these 4 stimulants in tea.
Tea and coffee provide a distinct “turn on”
The other day I was talking to a friend about the psychoactive effects of coffee and tea.
Both contain caffeine and therefore have a stimulant-like effect on the brain, but we agree that the nature of these effects is very different.
My friend used an interesting analogy: The effect provided by tea is like being gently encouraged to do something by Mother Teresa, while coffee is like being kicked in the ass by a military officer.
After our conversation, I have been reading about tea and how it affects the mind.
Don’t get me wrong, I love coffee and I think it’s healthy. In fact, they tend to call it my favorite health drink of all time.
However, coffee definitely has a downside for me. It tends to give me a nice strong boost of energy, but I think sometimes it prevents me from doing much because the feeling of “hyperactivity” can make my brain wander.
This excessive stimulant effect of coffee can make me spend a lot of time on unproductive tasks like checking emails, posting on Facebook, reading useless news, etc.
It turns out that tea has less caffeine than coffee, but it also has three stimulant substances that may provide some kind of synergistic effect.
Summary: Coffee gives a stronger boost and greater stimulant effects than tea. It can even be so powerful that it can affect your productivity.
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world. That sounds like a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be.
Coffee, the main source of caffeine, also happens to be the largest source of antioxidants in the Western diet, and its consumption has been associated with various health benefits.
The second largest source of caffeine worldwide is tea, which tends to provide a moderate amount of caffeine, depending on the type.
Caffeine causes stimulation of the central nervous system, increases alertness and reduces drowsiness.
Caffeine has several proposed mechanisms, the main one being that it is thought to work by blocking an inhibitory neurotransmitter called adenosine at certain synapses in the brain, leading to a net stimulatory effect.
Adenosine is believed to rise in the brain throughout the day, creating a kind of “sleep pressure.” The more adenosine produced, the greater the tendency to fall asleep. Caffeine partially reverses this effect.
The main difference in caffeine between coffee and tea is that tea has much less.
While a strong cup of coffee can provide 100, 200, or even 300 mg of caffeine, a cup of tea can provide 20 to 60 mg.
Summary: Caffeine blocks adenosine in the brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes sleepiness. Tea contains much less caffeine than coffee, thus providing less of a stimulant effect.
Learn more about “coffee” in our article: Is it healthy to drink coffee?
Theophylline and Theobromine
Theophylline and theobromine are related to caffeine and belong to a class of organic compounds called xanthines.
Both have various physiological effects on the body.
Theophylline relaxes the smooth muscles of the airways, making breathing easier and stimulating the speed and force of contraction of the heart.
Theobromine can also stimulate the heart, but it has a mild diuretic effect and improves blood flow around the body, leading to a net reduction in blood pressure.
Cocoa beans are also good sources of these two substances.
However, the amounts of these substances in a cup of tea are very small, so their net effect on the body is probably negligible.
Some of the caffeine we ingest is metabolized into theophylline and theobromine, so every time you consume caffeine – it will indirectly increase your levels of these two caffeine metabolites.
Summary: Theophylline and theobromine are organic compounds related to caffeine and are found in small amounts in tea. They stimulate the body in various ways.
L-theanine – A psychoactive amino acid with unique properties
The last substance is by far the most interesting of the four. It is a unique type of amino acid called L-theanine. It is found mainly in the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) and is capable of crossing the blood-brain barrier.
In humans, L-theanine increases the generation of brain waves called alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation and alertness. This is perhaps the main reason for a different activation to be generated, the one generated by tea is milder compared to the one generated by coffee.
L-theanine can affect neurotransmitters in the brain, such as GABA and Dopamine.
Some studies have suggested that L-theanine, especially when combined with caffeine, may improve attention and brain function.
Summary: Tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which increases the production of alpha waves in the brain. L-theanine, in combination with caffeine, can improve brain function.
Bring the message home
Tea may be a suitable alternative for those who are sensitive to the high amounts of caffeine in coffee.
Due to L-theanine and its effect on alpha waves in the brain, it may also be a better option than coffee for those who need to focus for long periods of time.
I personally feel very good when I drink tea (green tea, in my case).
I feel relaxed, focused and don’t have the excessive hyperactive feeling that coffee tends to give me.
However, I don’t feel the same strong motivating effects of coffee, that boost that I get after drinking a strong cup of coffee.
In general, I think that both tea and coffee have their advantages and disadvantages.
For me, tea seems the best option when working on the computer or studying, while coffee is more suitable for physical efforts like working out in the gym.