We’re all looking for ways to be less tired, get that energy boost we need for a workout, or that focused concentration we need for a big project. Caffeine is the go-to nootropic for energy and focus, but it’s not without its shortcomings, and it’s not exactly safe for everyone, either. However, another nootropic that is swiftly proving more effective than caffeine and with less safety risks is L-theanine.
What Is L-Theanine?
First – what do we mean when we use the word “nootropic”? Nootropics, colloquially referred to as “smart drugs”, are a class of bioactive compounds, which can be natural or synthetic, that support cognition and brain health by acting on neuronal systems to regulate neurotransmitter activity. Caffeine and L-theanine are two natural, plant-derived nootropics.
L-theanine is an amino acid only found in tea leaves and one species of mushrooms. L-theanine makes up 2% of the dry weight of a tea leaf, or about 60mg per 200ml of brewed tea. L-theanine has been shown in clinical settings to act directly on the brain, and it can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier. Its effects start within 30 minutes of ingestion and do not peak until 5 hours post-consumption.2
How Does L-Theanine Work?
So, how exactly does L-theanine act once it’s passed the blood-brain barrier? There are several mechanisms through which L-theanine affects our energy levels and cognitive health that have been observed in clinical settings. A recent review of the literature2 cited several important findings:
- L-theanine is related to increased dopamine levels and concentration, as well as suppression of glutamate reuptake.
- Dopamine is involved in positive feelings and motivation. Glutamate serves as an energy source for the brain, boosting cognition, focus and memory, preventing mental fatigue.
- L-theanine is related to increased GABA levels and decreased norepinephrine.
- GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter associated with a calm mood without drowsiness. Norepinephrine is involved in stress reactions and regulation of arousal.
- L-theanine is associated with increase in serotonin in the hippocampus.
- Serotonin is involved in mood, emotions, and regulating the sleep-wake cycle.
- L-theanine increases alpha brain waves.
- Alpha brain waves are associated with wakeful relaxation, and are associated with increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning, improved concentration, and lower anxiety.
The body of research behind L-theanine support the notion that it is an effective mental energy booster, as it supports the regulation of neuronal systems integral to feeling awake, alert, positive, and steady. In addition, the stress-relieving mechanisms of L-theanine free up more energy the body would spend fighting the negative effects of stress.
Clinical Support For L-Theanine As A Brain Booster
Is there hard evidence that L-theanine can help increase energy levels, alertness and focus? Now that we understand a bit more about the mechanisms behind L-theanine, let’s look at the data.
- A 2008 study found that L-theanine, at dietary levels, has a significant effect on mental alertness and general levels of arousal.8
- A study from 2009 showed that a single 250mg dose of L-theanine facilitated long-term processes necessary for sustained attention during difficult tasks.5
- In a study on normal, healthy adults demonstrated that L-theanine increased alpha brain wave activity, descending heart rate, significantly-improved reaction time performance and attention performance.1
- A 2019 study showed L-theanine improved cognitive function, executive function and verbal fluency in healthy adults with stress-related symptoms.6
- Results from a 2020 indicated L-theanine as a prospective therapy for children with ADHD in sustaining attention and improving cognitive performance.7
Is L-Theanine A Better Nootropic For Energy Than Caffeine?
The next question, then, is how L-theanine and caffeine compare. Is one better than the other? Caffeine is by nature different than L-theanine, because it’s a stimulant. There is no question that caffeine temporarily improves alertness, focus, concentration, and memory. However, there also isn’t a question as to its negative effects, including anxiety, jitters, stress, and sleep disturbances.
Increased stress reaction is particularly troublesome, as caffeine puts stress on the adrenal system. Caffeine increased cortisol and norepinephrine levels, which can trick the body (especially in people who are caffeine sensitive) into thinking it needs to do more, more intensely, to complete the current situation. The long-term health effects of increased cortisol levels are also well-documented, increasing risk for everything from heart attack and stroke to Alzheimer’s and cancer.
The other major difference between L-theanine and caffeine is that there is no evidence that you can build a tolerance to or dependence on L-theanine. Caffeine, on the other hand, comes with risks of both, and habituation can happen in just a couple weeks. Withdrawal symptoms from caffeine can be serious:
- Brain fog
- Impaired cognition
- Decreased contentedness
Interestingly, there is some clinical evidence that L-theanine actually boosts the salience of caffeine in the body:
- In a 2010 study, 97mg of L-theanine and 40mg of caffeine significantly improved accuracy in task switching, increased self-reported levels of alertness, and decreased self-reported levels of tiredness.4
- A 2014 meta-analysis and review of the literature showed that the positive effects of L-theanine and caffeine were larger than the positive effects of either alone.3
This has some pretty interesting implications. Namely, if we can used L-theanine to more efficiently reap the benefits of caffeine, we can use L-theanine as a way to reduce caffeine intake but still get that energy support we need.
Tips On How To Kick Caffeine To The Curb
Whether you’re trying to cut down on your 3-cups-of-coffee habit or cut it out altogether, there are steps you can take to wean yourself down from whatever type of caffeine tolerance you have. Ridding yourself of a caffeine reliance is about giving your body the support it needs to (1) produce its own energy and (2) keep that energy available for use.
Some quick tips that may help you kick your caffeine habit:
- Exercise regularly
- Get enough sleep
- Stay hydrated
- Eat a nutritious breakfast
- Manage stress
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening
Strategically adding nootropics like L-theanine to your diet is another way to support your come-down off caffeine. Whether you add nootropics in a capsule supplement or a green powder supplement like MTE, with consistent use and healthy habits, you’ll find L-theanine doesn’t only fight fatigue and help you concentrate, but it does it without anxiety, jitters, irritability, or dependence.