L-Theanine for Anxiety, Insomnia, and DepressionWritten by: Alison Print This Article
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Are you stressed out and depressed? Having trouble falling asleep each night? Feeling like you could use some help? A lot of us going through high-conflict divorces, child custody battles, divorce-induced bankruptcy, mental illnesses (depression, panic attacks, etc.), job troubles, and other life problems have such symptoms. The ongoing economic crisis may be compounding such troubles, or enough to stress you out on its own. Rather than resorting to the typical psychiatric medicines like anti-depressants and anxiolytics, consider drinking tea or taking L-theanine, a natural substance extracted from tea that may help reduce anxiety and depression.
If you go to a psychiatrist or even a general practitioner and describe such symptoms, they are likely to whip out the prescription pad and write you up a prescription for one or more common psychiatric medications. Standard and widely prescribed psychiatric medicines include SSRIs (Zoloft, Prozac, Celexa, etc.) for depression and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Clonazepam, Diazepam, Temazepam, etc.) for anxiety. Insomnia is often treated with benzodiazepines or other medicines such as Lunesta (generic name eszopiclone) and Ambien (generic name zolpidem).
Common Psychiatric Medicine Side Effects
However, these medications have some potentially serious drawbacks. SSRIs have side effects including weight gain, decreased libido (sex drive), and even suicidal ideation particularly when first starting them.
Benzodiazepines were heralded as the answer to all anxiety problems for a while. But they tend to be addictive. They become increasingly ineffective after about one to two months of regular usage without using larger and larger dosages. If you’ve had substance abuse problems with drugs or alcohol, benzodiazepines are probably a poor choice for you. Even if you have had no such problems, their side effects may be cause for alarm. They include diminished muscle coordination, fatigue, memory lapses, and increased appetite leading to weight gain. If you are a spaghetti-thin insomniac ninja with an IQ of 300, perhaps these side effects are not alarming to you. Unfortunately, most of us are more likely to have problems with these side effects.
Insomnia medications like Lunesta and Ambien have common side effects including amnesia, daytime drowsiness, dizziness, frequent urination, headaches, and described libido. They have also been tied to significantly elevated risk for depression. So while they may help you get more sleep, they might make you depressed in the process. They also have addiction potential similar to benzodiazepines and may not work effectively for longer than several weeks.
How Most Antidepressants Work
Most antidepressants works by elevating serotonin and/or dopamine neurotransmitter levels in the brain. This can done by increasing the body’s natural production of these neurotransmitters, slowing down the body’s normal destruction, or adding more of them into the body if they can be made to cross the blood-brain barrier to become active in the brain.
Anti-Anxiety and Insomnia Drugs Often Simulate GABA
Many anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs, including benzodiazepines and Lunesta and Ambien, work by simulating the calming neurotransmitter GABA, increasing the body’s production of GABA, or adding more GABA into the brain. Benzodiazepines in particular work by simulating the GABA molecules and plugging into the GABA receptors on neurons on the brain. Benzodiazepines bind to the GABA receptors in the brain. Benzodiazepines are widely available in generic and relatively inexpensive forms and widely varying active durations. However, what all benzodiazepines have is common is they tend to become ineffective or require ever-escalating dosages for some patients and thereby lead to addiction problems.
Coming off of benzodiazepines can be really miserable and take a long time for some people. Be really careful about using them, especially for longer than about a month. If you find you can use them only a couple of times per week or less such as when really stressed out badly, the addiction potential is not as high as daily usage. If you develop an addiction to benzodiazepines, read about benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome and in particular see Professor Heather Ashton’s guide to discontinuation of benzodiazepine therapy that explains how to stop the medicines gradually without creating a serious withdrawal symptoms.
GABA Could Be Effective If It Reaches Brain
GABA is a “calming” neurotransmitter. You can buy it as an over-the-counter dietary supplement. Since it binds to the same GABA receptors as the addictive benzodiazepines, it should have similar effects but without as much risk as it is a natural substance already present and even made in the human body.
Some have tried supplementing their diets with GABA directly. Unfortunately, there is evidence that much of the GABA doesn’t survive the digestive tract and what does make it into the bloodstream doesn’t cross over the blood-brain barrier.
A variant of GABA called picamilon was developed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It binds GABA with niacin to get it to cross the blood-brain barrier. The effects are potentiated in part because niacin helps open up blood vessels and lower blood pressure which may also help to reduce headaches brought on by anxiety. Picamilon isn’t addictive, nor does it induce muscle relaxation, drowsiness, or lethargy. It’s worth some investigation and I hope to give it a try myself and write about it in the future.
Tea to the Rescue!
If you like tea, you may find increasing your tea drinking will help reduce depression and anxiety and enable you to concentrate on tasks more effectively. Some believe this effect may be due to caffeine, but most research suggests that a substance in tea called L-theanine is more likely to be the responsible factor.
However, even if you are a major fan of tea, there is only about 2mg to 5mg of L-theanine per tea leaf or about 20mg to 60mg per serving. L-theanine itself, however, is often recommended in dosages of 100mg or more. Some people find it takes 500mg or more to have much effect on them. So unless you’re consuming very large quantities of tea, it is likely you’re not going to get as much L-theanine from tea as you would get from a supplement.
Morever, some people just don’t like tea much. Fortunately for them, L-theanine is a widely available and relatively inexpensive supplement.
A Natural Solution: L-Theanine extracted from Tea
Theanine is a natural extract typically derived from tea. It exists in two forms, L-theanine and D-theanine. L-theanine has been extensively researched and is believed to have a number of beneficial properties in the human body. D-theanine has not been researched very much and it believed to interfere with the body’s absorption of L-theanine by competing with it in the digestive tract. Its effects are not well understood compared to those of L-theanine.
The manufacturer of a 99.95% pure L-theanine brand called Suntheanine is behind many studies that show 50/50 mixes of L-theanine and D-theanine are not as effective as pure L-theanine. Of course, they have a financial stake in such conclusions so such studies may be biased. Some characterize D-theanine as potentially dangerous due to lack of study. Personally, I find this characterization to be suspect given D-theanine is a major component of most teas.
Tea has been widely consumed for thousands of years. Most tea has significant amounts of D-theanine, and it’s not unusual for there to be a 50/50 mix of L-theanine and D-theanine in tea products. Storing and curing of tea products at high temperatures tends to convert L-theanine to D-theanine. Therefore it seems safe to say that many millions, perhaps billions, of people have been consuming D-theanine on a regular basis for hundreds of years. Consequently, it’s hard to believe the attempt to portray it as dangerous. Maybe it’s not as effective as L-theanine, or maybe it does something else. But it’s hard to see why products that are mostly L-theanine with less than 50% D-theanine can be categorically written off as problematic without some solid evidence that D-theanine has some negative effect.
L-Theanine is believed to increase the body’s production of GABA and counter stress. It is also believed to counter the “jittery” effect from caffeine present in most teas. This is one reason why tea has a reputation for being more soothing than coffee.
L-Theanine More Effective Than Xanax?
Research suggests that L-Theanine may be more effective than one of the most widely used anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs called Xanax (generic name alprazolam).
One of the most compelling studies on theanine was published in 2004. In a double-blind, head-to-head comparison study, investigators compared theanine with alprazolam (Xanax®), a commonly prescribed anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drug. Each of 16 healthy human volunteers took either 1 mg alprazolam, 200 mg theanine, or a placebo on separate occasions; thus, all participants were tested with all three treatments. Following each dose, the researchers obtained behavioral measures of anxiety in all participants, both before and after an experimentally-created state of anxiety.
The results were nothing short of remarkable. Theanine, but not alprazolam or the placebo, induced relaxing effects that were evident at the initial measurement of whether a person felt tranquil versus troubled. This study is even more impressive when the dose of alprazolam is taken into consideration. One milligram is a substantial dose of this medication—generally, most people use just 0.25 to 0.5 mg of alprazolam as a bedtime sleep aid. Theanine’s superior performance to a potentially habit-forming medication is truly stunning good news.
You can find more details about this study on the US government website PubMed under the article The acute effects of L-theanine in comparison with alprazolam on anticipatory anxiety in humans. According to this study, high level anxiety may not be helped much by just 200mg of L-theanine, but 1mg of alprazolam didn’t help, either. That’s surprising to me. As a personal reference, the first time I ever took alprazolam for recurrent anxiety problems, it was a 0.25mg tablet and it almost knocked me out. 1mg is a significant dosage unless the patient has been taking it for some time.
The non-addictive nature of L-theanine is really important. I can’t overstate the risks of long-term addiction to benzodiazepines. Even people with no previous problems with substance addiction can develop physiological dependence upon benzodiazepines that will result in significant withdrawal symptoms unless the medicine are ramped down over a period of several weeks. For people with substance addiction history, it could take several months or even a year or more to get off these medicines after using them for a few months or more. Therefore I’d urge you to try non-addictive alternatives such as L-theanine first.
Theanine May Protect Against Brain Damage from Stroke
Theanine is believed to inhibit toxic reactions to elevated levels of glutamate, a neurotransmitter. Strokes interrupt the blood supply necessary to recycle glutamate to prevent it from building up to toxic levels.
Theanine has been demonstrated to cross the blood-brain barrier. In an epidemiological study of nearly 6,000 women living in Japan, those who consumed five or more cups of green tea a day were significantly less likely than non-tea drinkers to suffer stroke. In a follow-up to the study, researchers determined that women who routinely drank little or no green tea were more than twice as likely as heavy tea drinkers to suffer stroke or cerebral hemorrhage.
Theanine May Reduce High Blood Pressure and Obesity-Related Symptoms
Other studies have shown that L-theanine may reduce high blood pressure and help inhibit fatty weight gain and high triglyceride levels. See Reduction effect of theanine on blood pressure and brain 5-hydroxyindoles in spontaneously hypertensive rats and Anti-obesity effects of three major components of green tea, catechins, caffeine and theanine, in mice for more information.
L-Theanine Usage Comments
As with basically any dietary supplement, the effects vary from person to person. The following are typical of remarks about L-theanine. Note that some of them are seemingly contradictory, but the variation in effect likely has to do with variables such as individual body chemistry and varying dosages.
- 200mg is too much to take during daytime without making me sleepy, but if I take 200mg right before bedtime, it helps me sleep soundly with vivid dreams.
- Didn’t work for me — a waste of money.
- I take it about three times per day around 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon per dose (300mg to 600mg) and it helps me feel more balanced and less anxious. No side effects.
- When I take 500mg before bedtime, it stops my migraine headaches. The migraines come back if I stop the L-theanine.
- Good as a booster, but for me it’s not enough by itself. I use it with rhodiola rosea.
- Calms me down and tastes a bit like tea.
- I have to take a lot to get much effect, but I have severe anxiety. Maybe it would work better for people with mild anxiety.
- Works for reducing anxiety, but can be overwhelmed by sweets.
- Works in minutes for me, and helps me focus better and reduces my tendency to fall asleep.
- For me, L-theanine is not strong enough on its own, but taken with rhodiola, tyrosine, and 5-HTP it has an additive effect.
Good Sources for Theanine in Capsule Form
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned on this post are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.