Anxiety disorders are serious, real medical conditions. And they’re much more common than most people realize — every year close to 40 million people in the United States experience an anxiety disorder of some type. Less than one-third of these same people will seek treatment, which is unfortunate in that anxiety disorders are very treatable — often with a non-prescription supplement such as the amino acid L-theanine.
L-theanine can bring about a thinking state that is both alert and relaxed, and reduces the fight-or-flight response that people with anxiety disorders experience at a rate much greater than people not suffering from such a disorder. L-theanine supplements help raise the levels of the calming brain neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, leading to better regulation of mood, concentration, emotions, alertness, and sleep.
Anxiety Signs and Symptoms
Most people experience some degree of anxiety at some point in their lives — anxiety is actually the normal response to important, stressful life events such as financial troubles, changing jobs or moving. An actual anxiety disorder is when symptoms of anxiety are larger and more prolonged than would normally be expected for the events that triggered the symptoms, and when the symptoms interfere with day-to-day life. The following are several of the most common symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
When a person feels anxious, their nervous system goes into overdrive, starting a series of effects such as shaky hands and a racing pulse.
Trouble falling asleep and waking in the middle of the night are very common with anxiety disorders.
Excessive irritability is experienced by the majority of people with anxiety disorders.
Excessive worrying — especially worrying to a degree that is disproportionate to the event causing the worry — is very common with anxiety disorders.
While hyperactivity, or an aroused state, is often associated with anxiety, people with an anxiety disorder often are easily fatigued.
Feeling restless, or on edge, on the majority of days can be an indicator of an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety can interrupt short-term memory, leading to a decrease in performance.
What Is L-Theanine?
L-theanine is an amino acid found mainly in tea leaves, though it is also present in small amounts in a few types of mushrooms. Green tea in well-known for its calming effect, and it is most likely that L-theanine is the reason for this. L-theanine is the compound responsible for the savory, exotic taste known as umami (pronounced oo-maa-mee). L-theanine has the capability to cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it doesn’t have to be fully digested before reaching the brain.
L-theanine is an amino acid, and it is also an anxiolytic. An anxiolytic is a drug or compound that reduces anxiety (an anxiogenic, by contrast, is a drug or compound that increases anxiety). Many anxiolytics have sedative effects (the herb valerian being one such example). L-theanine, while having a relaxing and stress reducing effect, is not sedating. L-theanine can bring about a state of calmness and attentiveness and wakefulness. The characteristic is what makes L-theanine so good for people who want to reduce stress, anxiety or both — it provides the desired effect without putting a person to sleep.
How L-Theanine Lessens Anxiety and Stress
The singer Taylor Swift has been open about the stresses and anxiety of touring. “Vitamins make me feel so much better,” Swift says. “I take L-theanine, which is a natural supplement to help with stress and anxiety.” That’s a pretty good testimonial, but most people require a more scientific approach to choosing a supplement. If that’s you, read on.
There are a few factors that make L-theanine able to reduce anxiety, including increasing alpha brain waves, boosting neurotransmitter levels, and reducing cortisol. One study demonstrated that taking an L-theanine supplement greatly helped in minimizing the rapid rise in blood pressure that most people experience when in a stressful situation.
In another study from a few years back, one group of adults was given L-theanine while another group was given a placebo. One hour later all participants were subjected to a cognitive stressor — cognitive stress tests are a common means of determining levels of anxiety. The group receiving the L-theanine reported a much lower stress response. Additionally, a few hours after consuming the L-theanine this groups cortisol level was reduced significantly. While cortisol — the fight or flight hormone — is helpful at times, elevated levels for prolonged periods can bring about fatigue, stress, and brain fog.
L-Theanine Alters Alpha Brain Waves to Reduce Cortisol
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that’s made in the adrenal glands. Cortisol plays a positive role in several important body processes, including the regulation of blood sugar, metabolism and inflammation. As the fight or flight hormone cortisol gives a person energy and focus to overcome challenges, which is good — provided the cortisol level boost is temporary. Cortisol is important, but a level that’s too high for too long can cause problems. One of those problems is how the body reacts to stress (and in fact cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone).
There are a number of reasons a person’s cortisol levels can get too high. Estrogen can increase cortisol levels — in women, high concentrations of estrogen is a very common cause of high cortisol levels. Some medications, such as oral contraceptives and steroid medications for treating arthritis and asthma, can cause an increase in cortisol levels. Issues with the pituitary gland can cause it to over-produce hormones, including the hormone that triggers the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
In humans, every impulse, decision, emotion, reaction or thought is simply a set of electrical impulses that are coordinated by the brain to work with one another. The union of these impulses is what we call a brain wave.
There are four types of brainwaves: alpha, beta, delta and theta. Each of these types describe a different level of brain activity. At any given time one type of brainwave may be dominant, but the other types will be present. This varying relationship between the different brainwaves defines a person’s various mood states. High levels of cortisol cause the brain to generate a set of brainwaves that are expressed as anxiety to the person.
Alpha brainwaves represent non-arousal — a person who takes a leisurely walk or sits down to rest is typically in an alpha state. Meditation brings about alpha waves, which lets the brain relax. A meditating person enters a relaxed, yet wakeful state — the person will be alert and focused, but also composed and anxiety-free.
It turns out that alpha wave activity is inversely related to cortisol levels — as alpha waves increase, cortisol levels decrease. This inverse relationship is significant for anyone whose anxiety is brought about by high levels of cortisol — if such a person increases their alpha waves, their cortisol levels, and anxiety, drop. Practicing meditation is one way to increase alpha wave activity. Increasing L-theanine levels is another way to increase alpha wave activity. L-theanine has been shown to dramatically increase alpha waves, thereby bringing about relaxation without sedation, and lessening feelings of stress and anxiety.
L-Theanine Boosts Neurotransmitter Levels
Nerve cells fire nerve impulses by releasing neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals to other cells — neurotransmitters can be thought of as the chemical messengers of the body. Research shows that L-theanine increases the levels of a few neurotransmitters in the brain, namely dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that the brain releases as a sort of reward after a person engages in pleasurable activities such as eating a satisfying meal or having sex. Some substances that bring about the release of large amounts of dopamine — such as many types of drugs — can be addictive. L-theanine releases dopamine, but the levels aren’t high enough to produce addictive behavior.
Serotonin is considered the happy neurotransmitter — it typically results in a positive mood. L-theanine increases serotonin neurotransmitters, though to a lesser extent than it boosts dopamine levels. Mood enhancement is of course good in its own right, but it also helps to limit anxiety by bringing about positive thinking while lessening negative thoughts.
GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that limits, or inhibits the brain’s neuron activity. L-theanine increases GABA levels, slowing down neural processes which brings about a state of relaxation.
In short, in theory and in practice, L-theanine activates the brain’s anxiolytic mechanisms (recall that an anxiolytic is a drug or substance that reduces anxiety).
For treating stress and anxiety a daily dose of 200 mg of L-theanine is a good starting point. For best effect many people double that to 400 mg daily. L-theanine is a very safe supplement, with studies involving humans reporting no adverse effects at dosages well over 400 mg per day.