28 December 2018
THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP SUPPLEMENTS: THEANINE
INTRODUCTION Sleep. We all know it’s important. We all know it’s extremely important. And we all know we neglect it. Thus, while I don’t believe for a second that supplements are the singular solution to sleep problems, I feel there’s some unexplored territory in the sleep supplement realm, and thus I’ve decided to write a five-part series, each…
Sleep. We all know it’s important. We all know it’s extremely important. And we all know we neglect it. Thus, while I don’t believe for a second that supplements are the singular solution to sleep problems, I feel there’s some unexplored territory in the sleep supplement realm, and thus I’ve decided to write a five-part series, each part examining in detail one of my favorite supplements for strengthening sleep.
In this first piece, I want to revisit a supplement about which I’ve written before, in a different context: theanine.
WHAT IT IS
In some sense, theanine is the most unexpectedly cool of sleep supplements I recommend, as it’s simply an analogue of two common amino acids, glutamate and glutamine. Don’t let that mislead you, however; despite its relatively simple structure and function, theanine has clear sleep-related benefits alongside an unusually good safety profile.
HOW IT WORKS
As a compound readily able to cross the blood-brain barrier, theanine appears to influence brain levels of a number of neurotransmitters, including serotonin (the neurotransmitter generally believed to mediate a sense of contentment), dopamine (the neurotransmitter generally believed to be the primary driver of both pleasure and a set of cognitive functions called executive functions, which include motivation, impulse control, and mood regulation), GABA (the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, which, to at least some extent, opposes the excitatory effects of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and glutamate), and glycine (an amino acid proposed to have a role in memory and learning).
Despite this wide breadth of effects, it’s my personal belief theanine works mainly by increasing GABA, thus agonizing, or ‘turning on’, GABA receptors, with the fairly unique subjective effect of promoting relaxation without sedation. If this distinction doesn’t immediately make sense to you, think about it as essentially equivalent to the difference between feeling calm and feeling sleepy. At the risk of stating the obvious, I think this distinction is an important one, as being calm is arguably desirable at almost all times, while being sleepy is only desirable when you actually want to sleep. This has a clear practical implication when it comes to supplementing with theanine: theanine is a supplement which can be taken to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety during the day, without fear of impairing your work, ability to socialize, driving, or other cognitively-demanding tasks. Although I don’t want to overstate its effectiveness, theanine is arguably the ideal supplement for reducing anxiety without making you feel like you’ve been drugged.
HOW TO TAKE IT
While theanine naturally occurs in green and black teas – and indeed, is probably best known for its presence in the former – I would advise consuming theanine primarily in supplemental (capsule) form, rather than via tea. There are two straightforward reasons for this. First, there is no realistic means of controlling how much theanine one gets from tea; your best bet in that context is to simply use the same brand with the same brewing conditions. Even so, the second problem is one I find almost completely unavoidable when trying to get theanine from tea: it simple isn’t present in high enough concentrations for it to be practical to drink enough tea to match the amount of theanine one can get from just one or two small capsules. Thus, capsules are the way to go.
WHEN TO TAKE IT
Given theanine takes about an hour to reach peak blood concentrations before slowly returning to baseline , it’s probably best taken about thirty minutes before bed. This approach allows time for theanine to reach an effective level in the blood by the time you get in bed, while simultaneously allowing it to further relax you once you’re there.
HOW MUCH TO TAKE
Both in the scientific literature and in the supplement industry, a single 100mg dose of theanine is considered an appropriate starting point. However, given theanine’s unambiguous safety profile and relatively mild effects (keep in mind that although theanine shows some mechanistic similarities to marijuana and benzodiazapines, it is not comparably strong as those drugs), I would personally advise starting at 200mg. Based on both my understanding of the literature and my experience with theanine, I think this will end up a safe, effective dosage for most people.
However, if after at least 2-3 attempts at this 200mg starting dosage you find theanine to be completely or partially ineffective (perhaps as a result of high baseline anxiety and/or high stimulant use), dosages as high as 300-400mg should be well-tolerated by most people, and given that theanine displays linear kinetics – in other words, blood concentrations of theanine scale roughly linearly with increased dosage – these higher dosages should provide a greater degree of GABA agonism, and thus at the very least have the potential to generate stronger subjective effects.
THEANINE: KEY POINTS
- Theanine is an amino acid which promotes relaxation via GABA agonism.
- At moderate dosages, theanine should provide increased relaxation, reduced anxiety, and improved sleep quality without making you tired. Higher dosages do have the potential to be sedating, however.
- Although theanine is naturally present in tea, getting enough of it from tea is generally impractical. As such, supplementing with theanine in capsule form is preferable.
- For pre-bed relaxation and improved sleep quality, start by consuming 200mg theanine in supplemental (capsule) form about thirty minutes before getting in bed, and no more than an hour prior to when you want to actually be asleep.
- If this 200mg starting dosage is ineffective, increase first to 300mg, and then 400mg, as necessary. Use the lowest effective dose necessary to have the desired effect.