For all the attention given to creatine within sports supplementation and the fitness industry in general (for good reason, admittedly!), it’s hard to argue caffeine isn’t the real king of natural supplements – at least in terms of usage. After all, in 2014 an estimated ~85% of Americans consumed caffeinated beverages on a consistent basis – translating to over two hundred and seventy million people. And it’s not hard to see why: caffeine – despite its uncontrolled status and ease of availability which might suggest otherwise – is a powerful psychostimulant with wide-ranging and very practically significant effects, including enhanced mood, increased motivation and attention, decreased subjective fatigue, improved exercise performance, increased pain tolerance, reduced hunger, elevated basal metabolic rate (i.e. ‘metabolism’), and (okay, I’m mostly putting this out there as a nugget for fellow bodybuilders) increased vasodilation in skeletal muscle (yes, that means, contrary to popular belief, taking caffeine before lifting can give you a better pump). Indeed, in the process of writing this article it struck me that if I didn’t know better, I might come to the conclusion that caffeine is such a powerful drug – one which beneficially affects so many different bodily systems at the same time – that it surely must have been artificially synthesized in a lab with great care and precision – a so-called ‘designer’ drug.
With that in mind, what would you think if I were to tell you, in all sincerity (this isn’t just a piece of rhetoric or salesmanship!), that there exists a supplement which practically all of those 270+ million caffeine consumers (in the US alone) would benefit from if they were to use it, and which would actually improve their experience with caffeine? Well, there is.
Despite the provocative introduction, theanine isn’t a drug in the traditional sense; it’s an amino acid. But don’t let that fool you: it’s is an incredibly under-appreciated compound, one which I think should be considered an essential addition to caffeine. Its overarching effect is fascinating (and unusual), in that, if appropriately dosed, theanine promotes relaxation without sedation. In other words (note this is definitely an oversimplification, but one which maintains about as much accuracy as possible given its brevity), theanine can make you feel relaxed without simultaneously making you tired. As you can probably imagine, this effect is ideal if you want to reduce anxiety, or maybe just chill out after a long day of work, school, or a particularly hard, stimulating workout – during periods in which you don’t want to induce sleep, diminish self-restraint, impair critical thinking, or slow physical reflexes – all well-understood effects of other substances that promote relaxation.
HOW ABOUT A WINE LUNCH?
To further underline the relaxation/sedation distinction, consider the following: work, for most people, is stressful, and consuming alcohol reduces stress by positively modulating the GABAergic system (the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter system; translation: as you may know from experience, alcohol has strong relaxing effects). Now does this mean, for example, you should have a couple of drinks on your lunch break? I imagine your answer is something like “Probably not.”, and there’s a clear reason for that: on top of being relaxing, alcohol is a strong central nervous system depressant that can make you tired, impair executive functions such as self-control and selective attention, and diminishes motor control so much, it’s literally a crime to drink and drive. Meanwhile, theanine does none of these things (unless overdosed), while still reducing subjective stress and anxiety.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
CAFFEINE’S BETTER HALF
Theanine really shines – and earns the title of this article – when consumed as an addition to caffeine. Now, as opposed to it merely being the case that theanine is a good supplement, and caffeine is a good supplement, and thus taking them together yields the combined effects of taking each of them alone, theanine actually works synergistically with caffeine, by mitigating several of caffeine’s prominent, unpleasant side effects:
- Elevated heart rate
- Mood instability, and;
- The dreaded ‘crash’ (in which you feel worse after caffeine wears off than you did before taking it).
And remember: theanine does this without making you tired or impairing your cognitive faculties.
The overall result of this combination – and, to be sure, each person’s experience is highly dependent on the absolute doses of caffeine and theanine individually, the ratio between them, and plain old interindividual variation – is a reduction in caffeine’s negative effects, with its positive effects maintained. In other words, you get a ‘cleaner’ stimulatory experience, without subduing caffeine’s cognitive, motivational, and energetic effects into oblivion.
WORKS FOR ME!
To give you a ‘real-world’ sense of how significant this is, I’ll share my own experience. Long story short, I tend to respond extremely well to stimulants, and I have a very high stimulant tolerance. Nonetheless, I’ve had enough negative experiences with caffeine (including anxiety, depressed mood, uncomfortably elevated heart rate, and a general feeling of overstimulation or ‘dirty’ energy – even at dosages as low as 200mg) that I now add theanine to caffeine, or use products which contain both, the overwhelming majority of the time I consume caffeine in any form – and when I don’t, about half the time those negative effects of caffeine are noticeable.
In terms of dosing, the ratios of theanine to caffeine I’ve seen used in the scientific literature are inconsistent, and sometimes strike me as completely random, but on the basis of reading that literature, considering my own experience, and reading innumerable reports of how others have responded, I’d suggest a 1:1 theanine:caffeine ratio at the very least, with 1.5:1 often being better, and even a 2:1 ratio appearing to be ideal in some cases (to be absolutely, completely clear, as ratios are often misunderstood: those higher figures refer to the theanine component, not caffeine).
As an example, if we assume the ubiquitous 200mg dose of caffeine, one would start by adding 200mg of theanine and evaluating their response, potentially increasing that theanine dose to 300mg-400mg if 200mg were to prove insufficient to ‘smooth out’ the caffeine.
Note that changes in dosage should be incremental; you don’t want to exceed your therapeutic range in response to having failed to reach it initially. By the way, I think we just stumbled into a really promising topic for a future post.
Also note that I’m not a physician, and that this isn’t medical advice, and that you always need to make a sincere effort to improve your own knowledge, generate your own beliefs, and, ultimately, use your own best judgment when deciding what to put in your body.
THE SINGLE LIFE
If you want to try theanine on its own, I’d suggest starting with a 200mg dose during a period of acute anxiety (to echo the above, this is not medical advice, and I really mean it when I say that if you have the thought you even might have an anxiety disorder, consult with your physician immediately), and/or before bed (recall that theanine isn’t usually sedating, so it shouldn’t put you to sleep – but it should help you relax, which can itself help you get to sleep. Plus, theanine has been directly shown to improve sleep quality.).
So next time you’re looking to dose up on caffeine and want to mitigate the unpleasant side effects, remember that every king is only as effective as his lady in arms.
 Roughly defined as the ability to pay attention to that which is perceived as most important in your current environment, while ignoring other things.