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How Tea May Help the Brain

Tea has been soaring in popularity, especially among those looking to boost metabolism or anyone wanting a java-free caffeine kick. Meanwhile, researchers have been exploring the possible benefits of tea for mental health and cognition.
07/27/2015 05:13pm ET | Updated July 27, 2016
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Tea has been soaring in popularity, especially among those looking to boost metabolism or anyone wanting a java-free caffeine kick. Meanwhile, researchers have been exploring the possible benefits of tea for mental health and cognition.

While the term "tea" can be broadly applied to any infusion of herbs, fruit, flowers, or leaves, for the purposes of this article, we're going to focus on true tea, from the Camellia sinensis plant. Tea contains many plant polyphenols, catechins, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals, and while they're usually associated with boosting metabolism and warding off cancer, in fact, they may be just as beneficial for the brain and cognitive health.

Caffeine is probably the best known brain-booster found in tea. It's effects are immediate: increased alertness, wakefulness, and attention. However, caffeine is a stimulant whose effects subside fairly quickly.

Uniquely, tea contains the amino acid L-Theanine which is more calming -- it relaxes without inducing drowsiness. Caffeine and L-Theanine are a naturally-occurring pair found only in tea, which is why tea has been the drink of choice for monks needing concentration and focus when settling into a long meditation.

Consuming this combination of caffeine and L-Theanine (in extract form) has been found to help reduce mental fatigue while increasing reaction time and working memory. When taken over time (e.g., 16 weeks) this combination also helped with improvements in memory and cognitive alertness.

But of course, caffeine and L-Theanine are not the only compounds present in tea that may boost brain function -- various catechins exert a positive influence, as well. Some preliminary evidence even suggests drinking tea can decrease the risk of dementia.

Scientists tested the effect of green tea catechins on mice and found that the green tea catechins can prevent cognitive dysfunction, improve working memory, and prevent negative changes in the brains of at-risk mice. One specific tea catechin, known as Theogallin, was tested in conjunction with L-Theanine and was found to be cognitive enhancing and anti-depressive. Significantly, another study looked at the L-Theanine plus Theogallin combination (also without caffeine), but this time on humans, and found that attention improved.

Daily consumption of white tea helped to maintain the health of the cerebral cortex part of the brain in pre-diabetic rats, according to this research. One meta study summarized the effects of consuming tea as this: "Caffeinated tea, when ingested at regular intervals, may maintain alertness, focused attention, and accuracy and may modulate the more acute effects of higher doses of caffeine."

So, how does all this research apply to you?

If you need to be focused, alert, have a quick reaction time, maintain short-term memory, accurately process information, and want to be in a good mood, opt for a few cups of tea. It may be a better choice for focused productivity than the ol' cup of joe.

If, over the course of your life, you want to maintain cognitive function and memory, prevent a decline in brain function, and avoid memory loss, then drink tea regularly throughout your life. This may be particularly helpful if you have metabolic-related issues (such as Type-II Diabetes).

Though I drink tea regularly because I love it, sometimes I have an extra cup or two when I need to be really focused, think clearly, or write a lot.

When you drink tea, what effects do you notice? What does tea help you accomplish?

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