Are you stressed out and depressed? Having trouble falling asleep each night? Feeling like you could use some help? 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).
Unfortunately, these medications often have significant side effects and even addiction potential. Worse, if your anxiety, insomnia, and depression are chronic lasting for months or years, it is highly likely that they will not be able to do much beyond just masking symptoms. If your condition is chronic, please be sure to read the section at the end of this article about adrenal fatigue as it is a likely culprit behind such symptoms that last months or years.
Common Psychiatric Medicine Side Effects
Common psychiatric medications have some potentially serious drawbacks. For some people they don’t even work at all. Others are very sensitive to them, particularly people who suffer from adrenal fatigue or related medical conditions.
SSRIs have side effects including weight gain, decreased libido (sex drive), and even suicidal ideation particularly when first starting them. They now have a “black box” warning on them in recent years after doctors found that some patients actually committed suicide apparently because of side effects from these medicines.
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. It may be possible to overwhelm the digestive breakdown to some degree by taking larger dosages of GABA, but there are alternatives.
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.
Another variant of GABA is called phenibut. It is another Russian treatment for anxiety made by modifying GABA. Rather than binding the GABA to niacin, it is bound to a phenyl group. I’ve used phenibut powder from PrimaForce because it is much less expensive than capsules. It dissolves easily, but its sour taste is not all that pleasant. However, in powder form it is tolerable for use before bedtime or before a stressful event for which you can plan. You can get it in capsules, also, making it more convenient and flexible but at added cost. The effect is similar to small dosages of a benzodiazipine drug in its affect on anxiety, but Russian research suggests it is not as sedating or addictive. As a result, it is used by military personnel and space travellers for anxiety, particularly before sleep. Some people compare the effect of phenibut to Ambien in how it improves sleep but without the side effects.
So at this point you may be wondering — is L-Theanine another GABA variant? No, it is not. It appears to work by helping the body make more of its own GABA in the brain where it can be used to calm you down and reduce anxiety.
It’s my perception that L-Theanine lasts longer in its effect than phenibut but that the phenibut anxiolytic effect is more evident at first. I’ve combined the two at times without any adverse side effects, and have also added additional GABA, too. I think the effect of GABA is less obvious than that of either L-Theanine or phenibut, so if you have to use just one of them I’d recommend L-Theanine or phenibut rather than GABA and to use L-Theanine when you do not plan to sleep and phenibut before sleeping.
GABA is widely available in capsules and powders. It tastes OK as a powder, nothing objectionable to most.
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.
Chronic Anxiety, Insomnia, and Depression May Indicate Adrenal Fatigue
If you have suffered from anxiety, insomnia, and depression for years and the symptoms are chronic, not just occasional, it is very possible that your body has been badly damaged by the stress. You may have developed medical conditions including adrenal hormone imbalances, chronic fatigue syndrome, or fibromyalgia. L-Theanine can be helpful for these people, too, but they are going to need hormone replacement therapy and probably significant additional medical attention including nutrition, supplements, and possibly medicines to restore the health of their mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles founds through the cells in the body.
The following symptoms are often signs of long-term damage to the stress management systems in the body. Every one of them can result from damage to the adrenal glands after they have been forced to pump out vast quantities of cortisol for years trying to help you cope with unrelenting high stress.
- Mental fatigue or exhaustion
- Poor short-term memory, inability to focus
- Panic attacks
- Physical fatigue or exhaustion
- Physical pain unrelated to physical exertion and worsened by anxious thoughts
- Muscle weakness and/or physical clumsiness
- Major changes in weight
It’s common for anybody to have a certain number of these symptoms for short periods of time during stress. But for the chronically stressed, these are likely to develop into enduring symptoms that last many months or years. They are usually prevalent throughout the day but often become worse at night while one should be sleeping.
If you or somebody you know has had many of the above symptoms on a chronic basis for months or years, please realize that there is probably significant physiological damage that is not “just in your head” and it could lead to severe consequences if appropriate medical treatment is not obtained. Please ask the affected person to read the following three articles:
The first article gives some ideas on more easily diagnosed medical conditions that can lead to chronic fatigue and pain symptoms. Many doctors are familiar with most of these ideas, but you may have to push them to run tests to screen for such conditions. Several of these conditions are very common and seldom treated. They can and often do occur in conjunction with physiological stress damage conditions such as adrenal fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and fibromyalgia.
The other two articles explain that adrenal hormone imbalances (particularly of cortisol) and neurotransmitter imbalances can cause these symptoms why getting appropriate tests may help identify the source of the symptoms. Adrenal gland problems resulting in cortisol imbalances are among the most common sources of these symptoms in chronically stressed people. These tests are often not ordered by doctors unless you insist upon them. Possibly you may even have to order the tests yourself and then show the results to your uncooperative doctor after the fact.
Anxiety May Be Tied to Low Pregnenolone and DHEA Hormone Levels
In my article Reducing Sedative and Addictive Side Effects of Anti-Anxiety Drugs Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, etc.) with L-Theanine, Pregnenolone, and DHEA, I’ve explained some connections that have been found between anxiety and low levels of the hormones pregnenolone and DHEA. The basis for believing that pregnenolone supplementation may help reduce anxiety symptoms is reasonably strong. There are findings that DHEA supplements can help with anxiety related to abnormal levels of cortisol, too. Both hormones are inexpensive and quite safe with the exception of a small number of people who have hormone-dependent cancers who should be cautious about using any kind of supplemental hormones.
If you suffer from chronic anxiety, it would be good to get a complete set of hormone tests to look for abnormal hormone levels so you can plan to correct them with supplements and medications as needed. A lot of people find such changes help with anxiety and many other health problems.
Long-Term Chronic Stress May Also Lead to CFS and FMS
It is common for people with severe adrenal gland problems to have symptoms that are similar to those of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS, also known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis outside the US) and fibromyalgia (FMS), two common illnesses that are widely underdiagnosed and undertreated. There are a lot of similarities between these conditions, so much so that some research studies contend that adrenal dysfunction is nearly always a part of CFS and FMS but that it is often very difficult to measure because the commonly used tests for adrenal dysfunction are usually interpreted based upon total adrenal gland failure such as Addison’s Disease or extremely overreactive adrenal glands such as are present in Cushing’s Disease.
You can read more about the similarities in symptoms and treatments for adrenal fatigue, CFS, and FMS in the article Low Cortisol, Low CoQ10, and Mitochondrial Dysfunction Often Found in Adrenal Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis Patients. All of these conditions typically benefit from hormone replacement therapies and nutrition and supplements focused on restoring mitochondrial health to replenish your body’s energy reserves to less severely depleted levels. It can take years to recover from these conditions, so it is important to get started as soon as possible to prevent the damage from becoming worse in the meantime.
Good Sources for Theanine in Capsule Form
- Carbohydrate Binge Eating and Weight Gain May Indicate Tryptophan and Serotonin Deficiencies
- Melatonin Helps Improve Sleep and Boost Immune System, Little Sign of Toxicity Even At Very High Doses
- Abnormal Cortisol Levels, Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD Are Signs of Long-Term Abuse and Psychological Trauma
- Curcumin Helps Raise Low Serotonin and Dopamine in Major Depression and Other Neurological Disorders
- High Bioavailability Curcumin Supplements from Indena, Dolcas Biotech, Verdure Sciences, and Theravalues
- Flavonoids Apigenin and Chrysin Non-Addictive Alternatives To Benzodiazepines for Anxiety Relief and Mild Sedation
- Reducing Sedative and Addictive Side Effects of Anti-Anxiety Drugs Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, etc.) with L-Theanine, Pregnenolone, and DHEA
- Life Extension Annual Blood Test Sale Extended to June 13, 2011
- Telomeres May Shorten More Quickly and Lead to Early Death Due to Oxidative and Inflammatory Damage
- Chronic Stress Kills: High Cortisol Levels Damage the Brain, May Lead to Shorter Life and Neurodegenerative Diseases Such As Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned in this post and on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information presented here is for educational purposes and does not constitute medical advice. Please obtain medical advice from qualified healthcare providers.