One of the many reasons I look forward to waking up every morning: matcha.
Researchers agree that finely ground green tea leaves (Camellia sinensis), known as matcha, can provide a state of calm alertness, meaning that it can improve concentration to accomplish your list of things to do while calming the mind from anxiety-inducing, racing thoughts. But, which parts of the plant do we have to thank for these benefits?
As a wonderful coffee alternative, matcha is filled with a host of nutrients including the amino acid, l-theanine, and the dietary phytochemical, epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG for short. These two along with countless other compounds have an array of therapeutic advantages (not to mention, it’s really tasty!).
Harvested in late spring-early summer, matcha has been traditionally associated with Japanese tea ceremonies and Zen Buddhism spirituality. The spectrum of “grades” available determine not only the quality of the matcha, but also the price tag; “ceremonial” and “premium” are considered the best options with the most depth of flavor quality derived from the young tea leaves at the top of the plant. When selecting which matcha brand to purchase, it can seem daunting given the number of companies and flavor profiles. Like coffee, everyone has a preferred flavor; flavors of matcha can range from subtle sweetness to noticeably bitter. However, unlike coffee, it is considered a moderate caffeine option as ½ tsp of matcha has approximately 30-35 mg per cup (compared to 90-95 mg in a cup of coffee). Matcha also has a marked longer effect in the body, meaning that it can provide sustained energy throughout the day without the coffee jitters, or the immediate spike followed by crash.
Results of chemical composition studies indicate that there are higher concentrations of total amino acids, including l-theanine, in higher “grade” formulations, however, the amount of other compounds, such as EGCG, do not change. Regardless of the quality of the matcha, rest assured that nearly all matcha powders will retain a favorable amount of l-theanine.
The impact of this unparalleled amino acid and catechin combination is two-fold: their influence on taste and their influence on physiological and psychological state. Specifically, they have been shown to be involved with the biomarkers, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF), known for improving brain health and neuronal growth.
In particular, l-theanine binds to the glutamatergic AMPA receptor which is known for its inhibitory signaling for relaxation and focus; its relationship with glutamate also speaks to its relationship with BDNF and NGF, both linked to their roles in the prevention and slowing progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson Disease.
It would be impossible for me to write an article about matcha and not discuss the incredible nature of the polyphenol and catechin, EGCG. It is associated with the promotion of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and cardiometabolic effects, and it has been thought that when ingested daily, it can work synergistically with other organ systems to modulate cholesterol levels, increase metabolism and induce anti-tumor pathways. Beyond the few benefits mentioned, long-term regular consumption of matcha has been demonstrated to have a multifaceted impact throughout the body.
As an Integrative Health Pharmacist, the topic of caffeine consumption comes up frequently. While some believe that caffeine should not be consumed at all and others believe moderation is key, I believe matcha can be a beautifully peaceful part of a balanced routine that also incorporates lifestyle elements such as restful sleep, meditation, colorful diet and frequent activity.
Next time at your local coffee shop when you have the choice between coffee and matcha, try a matcha latte; whether warm and comforting, or iced and refreshing, take a sip and marvel at the history and nutritional value packed inside your seemingly tiny to-go cup.