As I write this, I’m sipping on a rich, foamy latte made with almond milk. I taught myself how to make this at home, and I enjoy it most mornings when I’m not traveling, about 90 minutes after I get up. (That’s the best time to have your morning dose of caffeine.)
Here’s the twist: it’s not a coffee latte—it’s a matcha latte. And it’s delicious, earthy and roasted-tasting, a great pick-me up ritual for mid-morning.
I know a lot of you love your coffee—in the morning and all throughout the day. But that’s part of the problem. Caffeine is the single most abused stimulant across the world. Consuming too much caffeine and consuming it at the wrong times wreaks havoc with our sleep and circadian rhythms.
If you’re reluctant to even consider scaling back your coffee or switching to another daily pick-me up drink, hear me out. Matcha has a pretty exciting combination of benefits and protections you’ll want to understand.
What is matcha?
Matcha is a form of green tea that has been ground into a fine powder. You might recognize matcha from its intensely bright green color. The word matcha comes from the Japanese words for “ground” and “tea.” Matcha is derived from the plant Camellia sinesis, which is the source of many varieties of green teas and other teas. But matcha is grown and processed differently than standard teas—and those differences affect the flavor, the bio-chemical make-up, and the nutritional potency of the final product.
The practice of cultivating and preparing matcha is nearly 1000 years old. Unlike plants grown for other types of tea, the Camellia sinesisplants grown to make matcha are covered for several weeks of their growth cycle. Growing the tea leaves in shade, rather than under sun, causes the plants to step up their production of chlorophyll. This overproduction of chlorophyll contributes to higher concentrations of bio-chemical compounds in matcha, including polyphenols. Polyphenols are powerful, disease-fighting agents found in plants. In the human body, polyphenols appear to serve many functions that protect health and may diminish the risk of disease. They work as antioxidants, help to regulate genes and gene activity, and may contribute to a healthier gut microbiome. Shade growing of Camellia sinesisleads to matcha’s signature highly saturated green color, and it’s deep, rich, satisfying flavor. It also yields a plant with more caffeine. And shade growing tea creates a significantly higher concentration of an important amino acid you’ve heard me talk about before: L-theanine. (More on L-theanine in just a minute.)
When the plants are ready for harvest, its leaves are picked and ground into the powder that becomes matcha. Unlike regular tea, which is steeped with hot water and strained, matcha is combined directly with water (or milks) and added to food in cooking. Matcha delivers a higher dose of nutrients and beneficial compounds for a couple of reasons:
Its growing process creates leaves with higher concentrations of the tea plants’ health-protective natural bio-chemical compounds. (For example, research shows that in matcha levels of EGCG, the most plentiful polyphenol in tea, are at least 3 times higher than in standard green tea.)
When you consume matcha, you’re ingesting the plant leaves themselves, rather than the infusion created by steeping tea leaves.
I’m going to talk more about matcha in another article that’s coming up soon, and I’ll take an in depth look at the health benefits it may provide. You’ve probably heard about the powerful health benefits associated with green tea. An abundant, and growing, body of research shows that polyphenols and other compounds in green tea may help to lower risks for cancerand heart disease, reduce blood pressure, increase metabolism, and aid the body in regulating blood sugar and insulin, offering protection against and treatment for diabetesand other metabolic conditions.
These benefits are great, and on their own make matcha worth a serious look as an addition to your regular diet. But matcha, like coffee, contains caffeine—and at higher levels than regular green tea. And coffee has been shown to offer some health benefits, including as a source of polyphenols. So what makes matcha a healthier, more sleep friendly choice than the coffee you love so much?
Why is matcha better for sleep than coffee
The big sleep-related advantage that matcha has over coffee? It’s that amino acid I mentioned a little while ago: L-theanine. Tea is a potent source of L-theanine, and matcha has a substantially higher concentration of L-theanine than regular green or black tea.
I’ve written before about the benefits of L-theanine for sleep. L-theanine promotes both alertness and calm at the same time. It can put you in a state of wakeful relaxation, reducing stress and anxiety while at the same time improving focus and concentration. And though L-theanine can be highly beneficial for sleep, it works without any sedating effects. That makes it a nearly ideal natural compound for boosting mental energy and alertness during the day.
How does L-theanine accomplish all this? It elicits a series of effects in the brain. L-theanine:
- Stimulates production of “calming” neurotransmitters that enhance concentration and mood, and also promote sleep. They include GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. (You can read more about GABA here.)
- Reduces “excitatory” neurotransmitters that contribute to stress and anxiety
- Boosts levels of alpha brain waves, which are associated with calm alertness and mental focu
L-theanine also lowers blood pressure and resting heart rate.
The relaxation and stress-relieving abilities of L-theanine make it a highly beneficial natural compound for sleep. A new study found significantimprovements to sleep satisfaction after 8 weeks of daily L-theanine consumption, in a group of people with anxiety. Studies show L-theanine reduces both the physical and psychological responses to stress. Both the mental and physiological aspects of stress—all states of heightened arousal–cause major obstacles for sleep.
Compare these L-theanine effects to some of the side effects of caffeine, especially when it’s over-consumed or ingested at the wrong times. Caffeine, especially in large amounts, can trigger anxiety and ratchet up stress. It exacerbates both mental and physical indicators of anxiety, including an elevated heart rate, rise in blood pressure and a worried, racing, overstimulated mind.
And caffeine, of course, is a major sleep disruptor. It keeps us alert and wired into the evenings, making it difficult to fall asleep. When we do eventually fall asleep, the presence of caffeine keeps us in lighter stages of sleep, depriving us of the deep, slow-wave sleep that contributes to a fully restorative night of rest. Caffeine is, among other things, a potent melatonin suppressor. We think of melatonin as being largely inhibited by light—and it’s true, evening light is a major culprit in suppression the melatonin we need for sleep. But research has found that coffee consumed before bed has an even greater ability to suppress melatonin production that bright light does. And the effects of caffeine linger in the body for a long time—it takes as much as 8 hours for caffeine’s stimulating effects to be cut by one half.
To be clear: consuming caffeine and drinking coffee aren’t exclusively bad for you. To the contrary. Coffee consumption is linked to a number of health benefits, from lowering diabetes risk to reducing risks for some cancers, to improving liver function and protecting brain health. Coffee is rich in antioxidants, including the same polyphenols found in matcha and other kinds of tea.
But the benefits of coffee tend to come from very moderate consumption, about 1 or 2 cups a day. (Those are regular size 8-ounce cups, not the jumbo kind.) Going beyond this moderate coffee intake often brings about the side effects I’ve described above, along with a rising tolerance for caffeine—meaning, the body needs more caffeine to get the daily alertness and energy producing effects. That increased dependence creates more problems with sleep, which leads to more reliance on caffeine, and more sleep-, mood- and performance-disrupting side effects. It’s a vicious, unhealthful cycle.
The benefits of the L-theanine – coffee combinationin matcha
But wait a minute. Matcha has caffeine as well as L-theanine, and more caffeine than what’s found in a cup of tea, thanks to the highly concentrated powder made from whole tea leaves.
Here’s where we get to one of the coolest, most sleep-friendly benefits of matcha. L-theanine can moderate and inhibit some of the negative effects of caffeine, while at the same time enhancing some of the benefits of caffeine, particularly for cognitive performance.
The combination of L-theanine and caffeine in matcha can deliver you the best of both, while mitigating a lot of the downsides of caffeine. L-theanine and caffeine balance each other out—and also combine forces to enhance several aspects of cognition beyond what either can do on its own.
Two natural chemical compounds, one—caffeine—is stimulating (aka excitatory) and the other—L-theanine—is relaxing (but not sedating). The GABA-enhancing, quieting down of the brain and central nervous system provided by L-theanine blocks a lot of the stimulating effects of caffeine. L-theanine has been shown in scientific study to limit caffeine’s ability to raise anxiety, and the blood pressure spikes that go along with caffeine-induced jitters. And a growing body of research indicates that the combination of L-theanine and caffeinecan have positive, uplifting effects on mood. (Caffeine on its own can also lift mood, but these mood-elevating effects can be quickly undone with even a slight over-consumption, and the onset of anxiety.)
And what about sleep itself? The boost in alertness with some protection against anxiety that this combination delivers is helpful for sleep. And research shows that L-theanine in combination with caffeine can work directly to the benefit of our nightly rest, helping to at least partially block the sleep disturbances that arise from caffeine consumption. For example, this 2012 study found that while L-theanine did not reduce the extra wakefulness that caffeine produces (not surprising since it’s not a sedative) it did counteract the reduction in deep, slow-wave sleep that results from caffeine in your system.
There’s more interesting, promising scientific news about how the team up of L-theanine and caffeine can benefit cognitive performance. The combination has been shown to enhance a range of cognitive abilities, including:
- Improving reaction time
- Increasing attentionand focus
- Enhancing our ability to stay focused when switching tasks
- Reducing errors
- Improving working memory
Getting the waking benefits of alertness, energy and focus from caffeine and L-theanine together, while also being shielded from the full impact of caffeine’s ability to severely disrupt sleep, is pretty close to a best-case scenario, one that deeply reinforces a healthy sleep routine. Think about it this way: if you’re alert and productive, feeling motivated and good throughout your day, and able to sleep well at night, you’re less likely to feel the need to reach for more and more caffeine to combat fatigue. That self-regulating force helps you avoid the increased caffeine tolerance and over-reliance that sends a lot of chronic caffeine users into an exhausted, sleep-deprived cycle.
This is why in the face off between matcha and coffee, matcha gets my vote. I only buy certified organic matcha and I find that since I go through a lot, the 1-pound tin is the winner for freshness every time. You can get it on Amazon.
I discovered this recipe (sources below) that I now use to make my daily matcha:
- ½ teaspoonMatchaDNA® tea (make sure your matcha is organic and not radiated, this brand I discovered checks all the boxes). The ceremonial is the highest quality.
- ½ cup Almond MilkSilk ® Unsweetened Vanilla (I use this Hello™ frother to get the perfect foam ). At the very least heat this up.
- Sweeten to taste withOrganic Blue Agave from Costco ® (careful not to overdo it).
Pour hot (not boiling water) in a cup or bowl, mix in matcha, add agave and frothed milk (optional: Top with cinnamon or chocolate).
I find that playing around with the right amount of the of tea to sweetness to get the perfect cup is the best way. You can enjoy this hot or cold.
Some quick tips for keeping matcha sleep friendly
There’s a lot to like about the benefits and protections that matcha may offer. But it’s important to remember: matcha contains a stimulant in the form of caffeine. Although its stimulant effects seem to be reduced in matcha, thanks to the presence of L-theanine, they don’t disappear. It’s a smart, sleep-friendly strategy to use matcha thoughtfully, in moderation, and at the right times.
The best times for matcha?To take advantage of its alerting, focusing effects, don’t drink your cup of matcha right when you get up. When you first rise, your body’s own cortisol is already kicked into high gear, helping make you alert and energized. Wait a couple of hours, when your cortisol levels are making the first of a series of dips throughout the day.
I also recommend sticking to a mid-afternoon cut off time for any caffeine, including the caffeine in matcha. The same rules apply to coffee!
To understand more about the best times to consume caffeine for performance and sleep, check out my book, The Power of When.
Don’t load up with sugar.As with coffee drinks, if you drown your matcha in sugar, you’re adding calories, introducing another stimulant, and messing with your body’s bio rhythms and sleep. Want to know more about how sugar wrecks sleep? I wrote about it, here.
Don’t overdo.The reduced impact of caffeine through its pairing with L-theanine isn’t a license to over-consume. We don’t know all there is to know about how L-theanine and caffeine interact, and the evidence to-date isn’t telling us that this combination makes heavy caffeine consumption a good idea for sleep, mood, performance or health.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™