The powerhouse powdered tea that protects sleep, boosts attention, and may protect against disease
I wrote recently about why matcha is better than coffee for sleep. Quick takeaway? It provides energy and focus without the anxiety, jitters, and sleep disruption that so often accompany coffee. That’s thanks to the presence of L-theanine, an amino acid that alters the impact of caffeine’s stimulating effects.
The natural compounds in matcha are beneficial for sleep and cognitive performance. They also have a broad range of other health benefits, including potentially reducing risks for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and several cancers. Let’s look more closely at what matcha is, what it does, and how to use it effectively in your diet.
What is matcha?
With its deep, intense green color, matcha is produced from the plant Camellia sinesis, which is the source of many varieties of green teas and other teas. But plants cultivated for matcha are grown and handled in ways different than other teas. The result? Matcha is more flavorful, has a higher concentration of beneficial bio-compounds, and is packed with more nutritional potency than regular tea.
Unlike plants grown for other types of tea, the Camellia sinesis plants grown to make matcha are covered for most of the duration of their growing cycle, so they grow in shade, rather than sun. Shade growing triggers the Camellia sinesis plants to step up their production of chlorophyll. More chlorophyll leads to higher concentrations of the beneficial natural compounds found in Camellia sinesis, including polyphenols. Polyphenols are natural bio-chemical plant compounds that have been shown to work as powerful disease-fighting agents in the human body. I’ll talk in more detail about the health benefits of polyphenols in a minute.
It’s the shade growth of Camellia sinesis that generates matcha’s bright green hue. This process also results in a deeper, richer, more satisfying flavor than tea produced from sun grown plants. As a result of this process, matcha also has higher levels of caffeine, and of an array of natural compounds, including the amino acid L-theanine. I’ve written before about L-theanine and its sleep-promoting abilities. When the plants are ready for harvest, its leaves are picked and ground into the powder that becomes matcha.
The practice of cultivating and preparing matcha is centuries old. The word matcha comes from the Japanese words for “ground” and “tea.” The practice of making matcha originated in China, and eventually migrated to Japan.
Unlike regular tea, which is steeped with hot water and strained, matcha is combined directly with liquids to make drinks, and used directly in cooking and baking.
How does matcha work?
Matcha delivers higher doses of nutrients and beneficial compounds than regular green tea.
That’s because of the way matcha is processed and consumed.
- Matcha’s growing process creates leaves with higher concentrations of the tea plants’ health-protective natural bio-chemical compounds.
- Because matcha is a powder that’s added directly to liquid or food, you ingest the plant leaves themselves, instead of getting nutrients through the infusion of steeping tea leaves.
Matcha is a particularly concentrated source of polyphenols, a group of plant-based compounds. An abundant and growing body of research indicates that polyphenols perform a number of activities in the body that protect health and may diminish the risk of disease. They work as antioxidants, engage in anti-cancer activity, regulate genes and gene activity, have antiviral and antimicrobial properties. Polyphenols may also contribute to a healthier gut microbiome. (I’ve written about the links between gut health and sleep, here and here.)
Catechins are a type of polyphenol that are especially plentiful in green tea—and even more so in highly concentrated matcha powder. A catechin known as EGCG, or epigallocatechin gallate, is the most abundant polyphenol in green tea. EGCG is a powerful antioxidant, offering protection against cell damage that may exacerbate disease and aging. EGCG can reduce inflammation, and may help lower risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Emerging research also shows EGCG’s anti-inflammatory capabilities may help improve brain cell function and could offer protection against degenerative neurological diseases. One of EGCG’s most promising abilities is as an anti-cancer agent. Studies have shown this catechin may be effective in fighting and protecting against many types of cancer.
In matcha levels of EGCG are at least3 times higher than in green tea, according to research.
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in matcha in higher concentrations than other forms of green tea. Tryptophan helps the body makes serotonin and melatonin, two hormones and neurotransmitters that are critical for healthy sleep and circadian rhythms. Studies show the presence of tryptophan increases both serotonin and melatonin levels in the body.
Matcha contains higher concentrations of caffeine that other forms of green tea. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases wakefulness and can enhance focus and concentration. Studies show caffeine may reduce the risks for several types of cancer. Caffeine also may offer protection against neurodegenerative disease. But caffeine also comes with risks and side effects. Caffeine raises blood pressure and heart rate. Higher caffeine intake is linked to a greater risk of depression and more frequent, intense anxiety. Higher caffeine consumption (and consuming caffeine at the wrong times, including near to bedtime) causes insomnia and other sleep problems. Caffeine can also cause gastrointestinal problems, including nausea and heartburn.
The alerting, stimulating response to caffeine—the one that can produce the jitters that so often accompany coffee consumption—is subdued in matcha. That’s because of the presence of another natural compound: L-theanine. I recently wrote about why I prefer matcha over coffee for an energy-boosting drink, and it has everything to do with this caffeine-theanine combination.
Matcha is rich in L-theanine. Tea in general is a potent source of L-theanine, and matcha has a substantially higher concentration of L-theanine than regular green or black teas.
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 sedating. That makes it a nearly ideal natural compound for boosting mental energy and alertness during the day.
L-theanine works in several different ways to promote this state of wakeful alertness:
- 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 focus
- Lowers cortisol, a major stress and alerting hormone
- 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, as well as cognitive performance.
Benefits of matcha
Matcha has several natural compounds that can deliver benefits for sleep. The anxiety and stress-reducing capabilities of L-theanine make matcha a sleep-friendly, sleep-promoting dietary supplement. L-theanine reduces levels of cortisol, a stimulating hormone that is part of the body’s stress response. Cortisol keeps us alert; high cortisol levels interfere with our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Cortisol typically exists in a kind of inverse relationship with the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin—when cortisol levels are higher, melatonin levels stay lower.
L-theanine has been shown to reduce our physical and psychological responses to stress, and to improve sleep in people with anxiety and other mood disorders. A 2019 study found that 8 weeks of daily L-theanine consumption led to significant improvements to sleep satisfaction in people with generalized anxiety disorder. Another recent study found 8 weeks of daily L-theanine consumption lowered anxiety and improved sleep in people with depression. L-theanine also slows and counteracts the stimulating effects of caffeine, which may help you avoid the sleep-disrupting side effects of other caffeine products (provided you consume matcha thoughtfully and in moderation).
Matcha is a source of tryptophan, which helps the body to make serotonin and melatonin, two hormones necessary for sound sleep and healthy sleep-wake cycles. With age, levels of these hormones tend to decline—and these declining hormones contribute to sleep problems and circadian rhythm disruptionsthat become more frequent and pronounced with age. A growing body of research shows a diet rich in tryptophan can aid in the production of melatonin and serotonin, and improve sleep.
The catechins in matcha—including the most abundant one, EGCG—also can help sleep by reducing inflammation and stress.
For cognitive performance and memory enhancement
For thousands of years, tea has been understood to have calming, focusing powers. Science is now measuring and quantifying the cognitive, brain-protecting abilities of Camellia sinesis, and of matcha in particular.
Matcha’s most abundant catechin, EGCG, functions as a powerful anti-oxidant, reducing inflammation and offering protection to brain cells as well as cells throughout the body. There’s emerging evidence that green tea may help in the prevention of age-related neurodegenerative diseases, such as dementia and Parkinson’s. Studies also show that regular green tea consumption may help promote better cognitive function—including memory, attention, information processing, and executive function— in older adults.
Several of the natural compounds found in matcha have been shown to improve cognitive performance, on their own and in combination with one another. The catechin ECGC may help improve memory and learning abilities, particularly in people who’ve been exposed to periods of intense or chronic stress. (Among other therapeutic possibilities, this may make green tea and matcha helpful in improving learning and memory problems connected to PTSDand other trauma-related conditions.)
L-theanine and caffeine each on their own can benefit cognitive performance. Both can sharpen alertness and focus, speed up reaction times, and improve memory function. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine that’s found in matcha may be particularly beneficial for cognitive performance. That’s because the combination of these two compounds has been shown to enhance a range of cognitive abilities, beyond what either can do on their own. The enhanced benefits of L-theanine and caffeine for cognition include:
- Improving reaction time
- Increasing attention and focus
- Enhancing our ability to stay focused when switching tasks
- Reducing errors
- Improving working memory
For cardiovascular health
Research has shown that green tea consumption may lower risk for developing high blood pressure, and help to reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. It also may lower triglyceride levels. The catechin EGCG found in green tea—and in even higher amounts in matcha—has been shown to have a broad range of benefits for the heart. It acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and may offer protection against atherosclerosis (the buildup of plaque and narrowing of artery walls) and heart attack.
For metabolic health
Several of the same mechanisms by which green tea and matcha promote heart health—including as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and a cholesterol reducer—also offer benefits for metabolic health. Green tea has anti-diabetic effects in the body, according to a growing body of research. Catechins and other polyphenols in the Camellia sinesisplant have been shown in some studies to lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity—two key factors in preventing and treating diabetes. Matcha itself has been shown to improve blood sugar and insulin function. Several studies have shown the catechin EGCG can elevate metabolism. Consuming green tea can increase energy expenditure and fat burning. In these ways, matcha may help with weight loss and weight management.
For cancer protection
Years of promising research has shown that natural compounds in Camellia sinesis have cancer-protecting and cancer-fighting abilities. Green tea has been shown to offer protective benefits for a range of cancers, including breast, colorectal, and leukemia. The catechin EGCG has been shown to kill cancer cells, suppress tumor growth, and slow the migration of cancer cells. A 2018 study of matcha found that it can suppress the growth of cancer stem cells, and may be effective in making cancer cells more treatable by chemotherapy.
For liver protection
Regular green tea consumption is linked to a lower risk of liver disease. Several studies have found that matcha has protective, beneficial effects on liver functions, including in the presence of diabetes and some forms of liver disease.
Matcha: what to know
Always consult your doctor before you begin taking a supplement or make any changes to your existing medication and supplement routine. This is not medical advice, but it is information you can use as a conversation-starter with your physician at your next appointment.
How to use matcha
It’s important to buy organic matcha. High-quality organic matcha is expensive, but it is worth the investment for the best tasting product that is grown and produced to the highest standards.
In addition to being used in hot and cold drinks such as tea, lattes, and smoothies, matcha is used in cooking and baking. Whether in drinks or food, if you’re using matcha with sugar you’re adding calories, introducing into your body another stimulant, and messing with your body’s bio rhythms and sleep. Interested in knowing more about how sugar wrecks sleep? I wrote about it, here.
Here’s the recipe that I use to make the daily matcha latte I’m drinking regularly these days:
- ½ teaspoon MatchaDNA® 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.
Possible side effects of matcha
As research indicates, the stimulating effects of caffeine in matcha are muted, thanks largely to the presence of L-theanine. With any food or drink that contains caffeine, however, it’s important to play it safe. Be mindful and moderate with consumption of any caffeinated product, to protect sleep from being disrupted, and avoid the possible negative side effects linked to caffeine.
If you have sensitivity to caffeine, speak to your physician before using matcha in your diet.
For most people, a moderate consumption of matcha is safe and well tolerated. If you’re pregnant or nursing, or taking medication or supplements that may interact with caffeine or any of the other compounds in matcha, talk to your doctor. Not sure how your medications and supplements interact with caffeine and the other components of matcha? Play it safe and check in with your doctor before you make matcha part of your diet.
How much caffeine is in matcha?
The amount of caffeine found in matcha can vary somewhat by the way it is grown and processed. The amount of caffeine that winds up in your matcha latte or tea also depends on how much matcha you use, per serving. High quality matcha is a flavorful and potent agent; a small amount goes a long way. As you can see, the recipe I like uses ½ teaspoon of matcha (about 1 gram) with 4 ounces of liquid.
As a general guide to caffeine amounts, matcha has about half the caffeine as a cup of coffee, and roughly double the caffeine that a cup of green tea. An 8-ounce cup of regular coffee contains about 120-140 mg of caffeine. An 8-ounce cup of matcha (made with 1 teaspoon of matcha powder), may contain roughly 70 mg of caffeine, compared to a cup of green tea, at about 30-40 mg. Again, let me say: these are estimated average amounts. The specific amount of caffeine in your beverages will depend on the individual product, how much you use, and how you prepare your drink.
I recommend applying the same sleep-protecting guidelines to matcha that you would to coffee or other caffeinated drinks: enjoy in moderation, and stop consuming caffeine by the mid-afternoon, to give your body plenty of time to process caffeine before it’s time for bed.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor™