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GABA vs L-theanine: Which helps you relax better?

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GABA is the main chemical that helps your brain take a break to relax. It has widespread importance with its network covering 44% of your brain [1]. So, what does GABA do in the brain? GABA aids relaxation by counteracting excitatory pathways. 

Where can you find GABA?

GABA is found in plants and animals. Your gut microbes produce GABA for its use to relax muscles, heart health, and the immune system. [2] Dietary sources include kimchi, fermented soybean, sourdough, fermented fish, and white tea [3][4], which provide small amounts of GABA. If you live in the US, you can walk into a health store and buy GABA. The UK classifies it as medication and its sale as a food supplement is banned. 

If you are looking to get into zen mode more often by consuming high amounts of GABA rich foods or supplements, it would be advisable to look for alternative ways to improve GABA levels. The brain has a protective layer of cells that control the entry of substances. This layer is called the blood brain barrier and only a small amount of GABA can cross over [5]. 

L-theanine: an effective relaxation aid?

L-theanine is a nutrient found in green tea and makes up 1-2% of the dry weight of tea leaves. A standard cup of tea may contain up to 10-20mg L-theanine [6]. When it comes to L-theanine and GABA, L-theanine wins the battle to cross the blood brain barrier. Once consumed, it can easily cross the blood brain barrier and its effects on the brain are noted within 30 minutes [7]. L-theanine helps to promote relaxation without making you drowsy. It increases alpha waves in the brain which is a state of deep relaxation while being alert, much like meditation [8]. L-theanine increases the relative concentration of GABA [9]. Researchers looked at 15 years’ worth of l-theanine supplementation studies and concluded that regular intake of 200-400mg L-theanine (equivalent to 13-26 cups of tea) up to 2 weeks had a stress reducing and calming effect [10]. Studies done among depressed patients with anxiety found a decrease in anxiety levels after L-theanine intake [11]. 

L-theanine side effects

L-theanine is considered safe even at high doses (up to 1200mg) because tea has been one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world for decades.

Getting the most from your R&R

L-theanine can cross into the brain to promote relaxation without drowsiness and improve GABA levels. It can either be consumed from tea or as a supplement. L-theanine supplements found on the market are not created equally. L-theanine is either cheaply produced synthetically or is extracted naturally from green tea which is an extensive and expensive process. Brain feed’s 250 mg L-theanine is extracted from green tea from the mountainous region of Hunan Province in South Central China and each capsule contains L-theanine equivalent to 15-20 cups of green tea. Read more about this here.


GABA vs L-theanine in the brain

GABA

L-theanine

What is it?

Chemical messenger 

Isolated nutrient 

Freely cross the blood-brain barrier?

No

Yes

Available as a supplement in the UK?

No

Yes

Function?

Aids relaxation by counteracting excitatory pathways

Promotes relaxation by producing alpha waves


References

  1. Petroff, O.A.C. (2002). Book Review: GABA and Glutamate in the Human Brain. The Neuroscientist, [online] 8(6), pp.562–573.
  2. Vargas, R. (2018). The GABAergic System: An Overview of Physiology, Physiopathology and Therapeutics. International Journal of Clinical Pharmacology & Pharmacotherapy, 3(2). 
  3. Sahab, N.R.M. et al. (2020). γ-Aminobutyric acid found in fermented foods and beverages: current trends. Heliyon, 6(11), p.e05526.
  4. Zhao, M. et al. (2011). Determination and Comparison of γ-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Content in Pu-erh and Other Types of Chinese Tea. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 59(8), pp.3641–3648.
  5. Boonstra, E. et al. (2015). Neurotransmitters as food supplements: the effects of GABA on brain and behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, [online] 6.
  6. Türközü, D. et al. (2017). L-theanine, unique amino acid of tea, and its metabolism, health effects, and safety. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, [online] 57(8), pp.1681–1687.
  7. Nobre, A. et al. (2008). L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr, [online] 17(S1), pp.167–168. Available at: https://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/17%20Suppl%201/167.pdf.
  8. Mason, R. (2001). 200 mg of Zen: L-Theanine Boosts Alpha Waves, Promotes Alert Relaxation. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 7(2), pp.91–95. 
  9. White, D. et al. (2016). Anti-Stress, Behavioural and Magnetoencephalography Effects of an l-Theanine-Based Nutrient Drink: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Trial. Nutrients, [online] 8(1), p.53.
  10. Lopes Sakamoto, F. et al. (2019). Psychotropic effects of L-theanine and its clinical properties: From the management of anxiety and stress to a potential use in schizophrenia. Pharmacological Research, 147, p.104395.
  11. Hidese, S. et al. (2016). Effects of chronic l-theanine administration in patients with major depressive disorder: an open-label study. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, [online] 29(2), pp.72–79.
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