Could a safe, natural substance found in tea help millions of children and adults? That's what research is finding from a unique compound -- benefits against lack of focus, hyperactivity, and stress.
Fields and fields of tea cover huge areas around the world. And the resulting tea drinkers range from kids in rural Africa to European heads of state.
Black Tea? Or Green?
Compared to black tea, the green variety is considered healthier, but is that just urban legend and the fact that green tea seems more exotic?
The reality is there are a number of healthy nutrients in black and green teas. One of them is L-theanine, a substance found almost exclusively in the tea plant.
This amino acid promotes a sense of calm alertness. So in Japan, theanine is used for attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders -- commonly called ADD or ADHD.
The tea highest in theanine is called matcha. As with many tea customs, this Japanese green variety is prepared in an almost ceremonial fashion.
First, the matcha powder is spooned into a bowl and hot water is poured down the side. Then the mixture is whipped with a wooden whisk until frothy and smooth.
True Therapy Difficult in U.S.
Dr. Michael Lyon directs a research group in Vancouver, British Columbia, called the Canadian Center for Functional Medicine. He says to get enough theanine for true therapy is difficult in North America.
"The quality of tea we get here is often very poor compared to, say, Japan. Where their tea is actually rich in L-theanine, ours has a very small amount of it," Lyon said.
But the way to get the most theanine is through standardized supplements. Though manufactured, they are biologically identical to the substance in tea. The highest quality is a Japanese brand marketed as Suntheanine.
Lyon has been using those theanine supplements in a study of boys with ADHD. Though the final study is not out yet, he's been seeing good results.
"These disorderly, edgy, impulsive kids that can't pay attention for a few seconds. Put them on a couple hundred milligrams two or three times a day. Kids will calm down, they'll sleep better. They'll start to be more focused, they won't be so anxious," he said.
Way to Avoid ADHD Drugs
Lyon says theanine is safe and provides a quick way to avoid or get off potentially dangerous ADHD drugs. That's what Jim and Aggie McHaffie found for their sons.
"Since we've been on the L-theanine and off of the drugs, their appetite has quadrupled -- enormous growth in their physical stature," Jim said.
Those twin sons, Scott and Spencer, participated in the study. Side effects from their ADHD treatment had been stunting their growth -- not a great prospect for boys who may have the talent to play professional hockey.
And with the theanine and a better diet, their success in school and at home also rose. Scott says, "I used to be more immature and after taking it, I felt better and I could breathe better."
Spencer adds, "Before I was taking the L-theanine, I was just jumping around in my chair, not doing what I was supposed to do. Then I was more focused once I started taking the L-theanine."
They're also pleased because they have been able to sleep much better
Goes Directly to the Brain
How does theanine work? Unlike many natural substances, theanine goes directly from the blood into the brain.
In fact, 30 minutes after taking theanine, the brain's alpha waves increase. Depending on the dose, that increase provides a relaxed yet focused state of mind for about eight hours.
Dr. Lyon, co-author of Is Your Child's Brain Starving?, finds theanine provides a platform for improvement. To that foundation, other natural approaches can and need to be added.
For instance, pediatrician William Sears uses supplements rich in omega-3 fats, that is, fish oil. He says moms come to him pleased about the results, "if any child has a mood disorder, a learning problem, a skin problem, an allergy problem, a digestive problem -- anything to do with the brain."
And there's exercise -- no problem for the athletic McHaffie twins -- but others may need to find ways to get physical activity to boost the brain.
Lyon says theanine, along with an overall healthy lifestyle, can help adults as well. And for them, there are a number of stress and sleep supplements combining theanine with helpful nutrients and herbs.
As a veteran pilot, Lyon says he's a good example. He takes a few hundred milligrams of theanine whenever the weather gets rough as he navigates along Canada's Pacific coast.
That coast is just another reflection of God's creation. Lyon finds an additional aspect of that is in the natural compounds God put on earth.
"That would be like His hand reaching out to heal and to comfort and to soothe. It's found in many of these natural substances that have been neglected because there's not a lot of money in them for the drug companies to exploit," Lyon said.
And incorporating healthy elements for better brain function needn't be somber. For instance, instead of using that matcha powder for tea, use it to make your own green tea ice cream - but only in moderation.
*Originally aired on July 9, 2008.