Among the many benefits of green tea we will get into this year, we wanted to start with how it affects one of the biggest growing challenges we face today: mental health. Some conditions are genetic, some are caused by external factors, and sometimes, we just need a little help with our memory or mood. Regardless, there are some basic actions we can take to help face these challenges and even improve them over time. For starters, how can drinking green tea help combat and protect us from mental health issues?
Drink Away Dementia
As we age, our ability to think, remember and reason can get weaker. However, simply growing forgetful with age, and developing dementia (e.g. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson's, etc.) are different. Small vessels in the brain become damaged over a long period of time. When abnormal proteins accumulate in certain parts of the brain, they damage healthy brain cells and cause them to die. In healthy people, the brain’s immune function removes these abnormal protein plaques by responding to the inflammation they cause. But when this response doesn’t happen properly and the inflammation continues for a long time, the brain cells become damaged and dementia takes root. As there is no cure for dementia, it is important to work on prevention. But how?
Catechins are a natural antioxidant found in fruits, vegetables, and even wine and chocolate, but most abundantly in green tea. The main catechin in green tea is called EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate). Because the brain is such an important organ in our body, it has a natural barrier that carefully screens what passes through from the blood into the brain (like a bouncer guarding the door of a VIP room). EGCG passes through the blood-brain barrier very easily (like a VIP). This allows it to act directly on the brain, and potentially improve the health of blood vessels and increase the supply of nitric oxide, which together could benefit cognitive function.
In one study, brain cells from the hippocampus (the part of the brain which regulates memory) were exposed to beta-amyloid proteins (Alzheimer’s plaques). The higher the exposure, the more brain cells died. When they added the green tea catechin EGCG, however, the brain cells' survival rate increased. This demonstrated the potent antioxidant effects of EGCG on the brain.
In several eastern countries where drinking green tea is part of the culture, studies were done on the difference between those who drank green tea over time, and those who didn’t. The results showed that those who drank more green tea over a longer period of time were at lower risk of cognitive disorders. In other words, it's important to start drinking green tea regularly now in order to help protect against mental disorders later. *Remember, prevention is key for dementia.
Another very important component in green tea is an amino acid called theanine. It is only found in some mushrooms and teas, especially green tea. Theanine has strong neuro-protective effects on brain cells. Like EGCG, theanine is another VIP to the brain, meaning it can easily enter into the brain. This direct access can allow it to improve neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to form new connections between neurons). In a study where mice were fed theanine twice a week, they showed increased BDNF*, resulting in improved memory and learning.
*BDNF: Brain-derived neurotrophic factor [which plays an important role in the survival and growth of nerve cells].
Theanine also helps lower stress hormone levels in the blood. While moderate stress for short periods can improve alertness and memory, frequent, prolonged stress can cause our stress hormone levels to become high. When this happens, there is reduced potential for connections between neurons to improve and change. When stress hormone levels are lowered, however, it helps our neurons to form better connections. Basically, reduced stress hormones = better brain function. Theanine's effects on reducing stress and anxiety are another way in which green tea protects brain cells from excess stress and age-related damage.
The Calm Caffeine
In our Sleep blog, we explained that a substance called adenosine builds up in our bodies throughout the day. As we accumulate more adenosine, we become sleepy.
Caffeine molecules are similar in structure to adenosine molecules. When caffeine enters our body, it attaches to the adenosine receptors in place of adenosine, which then wakes us up. But when the caffeine wears off, all the adenosine that has been accumulating floods the receptors, and we suddenly feel very tired. This is the “caffeine crash” we sometimes experience. When the adenosine receptors are continuously occupied by caffeine molecules—that is, when we keep consuming caffeine—the body actually creates more adenosine receptors in the hopes of adenosine attaching to them. Indeed, now that there are excess receptors, adenosine does attach to some of them, and so we start to feel tired even with caffeine in our system. This is why we eventually need more caffeine in order to feel the same wakefulness.
Caffeine alone can cause anxiety through increased heart-rate and adrenaline release. Adrenaline (the "fight or flight hormone") is necessary at times, but has detrimental effects when released too frequently over a long period of time. However, green tea naturally contains a unique combination of caffeine, catechins and theanine. Why is this important?
Theanine's structure is similar to GABA (a neurotransmitter that prevents excitability in the nervous system) and has the same calming effects. Yet, studies show that unlike other anti-stress herbs, theanine does not cause drowsiness, and also keeps the awakening effects of caffeine under control. These calming and caffeine-modulating effects may be why many people report having less anxiety and improved sleep at night after drinking green tea throughout the day. Indeed, research shows that theanine reduces anxiety and also controls high blood pressure.
Now those who want the awakening effects of caffeine might think the theanine in green tea makes the caffeine too weak for them. But consider this study: when people ingested caffeine with theanine, they had faster reaction times, faster numeric calculation times, improved sentence comprehension, and increased alertness than when they had caffeine alone.
In another study, one group of people was given plain water before meditating, and another group was given water with theanine mixed into it. The group without theanine achieved alpha-waves in their brains (relaxed, focused, alert) 90 minutes into meditation. The group who had theanine, however, achieved the alpha-waves just 45 minutes into meditation, and with more intensity. It's no wonder green tea was consumed regularly by Japanese monks and samurai as early as the 12th century!
Similarly, consuming EGCG (the most abundant catechin in green tea) has been shown to increase not only alpha waves (restful, meditative), but also theta waves (relaxed, daydream), and even beta waves (alert, focused) in the brain. In other words, it supports a relaxed and focused state of mind.
When the many components in green tea are extracted and studied separately, the studies show limited results in their benefits. However, all of these components are naturally formed to exist together in green tea, and many studies suggest a synergistic reaction in which they enhance each other’s beneficial effects on mental—and overall—health.
- Dementia starts with prolonged inflammation in the brain. Green tea is anti-inflammatory.
- Consistent, long-term consumption of green tea can help protect against future dementia. Remember, there is no cure for dementia, only prevention.
- EGCG & theanine have VIP access to the brain. They improve brain function and reduce stress and anxiety.
- Green tea's theanine + caffeine = calm, focus, alert. And no caffeine crash.
- Before you reach for supplements: there is magic in the natural synergy of the benefits in green tea.
There is another very important factor that is deeply connected to our mood and mental health:
As it turns out, idioms like "I had a gut feeling," "Trust your gut,” or even funny old proverbs like, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach," actually have some science to them. This is because what goes on in our gut directly affects our thinking and emotional state. This works both ways, so what goes on in our brain also affects the function and condition of our gut. How does this work?
There are neurons (nerve cells) and even taste receptors all throughout our gut. These communicate to our brain through a network of bidirectional pathways called the gut-brain axis. While neurons exist everywhere throughout our body, the particular neurons in the gut react to the nutrients and microbiota that are also in the gut (microbiota are communities of microorganisms). Meanwhile, the gut microbiota can sometimes actually make neuro-chemicals that impact our brain directly. So just how much presence do these microbiota have in us?
The average person has trillions of microbiota in their body. This adds up to roughly 4-6 pounds, about twice the mass of our brain. The microorganisms that exist inside us outnumber our own cells by 10 to 1. Even 60% of our poop is composed of live and dead microorganisms. All this is to say, the gut-brain axis has a huge impact on how we feel both emotionally and physically. In fact, about 50% of our dopamine (the chemical associated with pleasure) and 90-95% of our serotonin (the chemical associated with feeling happy) are actually produced in our gut. Many studies show that having a healthy microbiome (the entire landscape of microbiota, including their genes and environmental factors) greatly improves our mood, while a poor microbiome worsens our mood. This powerful microbiome of ours affects every aspect of our health, including mental health. But again, the gut-brain axis is bidirectional, so our gut microbiome is also extremely sensitive to the stress levels in our brain and nervous system.
There is ample and increasing evidence that the gut microbiome is linked to autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, and neurological conditions like autism and depression. In fact, psychiatric disorders have often been observed to exist alongside gastrointestinal problems. Fecal transplants, which are relatively new, have been shown to not only vastly improve and even cure serious colitis by way of introducing healthy microbiota from the donor, but also relieve autism symptoms. Recent studies have also shown a strong correlation between the gut microbiome and personality traits. So, with all this illuminating evidence, how exactly do we improve our gut health in order to improve our mental and overall health? And how do we manage our stress levels in order to improve our gut microbiome?
WHAT TO DO
EAT FERMENTED FOODS
Kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, etc. These complex and sometimes intense-tasting dishes (kiviaq, anyone?) have long been known by many cultures around the world to be good for you. Today we have the science that shows us it’s completely true. Eating low-sugar fermented foods (e.g. plain yogurt v. sweetened yogurt) with live, active cultures has been shown to increase the diversity of good bacteria in our gut and also lower inflammation throughout the body. But beware! Even if a food is fermented, if it does not specifically contain living cultures when you buy it, you will not get the same benefits. Examples of this would be anything that’s sold in the non-refrigerated aisles of the grocery store. Also, foods that are pickled, brined or aged are not necessarily the same as fermented foods, although they can be. So be sure to know what you’re getting. (And no, beer doesn’t contain live cultures, though it is possible if it’s been freshly brewed at home.) Here’s a fun visual list of fermented foods from around the world.
EAT PREBIOTIC FOODS
Prebiotics are typically compounds in the fiber we eat that our bodies can’t digest, so the good bacteria living in our gut digest them for us. They’re food for the microbiota, and help them to thrive and increase. Some amazing prebiotic foods include mushrooms, raw garlic, dandelion greens, flax seeds, seaweed, leeks, jicama, ochre, and artichokes, among others.
(Flax tip: When you eat flax seeds whole, it’s hard to chew them enough to release the benefits locked inside each seed. While pre-ground flax seeds taste fine, you can get the most out of flax seeds by buying them whole and grinding them before each use. If you’re too busy for this, grind a bunch at once, immediately put it in a sealable opaque container, and store in the freezer.)
While green tea is not always listed as a prebiotic, many of its beneficial effects seem to be carried out through the good bacteria in our gut. At the same time, green tea has an ability to revamp the gut microbiome by either encouraging the growth of certain beneficial species, or by hindering the growth of detrimental ones. It has also been proven to be able to correct gut microbial imbalance that occurs during cancer or obesity; and it provides persistent protection from high-fat diet-induced obesity. We’ll have some prebiotic green tea recipes for you soon.
SKIP EXCESS SUGAR
While our body needs sugar for fuel, too much sugar, especially processed sugar, can reduce the good bacteria in our gut, and support bad bacteria (e.g. it can cause or encourage yeast infections). Even if we don’t always taste the sugar in foods, if it’s there, the neurons in the gut sense it, send info to the brain, and cause us to want more of it. This means sugar also affects us through neurochemicals subconsciously. It’s especially important to know if what we’re eating contains sugar because while we may not always taste it, it is often added to dishes in order to balance the taste of salt and spices. And keep in mind that too much sugar doesn’t just raise our blood glucose levels and contribute to obesity; it disrupts our dopamine systems. This means we can become dependent on sugar in order to feel good. Studies show it works very similarly to drug addictions. Also, Alzheimer's is now often being called "Diabetes Type 3" because of the strong connections surfacing between excess sugar and its negative impacts on dementia.
HAVE MORE EPA
EPA and DHA are Omega-3 fatty acids that are mainly found in fish oil. While both have strong beneficial effects, one impressive study involving patients with major depression showed that taking 3 grams of EPA (not DHA) per day for eight weeks resulted in effects equal to that of taking the SSRI antidepressant fluoxetine (aka Prozac). It’s interesting to note that people diagnosed with depression are generally found to have significantly lower levels of EPA. Depression sufferers often express that one of the terrible side-effects of taking antidepressants is that they make them feel “cloudy” or “not all there,” which is why some people struggle to stay on them. This is not a known side-effect of EPA. While you would have to take a good amount of fish oil in order to get three grams of EPA every day, it seems well-worth the benefits. Also, high quality fish oils are known to reduce inflammation in the gut and throughout the body. Foods rich in EPA are many types of fish, like salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, shellfish, herring, etc. For those on a vegan diet, there are algae-derived EPA supplements available. Vegan foods that contain EPA include seaweed, nori, and spirulina. While chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts are a good vegan source of the Omega-3 fatty acid ALA, some of which your body can convert into DHA and EPA, they don’t contain any DHA or EPA.
AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
Chips, cereal, sliced bread, sausage, fast food, almost anything that comes in a box, jar, can or wrapper are highly processed foods. Minimally processed foods include things like milk, tofu, cottage cheese, and precut fruits and vegetables. Non-processed foods are whole foods like fresh, non-precut fruits and vegetables and anything that comes directly from a farm or garden. Studies show that highly processed vegetarian and meat products are equally bad, especially for your gut. Many of them contain emulsifiers (additives that allow for texture stability) which are known to reduce biodiversity in the gut. They are also known to induce inflammation, weight-gain, insulin resistance and higher blood sugar levels. Plus, processed foods usually cost more than fresh produce.
USE PROBIOTICS APPROPRIATELY
Good quality probiotics in supplement form can sometimes be helpful when taken to help reinstate a drastically depleted microbiome, like after a round of antibiotics. Otherwise, they can—though not always—cause brain fog. Another thing to note is that greater microbiome diversity was found in those who ate a diet rich in fermented foods and prebiotic foods than in those who took probiotics in supplement form. In general, probiotics and even fermented foods can affect people differently, so it’s good to get familiar with your particular gut microbiome and constitution as you build your personal pantry of gut-healthy foods.
REDUCE STRESS THROUGH YOUR EYES
1. View wide open landscapes, 2. view low-angled sunlight outside in the evening, and 3. avoid viewing artificial lights at night (or keep them very low and dim). While these practices don’t affect your gut directly, they affect your stress levels which affect your gut health (remember, the gut-brain connection goes both ways). Viewing even moderate levels of artificial light between roughly 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. is associated with depression and mood disorders. When you’re visually focused on a single point (e.g. looking at your phone or computer, sewing, etc.), your brain is in "stress-mode." This isn't always bad, and we certainly need to focus intensely when working on certain tasks. But it is important to take breaks to look outside and let your eyes “zoom out” on wide landscapes or skies to periodically shift your brain out of stress-mode. While you’re at it, get some late afternoon or evening sunlight to your eyes. This will help counter some of the negative effects of viewing artificial lights at night.
REDUCE STRESS THROUGH MOVEMENT
In moments of stress or upset, consciously induce a shift in your brain through physical movement: take a brisk walk outside, away from your current space, while looking ahead and around, not just down at your feet. This shifts your focus through the movement of your eyes (vision), while also getting the blood circulating in your whole body and releasing some energy. Alternatively, try writing with the opposite hand for just a few minutes (e.g., if you’re right-handed, write with your left). This takes some focus but that’s part of how it works. *Special tip: movement also helps get rid of unpleasant feelings when you’ve just woken up from a bad dream. To shake them off, don't lay still; get up and walk around the room for a while. Try opening your window for a bit to get some fresh air and bring down your temperature. And drink some water before going back to sleep.
Try to breathe through your nose as much as possible when you're not speaking or eating. There is particular species of microbiota within the nasal microbiome that is especially good at fighting germs and infections. Keeping the nasal microbiome oxygenated is key in keeping it healthy and thereby fighting infections better. Also, practice breath work to help control your emotions and destress. There are many studies that show how breathing practices can help with anxiety. You can find some helpful YouTube videos on different breathing exercises, so take some time to find one that works best for you.
You don’t need a gym membership to get exercise. If you have one, great. But if you don’t, going for a brisk walk outside is great exercise. If it’s too cold or rainy, incorporate more movement in your indoor tasks: find reasons to walk up and down the stairs more. Catch up on cleaning the floors. Take out the trash. Watch Netflix from your treadmill or while doing a set of arm circles and donkey kicks. Exercise is also a great way to alleviate indigestion or food coma (just don’t move too intensely as this can make you feel sick right after eating).
TRY NEW THINGS
When we solve problems, the neurons in our brain create new pathways, which can help prevent memory loss and dementia. Sticking to the same formats all the time does not allow opportunities for this to happen. For example, habitually relying on the use of GPS has been shown to encourage spatial memory loss. Whenever possible, try studying maps ahead of time and skipping the GPS.
STAY CONNECTED WITH PEOPLE
It's been a tough couple of years for having in-person interactions. But even voice communication supports the social stimulation we need in order to keep our minds active and healthy. Depression can cause you to feel antisocial, and as well, isolating yourself can lead you to feel more depressed and anxious. Communicating even on a casual level and working to maintain relationships requires being present and mindful, provokes new thoughts and offers new perspectives. Having social connections has been shown to increase longevity, improve the immune system and even expedite recovery from illness.
And last but not least...
GET PROPER SLEEP
Go to sleep at normal hours at night, and be active during the day. Your body should release healthy amounts of cortisol in the morning and throughout the day only, and melatonin at night. Night-time releases of cortisol are strongly connected to depression and mood disorders. Also, disruption of a healthy circadian sleep-wake cycle is connected to almost all health problems, including mental health problems and negative effects on the gut microbiome. Drinking green tea in the morning and throughout the day (and even at night, if you're not particularly sensitive to caffeine) can help you to feel more calmly alert during the day, with a mellow tapering off in the evening. The lasting, brain-healthy effects from the theanine and EGCG can also help you ease into sleep. Learn more about proper sleep and get effective tips on how to improve your sleep here.
- Eat healthy. Avoid excess sugar and stick to whole, unprocessed foods rich in vegetables, especially prebiotic vegetables.
- Don’t forget to have fermented foods with live, active cultures. Beer & pickles usually don’t count.
- Get 3 grams of EPA through fish oil or algae supplements (and foods rich in EPA) every day. It's a natural substitute for Prozac!
- Breathe through your nose as much as possible to strengthen your nasal microbiome & fight infections better. And use breath work to destress.
- Keep moving. Whether indoors or outdoors, keep your body active and your blood circulating.
- View wide open landscapes and get outdoor sunlight through your eyes as often as possible.
- Try new things. Exercise your brain to develop more neurons.
- Keep talking to friends, family, neighbors, coworkers – it’ll boost your mind and body.
- Get good sleep. It is the foundation for good health, including mental health.