Finding ways to avoid burnout—which occurs twice as often in physicians than in those in other professions—became the focus of several health-care systems and universities this year. In fact, several health-care institutions have implemented wellness programs and formed committees charged with improving work conditions and decreasing stress in physicians.
Many of these programs rely on peer interaction and may take time to implement and achieve results; however, physicians can work to improve their own mental health now by taking a dietary supplement that has been shown to ease stress and anxiety.
L-theanine, a water-soluble, non-protein amino acid commonly found in green tea and some mushrooms, has been widely studied for its ability to encourage wakeful relaxation without sedation. L-theanine is thought to work by decreasing “excitatory” brain chemicals that contribute to stress and anxiety while increasing brain chemicals that encourage a sense of calm. It’s even been known to lower stress-related blood pressure and heart rate.
On their website, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center breaks down L-theanine’s proposed mechanism of action. Essentially, L-theanine crosses the blood-brain barrier, and has the ability to modulate inhibitory neurotransmitters, selective serotonin, and dopamine to bring about anxiolytic and calming effects. L-theanine can also improve cognition and selective attention, perhaps due to changes in alpha brain wave activity. Finally, its ability to selectively bind to glutamate receptors may confer neuroprotective effects as well.
In addition to promoting relaxation, L-theanine has been shown to stabilize cognitive function affected by stress hormones. More specifically, L-theanine decreases levels of corticosterone, which when elevated can inhibit spatial learning and memory formation. Other researchers have shown that, in people with anxiety, L-theanine improved attention span and reaction time. Taken with caffeine, L-theanine improved visual information processing and accuracy when moving between tasks.
Given its ability to encourage attention and focus, it may come as a surprise that L-theanine has also been found to improve time to sleep as well as quality of sleep. Instead of acting as a sedative, L-theanine works to promote better rest by reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation.
It could be L-theanine’s ability to stabilize glutamatergic concentrations that supports the benefits seen in patients with schizophrenia. Studies demonstrated that L-theanine in combination with antipsychotic treatment improved sleep and eased anxiety.
In patients with major depressive disorder, the supplement ameliorated symptoms of anxiety and depression and improved sleep quality and cognitive function.
From 2017 and 2018, 63 newly published studies outlined the effects of L-theanine. According to results of these studies, L-theanine may also help with weight loss in obese individuals, improve elevated lipids and offer neuroprotection and anti-tumor effects.
There have been no reported adverse effects linked to L-theanine. Indeed, adults generally tolerate L-theanine well. If you’re considering adding L-theanine to your daily wellness practice, a dose of 100-400 mg is recommended, beginning with the smallest dose and gradually increasing until you feel the effects. When used in combination with caffeine, consider 12-100 mg of L-theanine to 30-100 mg of caffeine.
Of course, L-theanine is not a catch-all to relieve stress. Certainly, a multi-modal approach is necessary to improve wellbeing. Nonetheless, L-theanine could be a way (and relatively cheap at approximately $22 for 120 200-mg capsules on Amazon) to help integrate more calm into the workday.