I know a lot of you love your coffee—in the morning and all throughout the day. But that’s part of the problem. Caffeine is the most abused stimulant across the world. Consuming too much caffeine and consuming it at the wrong times wreaks havoc with our sleep.
If you’re reluctant to consider scaling back your coffee or switching to another daily pick-me-up drink, hear me out. Matcha has a pretty exciting combination of benefits and protections you’ll want to understand.
What is matcha?
Matcha is a form of green tea that has been ground into a fine powder. You might recognize matcha from its intensely bright green color. The word matcha comes from the Japanese words for “ground” and “tea.” Matcha is derived from the plant Camellia Sinensis, which is the source of many green teas and other teas. But matcha is grown and processed differently.
The practice of cultivating and preparing matcha is nearly 1,000 years old. Unlike plants grown for other types of tea, the Camellia Sinensis plants grown to make matcha are covered for several weeks of their growth cycle. Growing the tea leaves in shade, rather than under sun, causes the plants to step up their production of chlorophyll. This overproduction of chlorophyll contributes to higher concentrations of biochemical compounds in matcha, including polyphenols. Polyphenols are powerful, disease-fighting agents found in plants. In the human body, polyphenols appear to serve many functions that protect health and may diminish the risk of disease.
When the plants are ready for harvest, its leaves are picked and ground into the powder that becomes matcha. Unlike regular tea, which is steeped with hot water and strained, matcha is combined with water (or milk) and added to food in cooking. Matcha delivers a higher dose of nutrients and beneficial compounds for a couple of reasons:
- Its growing process creates leaves with higher concentrations of the tea plants’ health-protective natural biochemical compounds.
- When you consume matcha, you’re ingesting the plant leaves themselves, rather than the infusion created by steeping tea leaves.
These benefits are great, and on their own make matcha worth a serious look as an addition to your diet. But matcha, like coffee, contains caffeine—and at higher levels than regular green tea.
So what makes matcha a healthier, more sleep-friendly choice?
The big sleep-related advantage that matcha has over coffee is L-theanine. Tea is a potent source of L-theanine, and matcha has a substantially higher concentration of L-theanine than regular green or black tea.
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.
How does L-theanine accomplish all this?
- Stimulates the production of “calming” neurotransmitters that enhance concentration and mood, and also promote sleep.
- 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 blood pressure and resting heart rate.
Caffeine, especially in large amounts, can trigger anxiety and ratchet up stress. It exacerbates both mental and physical indicators of anxiety, including an elevated heart rate, rise in blood pressure, and a worried, racing, overstimulated mind.
Caffeine keeps us alert and wired into the evenings, making it difficult to fall asleep. When we do fall asleep, the presence of caffeine keeps us in lighter stages of sleep, depriving us of the deep, slow-wave sleep that contributes to a fully restorative night of rest. Caffeine is, among other things, a potent melatonin suppressor. We think of melatonin as being largely inhibited by light—and it’s true, evening light is a major culprit in suppressing the melatonin we need for sleep. But research has found that coffee consumed before bed has an even greater ability to suppress melatonin production than bright light does. And the effects of caffeine linger in the body for a long time. It takes as much as eight hours for caffeine’s stimulating effects to be cut by one half.
To be clear: consuming caffeine and drinking coffee aren’t exclusively bad for you. To the contrary. Coffee consumption is linked to a number of health benefits, from lowering diabetes risk to reducing risks for some cancers, to improving liver function and protecting brain health. Coffee is rich in antioxidants, including the same polyphenols found in matcha and other kinds of tea.
But the benefits of coffee tend to come from very moderate consumption, about one or two cups a day. (Those are regular size 8-ounce cups, not the jumbo kind.) Going beyond this moderate coffee intake often brings about the side effects I’ve described above, along with a rising tolerance for caffeine—meaning, the body needs more caffeine to get the daily alertness and energy-producing effects.
Some quick tips for keeping matcha sleep-friendly
There’s a lot to like about the benefits and protections that matcha may offer. But it’s important to remember: matcha contains a stimulant in the form of caffeine. Although the stimulant effects seem to be reduced in matcha, thanks to the presence of L-theanine, they don’t disappear. It’s a smart, sleep-friendly strategy to use matcha thoughtfully, in moderation, and at the right times.
When are the best times to drink matcha? To take advantage of its alerting, focusing effects, don’t drink your cup of matcha right when you get up. When you first rise, your body’s own cortisol is already kicked into high gear, helping make you alert and energized. Wait a couple of hours, when your cortisol levels are making the first of a series of dips throughout the day.
I also recommend sticking to a mid-afternoon cut off time for any caffeine, including the caffeine in matcha. The same rules apply to coffee!
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., DABSM, The Sleep Doctor™.