For centuries, monks have been drinking green tea to maintain a state of “mindful alertness” during long periods of meditation. In Japanese culture, matcha is used in traditional tea ceremonies, and in Okinawa, Japan, home to some of the world’s healthiest and longest living people, it’s common practice to consume green tea daily. But only recently have we begun to research and reveal the numerous benefits of this jade-green, anti-aging, wellness-promoting drink, including its effects on brain function and cancer.
Matcha is a high-grade, concentrated, powdered form of green tea. Grown from shaded tea bushes, the tea leaves used for matcha are protected from the sunlight’s nutrition-leaching effects. This results in significantly higher levels of antioxidants and other nutrients than regular green tea. Moreover, because matcha is made by grinding the entire tea leaf into a powder, all of these nutrients and fiber end up in the cup, not the tea bag.
The secret behind matcha’s health and longevity-promoting power is found in its high levels of catechins, a potent group of antioxidant compounds also found in foods such as cacao, red wine, apples and raspberries. Antioxidants have been shown to help protect against various metabolic diseases, heart disease, brain disorders and age-related syndromes, as they help the body combat cellular damage caused by free radicals (reactive chemicals containing oxygen).
Matcha has been found to be the highest food source of catechins. Researchers compared matcha and regular green tea and have found that the concentration of catechins available from drinking matcha is significantly greater than that for other green teas. Moreover, research suggests that catechins, with their anti-inflammatory properties, can help fight inflammation caused by the body’s protective response to cell damage.
Matcha is often described as promoting a sense of calm, attentive wakefulness, a benefit which has been hailed dating back to the Zen monks, but only more recently researched. The two compounds responsible are caffeine and L-theanine, and it’s the combination of the two that makes tea unique from any other drink.
L-theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in tea leaves (and is particularly concentrated in shade-grown teas such as matcha) that impacts nerve impulses in the brain. It raises levels of brain chemicals that promote relaxation and can help with sleep, while it reduces levels of other chemicals that are linked to stress and anxiety.
L-theanine also promotes alpha brain waves, which have been found to enhance focus, creativity and relaxation, but without inducing drowsiness - a state of “wakeful relaxation” similar to the state of mind experienced when meditating. These alpha waves also moderate the stimulating effect of the caffeine in matcha, allowing the body to sustain a feeling of alertness and concentration over a longer period of time than with caffeine alone, without the caffeine crash associated with coffee. For example, one study demonstrated that L-theanine had a significant effect on enhanced activity of alpha waves, descending heart rate, and improved attention and reaction time in healthy adults with high anxiety.
As noted above (see “Alert-Calm”), the combination of caffeine and L-theanine and the effect of these two compounds on alertness makes tea unique from any other drink. A number of studies have demonstrated the effects of L-theanine in combination with caffeine on cognition and learning ability. Improvements were found in numerous measures, including: attention, reaction time, alertness, speed and accuracy of performance when multi-tasking, reduced mental fatigue and overall alertness. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Matcha gets its super deep, bright green colour from its high levels of chlorophyll, a pigment responsible for the absorption of light in the process of photosynthesis in which plants create energy. Because matcha is shade-grown, large amounts of chlorophyll and other nutrients are concentrated in the leaves.
Chlorophyll increases production of hemoglobin (a protein that gives blood its red colour), which in turn delivers oxygen and other nutrients throughout the body and helps the body cleanse itself. Interestingly, chlorophyll’s chemical structure is remarkably similar to that of our hemoglobin. Chlorophyll also increases enzymes key to detoxification processes in the liver, thereby promoting the elimination of harmful toxins from the body.
Tea plant cultivation dates back over 5000 years, and originally its leaves were used medicinally. More recently, green tea has received attention for its potential anti-cancer effects, with an extensive and growing body of research, including epidemiological, clinical, and experimental studies, showing that consumption of green tea appears to help prevent and fight this chronic disease. A number of human observational studies have demonstrated a decreased incidence of cancers, although the evidence is inconclusive. (1, 2, 3)
According to findings from numerous cell culture and animal studies, a number of mechanisms are thought to explain how compounds in green tea act against cancer, including antioxidant activity, inhibition of signalling pathways, regulating cell lifecycles and modulating the immune system. Studies have shown the anticancer activities of Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), matcha’s most abundant catechin, demonstrating its ability to inhibit the migration of bronchial tumor cells, and to inhibit cancer cell growth and survival, including the development of secondary malignant growths. L-theanine has also been shown to have an anti-cancer effect, helping to suppress cancer cell migration and invasion, inhibit cell growth and promote cell destruction. (4, 5, 6)