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Is Matcha a Better for You Than Coffee?

Green tea may have links to the endocannabinoid system.

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One of the many reasons I look forward to waking up every morning: matcha. 

Researchers agree that finely ground green tea leaves (Camellia sinensis), known as matcha, can provide a state of calm alertness, improving concentration while calming the mind and improving overall cognitive function.

But, which parts of the plant do we have to thank for these benefits?

As a coffee alternative, matcha is filled with a host of nutrients, including the amino acid, l-theanine, and the dietary phytochemical, epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG for short. These two, along with countless other compounds, have various therapeutic advantages (not to mention, they make the tea tasty!).

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Matcha vs. caffeine 

Matcha has been traditionally associated with Japanese tea ceremonies and Zen Buddhism. The spectrum of "grades" available determines the quality of the matcha and the price tag. Ceremonial grade is considered the best option harvested from the youngest tea leaves. When selecting which matcha brand to try, it can seem daunting given the number of companies and flavor profiles. Like coffee, everyone has a preferred flavor. Matcha flavors can range from subtle sweetness to noticeably bitter.

But unlike coffee, matcha is considered a moderate caffeine option as half a teaspoon of matcha has approximately 25 to 45 mg per cup (compared to 90-95 mg in a cup of coffee). Matcha also has a marked longer effect in the body, meaning that it can provide sustained energy throughout the day without the coffee jitters or the immediate spike followed by a crash.

Results of chemical composition studies indicate that there are higher concentrations of total amino acids, including l-theanine, in higher "grade" formulations. But the number of other compounds, such as EGCG, do not change. Regardless of the quality of the matcha, you can rest assured that nearly all matcha powders will retain a favorable amount of l-theanine. 

The impact of this unparalleled amino acid and catechin combination is two-fold: their influence on taste and their influence on physiological and psychological state. Specifically, they have been shown to be involved with the biomarkers, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and nerve growth factor (NGF), known for improving brain health and neuronal growth. 

In particular, l-theanine binds to the glutamatergic AMPA receptor, which is known for its inhibitory signaling for relaxation and focus. Its relationship with glutamate also speaks to its ties with BDNF and NGF. Both are linked to their roles in preventing and slowing the progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson's disease.

The positive effect of EGCG

It would be impossible for me to write an article about matcha and not discuss the incredible nature of the stress-relieving catechin, EGCG. It is associated with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cardiovascular, and weight loss effects. It has been thought that when ingested daily, it can work synergistically with other organ systems to modulate cholesterol levels, increase metabolism, and induce anti-tumor and anti-aging pathways. As demonstrated by the Okinawan Blue Zone with the highest number of living centenarians, long-term regular consumption of matcha has a multifaceted, longevity-promoting impact throughout the body.

Considered a plant polyphenol, EGCG has been investigated for its ability to modulate the endocannabinoid system or ECS. Studies have shown that EGCG is related to the two cannabinoid receptors: cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid type receptor 2 (CB2). Due to its affinity for CB1, it may play a role in the central nervous system to support the goal of the ECS–to maintain homeostasis, or balance in the body.  

As an Integrative Health Pharmacist, the topic of caffeine consumption comes up frequently. Some believe that you shouldn't consume caffeine, and others believe moderation is key. I believe matcha can be a mindful part of a balanced routine incorporating lifestyle elements such as restful sleep, meditation, colorful diet, and physical exercise. 

Next time at your local coffee shop, when you have the choice between coffee and matcha, try matcha; whether warm and comforting or iced and refreshing, take a sip and marvel at the history and nutritional value packed inside your seemingly tiny to-go cup.