Tea is traditionally known to induce mental clarity, cognitive function, physical activation and relaxation. The acute psychoactive effects of tea in literature is mostly attributed to caffeine, L-theanine, and Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) influencing mood and cognitive performance.
So is Tea an Etheogen?
An entheogen is a psychoactive substance that induces alterations in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behavior for the purposes of engendering spiritual development or otherwise in sacred contexts. Entheogens have traditionally been used to supplement many diverse practices geared towards achieving transcendence, including divination, meditation, yoga, sensory deprivation, asceticism, prayer, trance, rituals, chanting, hymns like peyote songs, drumming, and ecstatic dance.
Tea, as we know from both cultural and botanical contexts certainly appears to tick all these boxes.
Theanine is a physiologically and behaviourally active compound and, while it is unclear its mechanism of effect its properties are owing to its abilities to pass the blood brain barrier.
Terence Mckenna, American ethnobotanist and mystic is quoted as stating the role of entheogens is in dissolving boundaries . The human mind, embedded in culture, is constantly wanting to draw boundaries or place phenomena in neat tidy boxes. For example we break up the study of knowledge into 1st, 2nd, 3rd year undergraduate study, and differentiate between post-graduate and doctoral study. Similiarly we break up and box off child development into areas of motor, speech , cognitive learning. Many examples exist. Our minds essentially limited to defining and forming boundaries and structure, not able to recognise the infinity of nature and phenomena experienced only in the present moment.
Entheogens break down these boundaries and finite limitations of our conciousness and perceptions. Perhaps that is why Tea historically goes hand in hand with Buddhism and Taoism, where it enhances practices that aim to acheive a similiar effect, albeit without intoxication.
In all culture we have a co-history of plant use and other naturally occuring pharma that helps takes us beyond the constraints of learnt and constructed boundaries, Tea is just one of these, despite it becoming more of a social ritual and lifestyle habit than what we would normally associate with other Entheogens. However, take for example the concept of a “tea break” , here we halt time that is imposed by the structure of work to bring people together in social and emotional elevation, enabling often the freeing up of normative notions of identity and power embedded in the workplace or a diurnal routine.
Austin (1999) points out that the Japenese Tea ceremony is pervaded by feeling tones of harmony, reverence, purity and tranquility. Participants entering into a spirit of equality , their relationship to each other not conditioned by social rank, privelege or gender.
Over the last 12 months we have been living under the pressure and social stress induced by changes in routine , social patterns and behaviours due to the COVID19 pandemic. It is well documented that such social trauma and anxieties can reduce the ability of individuals to enact self directed choice or engage in phenomena or activities outside of the self e.g. spiritual and social transcendence.
Chronic psychosocial stress is associated with the development of depression, mood disorders,
and various other stress-related diseases as well as impairing high executive fucntions such as self-control by reducing the use of cognitive control (Wolff et al 2020). It would appear during Chronic Stress conditions we become vulnerable both to learnt behaviours and imposed behaviours. An example of this maybe cited in “stockholm syndrome”.
The role of tea pharma such as theanine in reducing stress and lowering blood pressure has been long documented (Yokogoshi et al 1995). Enacting physically percevable benefits to an individual provides opportunities for it to be used both etheogenically and psychoactively to re-engage an individual into the world and provide a mechanism of re-aligining conciousness to broader and wider phenomena beyond the self.
Theanine is also recognised as a relaxing agent, its sedative effecr seems to be related to the modulation of a wide range of neurotransmitters, and, in particular, to a reduction in glutamate transmission (Borgonetti et al 2020). Glutamate receptors are responsible for the glutamate-mediated postsynaptic excitation of neural cells, and are important for neural communication, memory formation, learning, and regulation. Thereby the role of theanine from tea , enacted in Tea as an entheogen may be to enhance both mood, memory and social cohesion and connections.
There is more to be discussed around this topic as both culture and history of Tea pervades numerous examples of its role in the classic sense of an entheogen. However this is often overlooked due to its pervasive prescence and acceptance in many cultures and throughout history.
Tea is psychoactive, its pharma confirms this, but because it effects are subtle and its enhancements are gentle, albeit long lasting, it fades into the background when ethnobotanists or anthropologists talk about entheogens. It does not capture the headlines like peyote or psilocybin, however as conversations around “microdosing” in these areas start to occur, we should look towards Tea as both an example and guide. We have been microdosing tea psychoactives for thousands of years!!
Austin JH. Zen and the brain: Toward an understanding of meditation and consciousness. MIT press; 1999 Jun 4.
Borgonetti V, Governa P, Biagi M, Galeotti N. Novel therapeutic approach for the management of mood disorders: In vivo and in vitro effect of a combination of l-theanine, Melissa officinalis L. and Magnolia officinalis rehder & EH Wilson. Nutrients. 2020 Jun;12(6):1803.
Dietz C, Dekker M. Effect of green tea phytochemicals on mood and cognition. Current pharmaceutical design. 2017 May 1;23(19):2876-905.
Rogers PJ, Smith JE, Heatherley SV, Pleydell-Pearce CW. Time for tea: mood, blood pressure and cognitive performance effects of caffeine and theanine administered alone and together. Psychopharmacology. 2008 Jan;195(4):569-77
Unno K, Furushima D, Hamamoto S, Iguchi K, Yamada H, Morita A, Horie H, Nakamura Y. Stress-reducing function of matcha green tea in animal experiments and clinical trials. Nutrients. 2018 Oct;10(10):1468.
Wolff M, Enge S, Kräplin A, Krönke KM, Bühringer G, Smolka MN, Goschke T. Chronic stress, executive functioning, and real‐life self‐control: An experience sampling study. Journal of Personality. 2020 Aug 28.
Yokogoshi H, Kato Y, Sagesaka YM, Takihara-Matsuura T, Kakuda T, Takeuchi N. Reduction effect of theanine on blood pressure and brain 5-hydroxyindoles in spontaneously hypertensive rats. Bioscience, biotechnology, and biochemistry. 1995 Jan 1;59(4):615-8.