Tea — Stimulant or Relaxant?

by Thomas Kasper

Editor’s note: Thomas Kasper is from Germany but now resides in Thailand where he studies and writes about tea. He is also a freelance writer and translator (German, English, and Thai). We are pleased that he is now contributing some of his tea knowledge to this blog.

Tea – calming or stimulating? (Photo source: stock image)
Tea – calming or stimulating? (Photo source: stock image)

One of the seemingly unresolved controversies about tea is the question of whether tea has stimulating or relaxing effects on humans. At first sight, this question seems to be easy to answer: since stimulation and relaxation are opposite extremes of the same scale, it must be one of them, with the implication of ruling out the other one.

All across tea-related literature, such as novels and non-fictional books about tea, tea-related online blogs, posts and reviews, product descriptions in online tea shops, promotional texts or feature articles in tea magazines, etc., we find both ideas being advocated, never being treated as exclusive of each other, often even coupled within the same text, context, section, or even sentence or phrase.

We are told that tea, or a particular tea, is invigorating, will help wake us up or keep us awake, will increase our physical and mental capacity, our motivational level, our strength and endurance. We are warned about the risk of nervous conditions and insomnia resulting from overdosing tea or drinking tea in the evening. We keep meeting people confirming all that, some saying that they use tea to get themselves going in the morning, or even any time of day, or to keep them focused and efficient during long working periods, others stating that they will avoid drinking tea in the evening, because they won’t sleep all night then, some even upholding that they just can’t drink any tea at all, because they will suffer from undesirable nervousness even from a single cup.

On the other side, the same literature and texts are full of praise of the calming properties of tea, being the perfect relaxant in any social or individual situation, with grossly estimated 95% of all tea ads show us pictures emphasizing the peace and quiet of situations thanks to tea, will refer to a break much rather than to a work setting, and highlight moments of taking a deep breath, enabled by a good sip of tea. Also, the relaxing or calming effects of tea are substantiated by countless user statements and publications.

Now, can the same thing be black and white at the same time? Hm, that might not be the normal case, but with tea, things are just a bit more complex. When I was a kid growing up in Germany, it was a common belief that tea would have stimulant effects when infused for only 2 minutes, and calming effects when infused for 5, and consequently be indifferent at some point in the middle between these. Now, I have tried this as a kid, and so did others, and it just doesn’t work this way, and everybody who ever tried it knows.

The truth is, seeing tea as a stimulant or a relaxant is based on two completely different approaches: under the purely physical approach, tea much rather is a stimulant than a relaxant, mainly due to its natural content of theine. The idea of tea being a relaxant, on the other hand, is based on human perception: the magic word indeed is “break.” May it be work situations, family situations, social events, or yourself all alone in a room or space, tea will always create a certain distance, or distinction, to the actual environment and current “business”, both internally and externally, and so it is perceived as a metaphor for a break or a temporary escape, or as the thing between you and anything that you do not want to come to a close too quickly, so you can use the time and distance provided by your cup or pot of tea to approach things (work, business, or private issues) slowly and with due care, all this greatly contributing to a perception of tea as a relaxant.

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One thought on “Tea — Stimulant or Relaxant?

  1. Interesting… I think we use it as both, and also as a refresher on a hot day! In the novel I’ve just published people are forever making and drinking tea, at all times of day and night… a fraught house move? Cup of tea… Can’t sleep? Cup of tea… husband and wife row? Cup of tea… soaking wet after being caught in the rain… Cup of tea… and there were a lot more cups made,poured and drunk too!

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