Getting Tea Drunk on Theophylline

Tea drunk


Ever feel dizzy or light-headed after a cup of tea? Or nauseated with head aching and heart racing? If so, you may have gotten "tea drunk." Many people quickly point to caffeine as the obvious culprit, but did you know theophylline also plays a significant role?

Just to clarify, the sensation I am discussing here is not the same as "tea high." "Tea high" is sometimes described as ... "a state of feeling alert, creative and blissful [while] at the same time peaceful, relaxed or even euphoric."This may be caused by the synergistic effect of caffeine (alkaloid) and L-theanine (amino acid), along with a heightened sense of awareness when you drink your tea. This is a nice state, a place where many tea drinkers want to go. Tea drinkers sometimes use the phrase "tea high" and "tea drunk" interchangeably.

Here I am referring to "tea drunk" as sensations characterized by dizziness, racing heartbeat, nausea, and even an upset stomach. Rather unpleasant state ... wouldn't you agree?

I began looking into this topic when I noticed getting light-headed after some tea. At first, I couldn't quite differentiate this from the alert feeling of a subtle "tea high," or the tingling ChaQi (茶氣, "tea energy") that sometimes travel up along my head. But this dizziness felt strange, even alarming. Unlike with alcohol, I was not expecting a buzz from my tea. Sometimes I feel it when I drink a lot of tea, but I have also felt it with my first cup of morning tea. I wondered ... Is this a "right" feeling? Should good, well-produced teas cause a strange buzz?

The answer is NO, according to a Taiwan tea roaster Mr. Lan Da-Cheng. In his book "Tea Flavor," Mr. Lan emphasizes that during roasting, his first goal is to remove theophylline and off-flavors in the tea's remaining water content. Theophylline makes the tea too "stimulating."2  Like many Taiwan tea makers, Mr. Lan believes a good tea should not be overly stimulating. After drinking a good tea, the body should feel natural, relaxed, comfortable ...

So, what is theophylline? It is one of the three alkaloids naturally occuring in tea. The other two are caffeine and theobromine (also found in cacao beans). It was first extracted from tea and identified by the German biologist Albrecht Kossel in 1888. In 1896, another German scientist demonstrated that theophylline could be synthesized chemically. Since the 1950s, theophylline has been used as a drug for asthma treatment.3

Theophylline can affect the body in several ways:

  • relax bronchial muscles (that's why it is used to treat asthma)
  • increase heart muscle contraction => leading to (i) higher heart rate, (ii) more blood flow, and (iii) higher blood pressure
  • cause CNS [central nervous system] excitation (manifesting in headaches, insomnia, irritability, dizziness and lightheadedness)
  • side effects include stomach pains and vomitting.4

Theophylline is POWERFUL stuff. It is a fine line between its pharmacological use and adverse toxic effects. That is why, when used as a drug, the dosage of theophylline is carefully monitored. Its side effects may increase when foods high in caffeine are consumed at the same time.5

How much theophylline is there in tea? Compared to caffeine (about 2~4% of tea's solid contents), the amount of theophylline in tea is really quite small. However, the specific values cited in studies vary greatly. For example, a report by Taiwan's tea research institute cites 0.002%.6 A NIH publication claims 0.02-0.04% to be the most reliable range for black tea.7  To complicate matters, theophylline is a metabolite of caffeine, which means that some caffeine can transform into theophylline during the tea-making process.

What should you do when you get "tea drunk"? If the condition is not too serious, quickly consume some food - especially with sugar or fat - to neutralize its effect.Before throwing the culprit tea away, consider some possible adjustments. Are you new to tea drinking, or is your body sensitive to stimulants, such as caffeine and theophylline? If so, brew a "lighter" tea (e.g. use water at a lower temperature, use less tea leaves, or both) to let your body get acclimated to tea. If your stomach churns when you drink tea in the morning, try to not drink tea on an empty stomach.

In the complex and fascinating world of tea, price and flavor do not always guarantee quality. It is worthwhile to take the time and effort to learn more about tea. That is really the best way for you to evaluate your tea.

Who knows? Maybe the solution is to chuck that bag of tea after all. That is ... unless you want to get "tea drunk."


References / Notes:

(1) PathofCha blog post "LET'S GET TEA DRUNK! (5 EASY STEPS TO GET HIGH OFF TEA)"; posted Oct 8, 2018.

(2) "Tea Flavor"[Chinese] by Lan Da-Cheng; published 2018.

(3) Everyday Headlines website article "Can you get drunk on tea? Resolving the mystery."[Chinese]; posted Nov 12, 2016.

(4) NIH website, Medicine Plus article "Theophylline";  updated Apr 15, 2017.

(5) Same as (4).

(6) Taiwan Tea Research and Extension Station (TRES) article "What is Tea Theophylline?" [Chinese]; updated May 22, 2018.

(7) National Center for Biotechnology Information publication "IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 51 - Coffee, Tea, Mate, Methylxanthines and Methylglyoxal"; 1991.

(8) Same as (3).