Next to water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Tea has been used as a medicine in China for at least 4,000 years. All true teas, black, green and oolong, come from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis. The more highly processed the tea leaves, the darker they will turn. Green tea leaves are steamed quickly, whereas, black and oolong tea leaves are dried and fermented. Herbal teas are not considered true teas, but are beverages brewed from herbs, roots or other sources. While some may have medicinal properties, they are a separate category from true tea.
Regardless of the processing method, all true teas are experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to their many reported health benefits. All teas derived from the Camellia plant have high levels of polyphenols, a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants rid the body of molecules called free radicals, which are side products of damage done to the body by pollution and the natural aging process. Free radicals, which are very unstable, tend to react negatively with other important molecules like DNA, and cause malfunctions and injury and pave the way for conditions like heart disease and cancer.
The antioxidants in tea have been linked with the prevention of death from second heart attacks by contributing to vessel relaxation and reduced blood pressure. In one study, drinking ½ cup of green or oolong tea per day reduced a person’s risk of hypertension by almost 50%. One of the polyphenols in green tea has been shown to be twice as powerful as reservatrol, the compound in red wine that is touted for limiting the effects of smoking and a fatty diet. This may explain why the rate of heart disease in Japanese men is quite low despite having a smoking incidence of 75%. People who drink green tea have been shown to have lower cholesterol than those who do not. Tea can also improve the ratio of HDL to LDL cholesterol. It is believed that tea reduces lipid absorption in the GI tract and promotes its excretion from the body.
Studies have shown that the antioxidants in black tea suppress bacterial growth in the mouth that can cause cavities and gum disease. Consistent tea consumption for >10 years may produce stronger bones. Drinking tea on a regular basis has been linked with higher spinal bone density. Another important health benefit of drinking green tea is an improvement in memory and cognitive function. The higher use of oxygen during these metabolic activities leads to a large amount of free radicals which can be minimized by the polyphenols in green tea.
How can you get the most out of a cup of tea?
- Skip the sugar and cream. These can interfere with the absorption of antioxidants. Also, many creamers contain partially hydrogenated oils, which can be damaging to the heart.
- Take your tea black. Studies have shown that adding milk can blunt the heart healthy benefits.
- Go for the caffeine, if you can. The health benefits haven’t been shown as consistently in the decaf versions.
- Squeeze the brewed tea bag. This can almost double the polyphenol content of the tea.
- Drink up. The flavonoids degrade with time so its best to drink freshly brewed tea when it’s hot or quickly iced.