Tea and All of Its Many Benefits
One of my favorite things to do on a cool, crisp autumn morning, is to grab a cup of hot tea, breath in the aromatic steam, and look out on the changing leaves and beautiful, crystal clear sky to start my day. Well, to restart my day to be fully honest, since it was still dark out when I walked by daughter to the bus stop this morning- but, I digress. A cup of tea can elicit so many emotions and feelings. A cup of black tea gives you a nice jolt of caffeine first thing in the morning, green tea is invigorating and motivating, while herbal teas can be calming and relaxing. But lately, teas are even stating to achieve "superfood" status- a term, that should be taken with a hint of skepticism, since it is becoming over-used and such a common part of the vernacular.
So, I wanted to do a bit of research to figure out what the real benefits of tea are, beyond being a soothing beverage. Now those of you that know me, know that I am best after a double espresso or and eye-opener in the morning, but I generally keep my coffee intake to a minimum- it is a rare occasion that I go for a second cup during the day- I usually brew myself a nice cup of tea later during mid-morning and early afternoon. Here's why.
Regarded for thousands of years in the East as a key to good health, happiness, and wisdom, tea has caught the attention of researchers in the West, who are discovering the many health benefits of different types of teas. We know that the Japanese have the longest average lifespan in the world and consume, per capita, the most amount of tea. So, there must be some correlation- right?
Studies conducted by the AMA and UCLA have found that some teas may help with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, encourage weight loss, lower cholesterol, and bring about mental alertness. Tea also appears to have antimicrobial qualities.
“There doesn’t seem to be a downside to tea,” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Katherine Tallmadge, MA, RD, LD. “I think it’s a great alternative to coffee drinking. First, tea has less caffeine. It’s pretty well established that the compounds in tea – their flavonoids – are good for the heart and may reduce cancer.”
Although a lot of questions remain about how long tea needs to be steeped for the most benefit, and how much you need to drink, nutritionists agree, any tea is good tea. Well, any brewed tea that is, because bottled teas often contain added preservatives, chemicals, and sweeteners.
So how do you know which tea to drink?
Green, black, white, oolong- they are all good. And in fact, they all come from the same plant. the Camelia sinensis (a shrub native to China and India)- it is how they are processed that sets them apart and gives them each their distinctive flavors and characteristics.
The more processed the tea leaves, usually the less polyphenol content. The antioxidants known as polyphenols include flavonoids. Oolong and black teas are oxidized or fermented, so they have lower concentrations of polyphenols than green tea; but their antioxidizing power is still high.
Black tea is made from leaves that have been fully oxidized, their chemical makeup changes when they are wilted, bruised and exposed to air (think about what oxidization does to an avocado). Oolong, is partially oxidized, and green is not oxidized at all. White tea, is also not oxidized, and it is made from young leaves or flower buds.
Here's what some studies have found about the potential health benefits of tea:
Made with steamed tea leaves, it has a high concentration of EGCG (a powerful antioxidant) and the amino acid theanine, and has been widely studied. Green tea’s antioxidants may interfere with the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers; prevent clogging of the arteries, burn fat, counteract oxidative stress on the brain, reduce risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, reduce risk of stroke, and improve cholesterol levels. Additionally, green tea is known to boost metabolism.
According to Sonia Oyola, MD of University of Chicago, "the polyphenols found in green tea not only reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering your total and LDL cholesterol, but may also reduce your risk of breast cancer."
So, if you feel the need to give something a "superfood" label, green tea may warrant it and is a great addition to your every day beverage consumption.
Made with fermented tea leaves, black tea has the highest caffeine content and forms the basis for flavored teas like chai, along with some instant teas and most common tea blends such as Earl Grey. Studies have shown that black tea may protect lungs from damage caused by exposure to cigarette smoke. It also may reduce the risk of stroke. Black tea has a distinctive, slightly smokey flavor and works well as an aromatic in cooking and baking.
While not quite as high in flavonoid antioxidants as green tea, it is good for your heart and may help reduce your cholesterol levels.
White tea is uncured, unfermented, and unfooled-around-with- a virgin tea so to speak. One study showed that white tea has the most potent anticancer properties compared to more processed teas. White tea comes from young or minimally processed leaves from the Camellia sinensis plant and is lower in caffeine, fragrant and naturally sweet. Because white tea is the least processed, it has a higher amount of polyphenols compared to other teas, which are know to have antibacterial, anti fungal, and antiviral properties.
Oolong tea has a rich history dating back to ancient Buddhist Monks, who trained monkeys to gather the youngest leaves from the top of wild tea trees to create special tea blends for the emperor. Still today, in China, oolong is considered the most refined tea. as it is still hand-plucked and brewed into a smooth, clean, well balanced tea. While oolong is usually most processed, because it is fermented, it still has many benefits, For example, in an animal study conducted by UCLA, those given antioxidants from oolong tea were found to have lower bad cholesterol levels, than those given a placebo.
Matcha, is one of my favorite smoothie ingredients. It is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea leaves from Japan. It is special in two aspects of farming and processing: the green tea plants for matcha are shade-grown for about three weeks before harvest and the stems and veins are removed in processing. Matcha contains all the benefits of green tea (antioxidants, thiamine, caffeine, etc) and is easy to use in making beverages, as a supplement, and in baking.
Kombucha is tea that has been fermented using sugar and a starter culture from good bacteria and yeast, and can be an excellent source of probiotics, which may help reestablish a balanced gut micro biome and improve the health of your digestive system. Just be aware that some varieties may contain trace alcohol (less than 0.5%) or excessive added sugar to temper the fermented flavor.
Made from herbs, fruits, seeds, or roots steeped in hot water, herbal teas have lower concentrations of antioxidants than green, white, black, and oolong teas. Their chemical compositions vary widely depending on the plant used, and you should always read the labels. Try to stick with natural, clean and organic herbal teas that don't contain added preservatives, natural flavors, or chemicals. Herbal tea varieties can really be endless- some include ginger, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, hibiscus, jasmine, rosehip, mint, rooibos (red tea), chamomile, and echinacea.
Here are some findings regarding health benefits to these teas:
- Chamomile tea: its antioxidants may help prevent complications from diabetes, like loss of vision and nerve and kidney damage, and stunt the growth of cancer cells. Chamomile is also known for its natural relaxing and soothing effect.
- Echinacea: often touted as a way to fight the common cold, however, the research on echinacea has been inconclusive.
- Hibiscus: a small study found that drinking three cups of hibiscus tea daily lowered blood pressure in people with modestly elevated levels.
- Rooibos (red tea): a South African herb that is fermented into a reddish tea. Rooibos is high in Vitamin C and naturally caffeine free.
- Mint: thought to increase bile secretion and encourage bile flow, which helps to speed and ease digestion, and possibly support healthy cholesterol levels. Peppermint tea, a common home remedy for flatulence, is also thought to relieve pain and discomfort from gas and bloating.
Tea of any sort is a great beverage option both when steeped and consumed warm or brewed over ice. As with anything, read your labels and ensure that the products you buy are as clean as possible. Loose leaf teas are often should in tea stores or in bulk bins of your favorite grocery store and are a great way to try different blends or styles. Avoid any chemically decaffeinated teas (NEVER drink a decaf black or green tea!) as not only will the tea itself be laced with chemicals, all the health benefits will have been removed as well. Also, b wary of weight loss teas. Always go as natural as possible. Some of the "slimming" teas on the market contain a combination of caffeine and a diuretic, which causes you to loose water, not fat. Some also contain the herb senna, which while it is a natural laxative, it has been known to come with some undesirable side effects such as stomach cramps or diarrhea. If weight loss is your goal, cleaning up your diet, doing a short term juice cleanse with your nutritionist and exercise is you best solution.