Tea is one of nature’s greatest gifts. It has been popular since ancient times for its revitalising, calming properties and, in recent years, research has shed new light on its many wonderful assets. So, what are the health benefits of drinking tea? Here’s all you need to know.
The origins of tea drinking
According to legend, a Chinese emperor named Shennong discovered tea in approximately 2700BC. This famous character is credited as the father of agriculture and herbal medicine, although there is some debate as to whether he was a real person.
As the story goes, Shennong was working in the fields one day when a strong gust of wind blew a leaf into his cup of water. Intrigued by its swirling colours, he took a sip and found the infusion both refreshing and delicious. The leaf came from a plant called Camellia sinensis, now commonly known as tea.
Although this happy coincidence occurred thousands of years earlier, tea did not become popular in China until the 8th century. However, from that point onwards, it began to attract a growing number of admirers.
In the 16th century, it crossed the seas to Europe with Portuguese traders, and from there rapidly spread across the globe.
Why do people drink tea?
One of the primary reasons why people love tea is its unique and delicious flavour. Furthermore, without milk or sugar, tea is virtually calorie-free, and has a range of other benefits too.
According to the principles of Chinese medicine, every food, drink, and herb has specific properties that determine its effects on our health. Tea is classified as cooling and bitter, meaning it tends to move downwards in the body with cleansing, purifying effects.
Therefore, the traditional uses of tea include relieving thirst, promoting digestion, increasing urine production, detoxifying, and clearing the mind.
In the past few decades, modern science has explored the benefits of tea further. There is now a wealth of research highlighting its likely therapeutic effects.
Tea benefits and side effects
Tea possesses a myriad of potential benefits due to its high concentrations of biologically active compounds. They include:
Caffeine is a chemical that works to stimulate the central nervous system. This is what gives tea its energising, mind-focusing effects, making it ideal first thing in the morning or for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
Caffeine also acts as a diuretic to promote urination, raises the heart rate, and increases stomach acid production. Of course, these effects may not be beneficial for everyone.
Another potential side effect of caffeine is that it can reduce the body’s ability to absorb certain minerals, like iron. Therefore, it is best to avoid drinking caffeinated tea with meals, especially if suffering from iron deficiency.
Although tea contains caffeine, it doesn’t cause the jitters like coffee can. This is largely down to the presence of L-theanine, an amino acid that directly affects mental function.
L-theanine influences the brain by increasing alpha waves that are associated with a state of calm alertness. It is this chemical that gives tea its wonderfully soothing and relaxing effects.
Furthermore, research has shown that L-theanine may positively impact the immune system. It helps to prime our in-built defences, keeping them ready for action should we come under attack from pathogens like bacteria or viruses.
Polyphenols are beneficial compounds that exist in many different plants, including fruit, vegetables, herbs, and tea.
Tea is particularly rich in a specific type of polyphenol known as catechins. Catechins have powerful antioxidant effects and may help to prevent a wide range of chronic diseases.
For example, scientific studies suggest that drinking tea regularly could reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
There is also some evidence that it could improve bone health and offer protection against neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Tea also contains low levels of other active compounds, including theobromine and theophylline. These chemicals have potential anti-inflammatory properties and could contribute to tea’s overall benefits for our health.
Which tea is healthiest?
There are many different types of tea, all of which come from the same Camellia sinensis plant. The main difference between these types of tea is the way that they are processed.
For example, green and white tea undergo steaming soon after harvesting. This process prevents oxidation and preserves the tea’s polyphenol content. These teas retain a light colour and delicate flavour that many people enjoy.
On the other hand, black tea is allowed to oxidise for a longer period, increasing its caffeine content. In comparison to white and green tea, it is darker and has a richer, fuller taste.
Oolong tea falls somewhere between green tea and black tea in terms of oxidation. It also undergoes the unique process of rolling, giving its dry leaves a popcorn-like appearance. Then there are specialist teas like Pu’er, which is fermented for a unique, earthy taste.
So, which tea is healthiest? To date, most of the research into tea’s benefits has focused on green tea. Since it has a higher polyphenol content than black tea, many people consider it to be the number one choice.
However, according to Chinese medicine, the answer is not so simple. This ancient healing system views everything in terms of yin and yang. Yin is seen as cooling and calming and yang as warming and energising.
Therefore, green tea is considered more yin and black tea more yang. Many traditionalists believe that it is best to drink black tea in the winter and green tea in the summer. It can also be said that it is better to drink black tea in the morning and green tea in the afternoon.
Is it good to drink tea every day?
Tea is not a miracle cure, but could help to support a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It is most likely to have a positive influence when consumed regularly.
However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Excessive consumption (especially from supplements like green tea extract) could potentially cause liver problems, such as hepatitis. Some teas may also contain high levels of aluminium, which could damage the nervous system.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should keep their caffeine intake to a minimum, and it goes without saying that sweetened tea and creamy chai lattes should be reserved as occasional treats!