Tea is regarded as a healthy beverage, but have you ever wondered what it is about tea that makes it so good for you?
People throughout history have used tea to combat disease and improve their physical and mental health. Modern studies show that several components in tea have the potential to benefit health. However, more studies are required before tea can be officially considered a treatment or supplement. Experts do agree that tea is a healthy addition to a balanced diet, and contains numerous compounds that likely benefit the human body.
Keep in mind, these only apply to teas that come from the Camellia sinensis plant: black, green, white, oolong and pu-erh. Herbal teas have their own health benefits, but we’ll get to those later.
Tea contains antioxidants, which are substances that may prevent or delay certain types of cell damage. In laboratory experiments, antioxidants counteract oxidative stress, which is a process that triggers cell damage. Oxidative stress has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinsons’ disease, among other diseases.
The primary antioxidants in tea are catechins. Studies suggest that catechins in particular have antibacterial properties, which could lower the risk of infections and improve dental health. The amount of catechins in tea can vary, but green tea is generally considered to contain the most.
L-theanine is an amino acid found almost exclusively in tea. Studies show that L-theanine can improve sleep quality, decrease anxiety, and increase attention and alertness. It has potential long-term benefits. Scientists have found a positive link between L-theanine and a decreased risk of cognitive diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Just like catechins, the quantity of L-theanine varies between tea types, but green tea usually has the highest levels of L-theanine.
It also pairs well with caffeine. When L-theanine and caffeine are consumed together, research shows that the subject feels more alert than with caffeine alone and doesn’t experience the jitters or crash that can come with caffeine consumption.
Evidence shows that drinking tea may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. In several combined observational studies, experts found that for each cup of tea that the subject drank in a day, they saw an average decrease of 2 percent for any cardiovascular event, 4 percent decrease in death from cardiovascular disease, 4 percent lower risk of stroke, and a 1.5 percent lower risk of death from any cause. The decrease was noticeably greater for older populations.
That being said, the researchers made it clear that these studies were observational, making it difficult to prove causality. They concede that it’s possible that tea drinkers simply tend to have healthier lifestyles. However, they also speculate that the large quantities of certain antioxidants in tea, like catechins, could reasonably contribute to longevity. So if you're hoping to gain some long term benefits from your tea, green tea is your best bet.
Research has found links between stress relief and both L-theanine and catechins. In one study in which subjects were asked to perform a stressful task, subjects who had consumed L-theanine an hour before reported significantly less stress than those who took a placebo. Another study focused on the effects of a type of catechin present in tea called epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG. An hour and a half after consuming EGCG or a placebo, the subjects in that study also reported lower levels of self-rated stress and higher levels of self-rated calmness compared to those who received the placebo.
Benefits by Tea Type
Green tea has a reputation as the healthiest tea, and there’s a reason for that. Data shows that, on average, green tea contains three times the catechins as black tea, giving you the best antioxidant bang for your buck.
The amount of L-theanine in green tea can vary due to factors like age of the leaf, climate in which it’s grown, when it’s harvested, and how much sun exposure the leaves receive. Matcha, for example, is grown in the shade before it’s harvested, resulting in a greater amount of L-theanine. Matcha is also more concentrated than other green teas, giving you a larger serving per cup of its antioxidants and amino acids.
Although black tea is usually lower in L-theanine and catechins than green tea, it has its own secret weapon: theaflavins. These antioxidants are unique to black tea, and have many of the same effects as catechins. Studies have also found that theaflavins can lower the risk of plaque formation in blood vessels, as well as reducing cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
An herbal tea is any tea made without the Camellia sinensis plant, and is also called a tisane. Like green and black tea, many herbal teas have a rich history of use as medicine and supplements and have been shown to have modern-day benefits.
This herbal tea has been used medicinally for centuries for everything from inflammation to insomnia. Studies suggest that chamomile could have therapeutic effects, such as relaxation and aiding in sleep.
This traditional ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine shows promise in reducing inflammation and lowering blood sugar levels. Studies also suggest that antioxidants in cinnamon could combat cell decay, just like the catechins in tea.
Ginger has a reputation for easing digestive discomfort, and research seems to agree. Studies suggest that ginger has anti-inflammatory and anti-nausea properties, as well as reducing cholesterol and improving lipid metabolism.
This South African herbal tea is packed full of antioxidants, and has many of the same benefits as green and black tea. It’s often used as a substitute for black tea for those looking to avoid caffeine. It’s a good substitute for anyone with an iron deficiency because it contains fewer tannins than black tea. Tannins are structures produced by plants that can interfere with iron absorption.
Studies have found that peppermint may help ease digestive upsets, such as gas, bloating and indigestion, and may be able to combat nausea. Plus, its antibacterial properties can help kill germs in your mouth, freshening your breath.
Rose tea is rich in antioxidants–one study found equal to or greater than the antioxidant activity of green tea.
Tulsi, also known as holy basil, has a long tradition in Ayurvedic medicine. According to numerous studies, its benefits include countering metabolic stress, increasing energy, combating depression, and even potentially working as a mouthwash.
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