The Healing Power of Tea
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The Healing Power of Tea

Iced or hot, the beverage is creating quite a stir as a health powerhouse that may lower your cholesterol, build your bones -- maybe even help prevent cancer. Is it time to switch from coffee?

Beneficial Brews

Picture this: a dismal winter day, a comfy chair, a snuggly sweater, and a steaming mug of tea. Sounds relaxing, sure. But tea is more than just a de-stressing drink -- it's got potent power to protect against some of the deadliest diseases.

Although tea doesn't quite rank with fresh fruits and vegetables as a health food, scientists are finding that drinking tea may keep your heart healthy, protect you from cancer, boost your body's ability to fight off germs, strengthen your bones, prevent cavities, and sharpen your concentration.

We're talking about the real thing -- tea made from Camellia sinensis, a Southeast Asian evergreen shrub. The leaves used to make black, green, and oolong teas all come from this same small tree, as does pale and pricey white tea, prized in China for its delicate taste and fragrance. (Herbal teas come from other plants.)

"White, black, oolong, and green teas have different aromas and flavors, but they're all healthy," says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, in Boston. Dr. Blumberg was a tea drinker even before he knew it was good for him. Now he downs an average of two cups a day -- and thinks the rest of us should, too.

Tea's healthy benefits come from antioxidants called flavonoids; these destroy highly toxic free radicals in the body, which can trigger disease. These potent natural compounds are in every sip of home-brewed hot and iced tea, and many bottled teas. Check labels to be sure all you're getting is tea -- not sweeteners, artificial flavorings, food coloring, or other additives that could lessen these antioxidants' protective effects.

Which type should you drink? Opinions differ. Green tea is less processed and retains compounds that may have more power to fight cancer than those in black tea, says best-selling author and integrative-medicine pioneer Andrew Weil, MD. Dr. Blumberg believes the jury is still out on whether green or black is healthier. "Green has been studied more in the East and black in the West because they're the kinds most widely consumed in those parts of the world," he says. Whichever type you choose, adding tea to your daily menu has a host of potential benefits.


Why You Should Drink Tea

It may protect against heart disease. One U.S. study found that a low-fat diet plus five cups of tea per day lowered LDL ("bad") cholesterol 11 percent in three weeks. And Dutch researchers found that drinking more than four cups of black tea per day lowered the risk of atherosclerosis (arterial plaque buildup that can lead to heart disease) by more than 60 percent. Even one to two cups a day lowered the risk by 46 percent.

It may prevent cancer. Tea may lower the risk of cancers of the colon, rectum, urinary tract, stomach, pancreas, mouth and, perhaps, ovaries; in smokers it might reduce lung-cancer risk, too. And if you spend a lot of time in the sunlight, drinking strong, hot black tea may protect you from squamous-cell skin cancer, according to a University of Arizona study.

It boosts immunity. Drinking at least five cups of black tea a day for two to three weeks increased production of a key immune protein, interferon, in a Harvard study. The reason? L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea (and hardly anywhere else), can build the body's defenses against viruses and bacteria.

It may sharpen your brain. Tea seems both to boost your powers of concentration and relax you. Again, L-theanine is key: When people in a City College of the City University of New York study drank four or five cups of tea, effects showed up in 20 minutes and lasted three to four hours. Compare that with coffee, which gives you a quick jolt and heightens concentration but doesn't relax you, says study author John Foxe, PhD.

It can strengthen bones. Drinking tea may slow the bone loss that can lead to osteoporosis. Australian researchers found that over four years, older women tea drinkers lost an average of 1.6 percent of their bone density; non-tea drinkers lost 4 percent.

It may stave off Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In the lab, an antioxidant in green tea called EGCG helped protect brain cells from these two diseases. And when Israeli researchers gave mice EGCG equivalent to a human drinking at least two daily cups of green tea, it seemed to keep brain cells from dying. It also cut compounds that lead to brain damage in animals. These effects need to be shown in humans, but for now, drinking green tea won't hurt.

It can prevent cavities. Tea contains fluoride, which may explain why it seems to be good for teeth. In test tubes, tea extract inhibits cavity-causing bacteria. And in England, 14-year-olds who drank tea (with or without sugar) had fewer cavities than teens drinking sodas and other sweet drinks. Healthier isn't whiter, of course: Like coffee, tea can stain teeth, so brush frequently and have teeth professionally cleaned.


Reading the Tea Leaves

The main difference among tea varieties is how they're processed. The other names you see on tea packages either tell you where the tea was grown (Assam, Darjeeling) or describe the flavor (jasmine) or connote blends like English breakfast.

- Black: Leaves are fermented, then dried. Caffeine count: 47mg per cup

- Oolong: Leaves are partially fermented and dried. Caffeine count: 35 to 55mg per cup

- Green: Leaves are steamed, rolled, and dried. Caffeine count: 30 to 50mg per cup

- White: Leaves and tender buds are air-dried. Caffeine count: 15 to 25mg per cup


The Best Brew

The British are famously fussy about their tea, so who better to ask how to make the perfect cup than the United Kingdom Tea Council? Here, four tips:

  1. Buy good-quality tea and store it in an airtight container at room temperature.
  2. Measure your tea carefully; use either 1 tea bag or 1 rounded teaspoon of loose tea for each cup.
  3. Pour boiling water over tea. (For the best flavor, always brew tea with freshly boiled water.)
  4. Steep most black tea for 3 to 4 minutes, oolong for 5 to 7 minutes, and green for 2 to 4 minutes.


The Herbal Alternative

Strictly speaking, herbal teas are infusions, not teas, since they don't come from Camellia sinensis. Instead, they're made with the roots, leaves, or flowers of various herbal plants and have their own reputed health benefits.

Chamomile helps with: Insomnia, anxiety, gastrointestinal conditions such as upset stomach, gas, and diarrhea

Cinnamon helps with cold symptoms, upset stomach

Fenugreek helps with milk production in nursing mothers

Ginger helps with upset stomach, nausea

Lemon balm helps with insomnia, nerve pain, upset stomach

Peppermint helps with nausea, vomiting, gas, heartburn, bad breath, congestion from colds and allergies, stress


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2009.