TEA & HEALTH : An Introduction [extract from our book Tales of the Tea Trade]
A query we often receive at the teahouses is of global interest, and one of the reasons that many people choose to work in tea: its health benefits. From the first leaves that ‘saved’ Shennong’s life all those years ago to modern- day medicine, tea has always been known for its health-giving properties. Chinese medicine has always recognized the usefulness of the tea plant, but its qualities have not been proven in science until relatively recent times. There are now a great many scientific papers on the subject, as well as all sorts of more spurious benefits used as marketing tools.
At Comins we place a huge emphasis on the experience, ceremony and taste of taking tea rather than on drinking tea for health, but we are of course interested in the properties of the plant itself. The main benefits that have a scientific basis behind them are listed below, and we encourage you to take them as an introduction to further reading and research. One often overlooked aspect is the mental health benefits of the process of taking tea, whether it’s as simple as putting a tea bag in a mug or as complex as a full gongfu infusion. This is something that we will be exploring more and sharing with you over the coming weeks. The time taken to relax, to rejuvenate, to think or indeed not think, if taken regularly, is as important as any physical boost the tea will give you. We see the results in our teahouses every day and look forward to exploring this with you.
Antioxidants have been linked to the possible prevention of things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, blood pressure, as well as delaying the ageing process and increasing vitality. They do this by countering the harmful effects of ‘free radicals’, naturally occurring unstable molecules that, if present in large amounts, can damage cells in our bodies. Antioxidants are contained in flavanoids, a category of polyphenol that makes up a large proportion of a tea leaf. The most common type of flavanoid are called avanols, which encompass catechins. These are especially plentiful in green tea. Of these, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the focus of most studies, as it may have cancer- fighting properties. EGCG is also fairly simple to extract and use for pharmaceutical purposes and is continually being researched and reviewed.
The flavanoid group also contain anthocyanins, found in Kenyan Purple Tea. Black tea contains more complex varieties of flavanoids called thearubigins and theaflavins
VITAMINS & MINERALS
There are plenty of these found naturally in the tea plant. Most teas are a very good source of vitamin C, a potent antioxidant. Vitamins B1, B6 and also carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body, are also present. These all have antioxidant qualities. Minerals such as manganese, potassium and fluoride can also be found. Manganese is key for bone growth, potassium aids the heart and fluoride the teeth.
Despite its usually negative reputation, ca eine does have bene ts. It promotes digestion, promotes cardiac function and can be known to help weight loss by promoting digestion.
L-theanine is an amino acid that increases relaxation by stimulating alpha- wave production in the brain. It also slows down the release of ca eine into the body. The short-term e ect of this is to create a feeling of controlled stimulation that can last for a long period of time. It is this feeling that rst drew monks to tea, who found it useful during long meditation sessions. Longer term, it is said to reduce psychological stress, improve the memory and aid against viral infection by improving the immune system.
There are hundreds of aromatic substances in tea, which we notice mainly in the avour and aroma of the tea. However, they can have a deeper impact as painkillers with anti-bacterial and anti-in ammatory a ects. They can also promote relaxation through their soothing nature.
THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF DIFFERENT TEA TYPES
Every tea contains different levels of the compounds mentioned above, and certain types are linked with certain health properties. Processing brings out, decreases or changes these properties.
Being the least processed and containing more antioxidant-rich leaf buds than other types of tea, white tea has a high concentration of antioxidants, making it great in fighting illness. It is also calming in nature.
Green tea has a similar amount of antioxidants to white tea, as well as a wider range of polyphenols, which are especially good at countering the e ects of free radicals and therefore reducing the risk of cancer. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce levels of harmful cholesterol, thus protecting against heart disease.
Oolong tea is known to aid digestion because its properties stimulate the metabolizing of lipids. This is why oolong tea is often irresponsibly touted
as a ‘slimming tea’. As with all health claims, it must form part of a suitable health programme. Black teas have been shown to lower blood pressure and protect against heart disease due to their higher levels of theaflavins.
Dark teas have a history of being used to aid digestion, particularly by the nomadic tribes of Asia whose diet involved the rich meat of yaks. They also are known to reduce harmful cholesterol and raise levels of good cholesterol in the body.
The variations within each type of tea are enormous, so health benefits
can only ever be generalized. Add to this the variation in biology of each tea drinker, and how this controls the absorption or e ect of each compound, and it is obvious why tea and health is such a tricky subject. Certainly there is much to gain from tea but, as with many aspects of tea, these beneifts are still not fully understood. But, by way of an introduction we hope you have found this interesting - we look forward to exploring more with you very soon!