Hands up all those who can't get through the day without their shots of coffee... ah, that's most of us then! Call it an espresso, cappuccino or a regular coffee, if it's not decaffeinated then the caffeine will have our central nervous system jumping to its own coffee beat, that much we know. But, while the jury may still be out as to whether long-term coffee consumption is detrimental to our health, there is an altogether more wholesome alternative readily available in shops, cafes and restaurants near you - tea.
A third lower in caffeine content than coffee, tea is the original health drink. Since before the birth of Christ the people of China have held an appreciation for tea's medicinal qualities, transforming tea growing (and tea drinking) into what can only be described as an art form. More than two thousand years later and Western science is now just starting to prove what the Chinese have known all along - that tea is good for us!
The health benefits of tea
Tea is derived from the buds and leaves of the evergreen tea bush, or Camellia Sinensis to give it its correct Latin name. It is a bush native to tropical and sub-tropical parts of Asia, and is the progenitor of six different types of tea, these being White Tea, Green Tea, Yellow Tea, Oolong Tea, Red Tea and Black Tea. Each tea type is identified by the level of processing - i.e. length of fermentation and firing - that the tea leaves and buds undergo, White Tea (the least processed) and Black Tea (the most processed) positioned at opposite ends of the tea spectrum.
But, regardless of which tea is chosen, each brew of leaves brings with it health protection that even Medicare would be proud of. From stronger teeth and bones to lowering the risk of contracting certain cancers, tea it seems really does have a positive impact upon the health of the people who drink it.
So, why is tea so good for us? According to the latest research it is all down to a trio of health-giving properties that a cup of tea yields: -
Tea contains some 4000 natural chemical compounds, many of which are classified as polyphenols. Tea polyphenols protect the tea bush and its growing leaves from infection by disease. They also fortify the plant against the harmful effects of UV light, and help the plant's seeds to germinate.
For humans, it is the sub-group of tea polyphenols known as the flavonoids that are the most important in terms of health. Flavonoids are natural antioxidants that cleanse the body of oxygen and nitrogen-based free radicals. These chemical critters, if left unchecked, can cause tissue damage in the human body, accelerating the aging process and opening the door to diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and cataracts. Flavonoids neutralize this threat by interacting with the unpaired electrons in free radicals, thus removing the danger.
In tea, catechins (especially epigallocatechin gallate (ECCG) which can account for up to 50% of catechin content in Green Tea) and tannins are the flavonoids that really walk the walk. As antioxidants they are some 25 - 100 times more effective than vitamin C and vitamin E are, and research studies suggest that their anticarcinogenic properties may help reduce the risk of contracting skin cancer, stomach cancer, oral cancer and colon cancer. Recent work by a Japanese group at the Aichi Cancer Center have even concluded that catechins in Green Tea lower the risk of breast cancer recurrence in its early stages. The biggest result on cancer though has to be in the domain of lung cancer. One study reported that sipping just one cup of Black Tea each day could reduce the risk of lung cancer development by 50%.
Amazingly, the health benefits of tea polyphenols do not stop here. Flavonoids offer protection against heart disease and stroke by inhibiting the oxidation of LDL cholesterol - the bad cholesterol that is a forerunner to athersclerosis and high blood pressure. In some animal studies tea flavonoids have also been demonstrated to reduce blood lipids and enhance blood vessel performance.
Flavonoids too have antibacterial properties, scientists having proven that tea polyphenols equip us with a greater immunity to bacterial infections such as Salmonella. Even weight watchers have been rejoicing over the past few years since U.S. and Swiss research scientists announced that catechins in Green Tea might promote fat oxidation above and beyond what would normally be expected from caffeine. It has long been realized that tea when taken on its own contains no calories. Now though, tea it seems has found itself in a more central role on some diet regimes around the world!
The second health-giving member of our trio is fluoride. Well known as an effective preventative of tooth decay, fluoride is abundant in tea leaves, the nutrient having been drawn from the soil by the tea shrub during growth. Brewed tea contains between 0.5ppm and 6ppm fluoride; this translates to approximately 0.3mg - 0.5mg of fluoride per standard cup of tea - certainly enough to protect dental cavities against decay. Recent research has also suggested that fluoride in tea may help to keep our bones strong too!
Water is essential for life. It helps our bodies regulate core body temperature and to transport oxygen to our organs. Keeping our water level topped up is an important element of a balanced diet, and it is recommended that 2.5 - 3.5 liters of water are consumed everyday to achieve this.
Contrary to popular belief a cup of tea does contribute positively to our daily need to hydrate, providing that we drink tea in moderation at each sitting. The diuretic impact of tea is inextricably linked to caffeine intake, and it is only when we consume a 250mg-300mg dose of caffeine over a short space of time will it have a negative impact on our hydration level. Given that a regular cup of tea contains approximately 50mg of caffeine, we'd have to drink 5 or 6 cups at once for tea to be considered detrimental to our hydration needs.
Getting back to nature
Adoption of a simpler, natural and healthier lifestyle is a goal many of us cherish. Getting back to nature though is sometimes easier said than done when there is a sea of conflicting information about what is and isn't good for us. But in tea we have our champion. Years of research have proven this, placing it at the head of the table as far as natural health drinks are concerned. With further proof that tea is healthy almost certain to materialize over the forthcoming years, isn't it about time you took a tea break?