An old Chinese proverb says: Drinking a daily cup of tea will surely starve the apothecary. Both ancient history and modern science tells us there’s some truth to this saying.
People have been drinking tea for thousands of years to reap its curative properties. In fact, it was originally consumed as a type of medicine in China. Fast forward to present day, when recent studies have shown that a variety of teas may help to boost your immune system, decrease inflammation and even protect against cancer and heart disease.
While some types of tea provide more health advantages than others, there’s growing evidence that regularly drinking tea can have a lasting impact on your wellness. Read on to learn more about why tea is so good for you, which types are the most healthful and tips to follow to get the most out of your tea.
Why is tea so healthy?
White, green, black and oolong tea are all made from the same plant – the Camellia sinensis – but are processed in different ways, resulting in different appearances, aromas and flavor profiles. Nevertheless, they all contain the same components and nutrients, though in varying amounts, meaning they are all good for your health in some regard.
(Herbal teas such as chamomile, peppermint and lavender are made from different plants and while they do boast their own health benefits, do not contain the same components that true teas do.)
So what exactly are the (naturally-occurring) secret ingredients in tea that make it so good for you? A few include:
- Polyphenols: Found in certain plant-based foods, these micronutrients have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that detoxify cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Tea has been studied to have about eight to 10 times the amount of polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables.
- Chlorophyll: You may remember learning in grade school science that chlorophyll is the compound present in most plants that is responsible for their green color and allows them to convert sunlight into energy and the nutrients it needs to survive. Well, it’s also healthy for humans, as well, as it absorbs toxins, acts as an internal deodorant, has antioxidant properties and promotes gut health.
- Caffeine: Caffeine is a natural stimulant most commonly found in tea, coffee and cacao plants, that when consumed in moderation, helps to stimulate the brain and central nervous system, helping you stay alert and prevent the onset of tiredness.
- L-theanine: This amino acid works in tandem with caffeine to significantly increase alertness while simultaneously relaxing the mind. In other words, it allows you to enjoy an energy boost without a crash or the jitters you may get with coffee. It may also help people to maintain a healthy weight.
What are the health benefits of tea?
Recent research suggests that people who drink two cups of tea or more per day have less heart disease and stroke, lower total and LDL cholesterol, are at a lower risk for diabetes and recover from heart attacks faster. There's also evidence that tea may help fight ovarian and breast cancers, while other studies show tea consumption beneficial for weight loss.
Tea also helps decrease stress and keep us relaxed. One British study found that people who drank tea were able to de-stress more quickly than those who drank a tea substitute. The tea drinkers also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Not surprisingly, tea has long been used as a form of meditation and a mindfulness tool to further enhance focus and promote mental health.
What’s the healthiest tea to drink?
From an overall health perspective, trying to find the single "healthiest" tea out there is not an incredibly effective approach. Again, all true tea is produced from the same plant, but the way in which each tea is harvested or processed differentiates the various products from the leaf.
This means that you will find some differences in the amounts of antioxidants in each. For example, white tea is the least processed of the teas, meaning it has the highest concentration of antioxidants.
Similarly, when you drink matcha, you are consuming the entire tea leaf, meaning you’re getting a larger concentration of antioxidants. If you’re using antioxidant content as a standard, white tea and matcha may be considered the healthiest teas.
Even though it’s not uncommon to hear that one type of tea is far healthier than another (food marketing is a thing, after all), population-based studies and intervention studies have shown all true teas produce similar benefits for maintaining health and wellness.
Things to keep in mind when drinking tea to support your health
It should be noted that drinking tea is not a magic bullet; tea consumption alone will not ensure good health. Rather, tea can be incorporated as part of a healthy lifestyle paired with a balanced diet and exercise. Choose to drink tea whenever you can, especially as a substitute for soft drinks and other sugary beverages.
Here are a few other tips to follow to reap the health benefits of tea.
- Always opt for organic tea to ensure you are not consuming dangerous agrochemicals. Tea doesn’t have to be “certified organic” to fall into this category. In fact, most small-harvest teas are not certified organic because the certification is too expensive, but surpass the qualifications to be considered certified organic.
- Check the material of tea bags. Conventional tea bags can be pretty bad for the environment, but a single tea bag also releases around 11.6 billion of microplastic particles into your tea which is detrimental to human health. If you do use tea bags, be sure to check that the material from which it's made is environmentally friendly and non-plastic (like those that New Orleans Tea Company uses).
- Beware of teas marketed as skinny teas, weight loss teas and detox teas. These teas often contain laxatives and other harmful ingredients that are associated with missed periods, unplanned pregnancies and permanent gut damage.
- Watch out for hidden sugar. A cup of tea contains just a few calories. Processed, sugar-sweetened tea beverages such as those that are bottled and ready to drink, or those that are prepared with sugar, are loaded with extra calories and nullify the health benefits of tea.
- If you prefer adding milk to your tea, opt for plant-based milk such as almond or coconut milk. Cow’s milk contains a protein that prevents the absorption of tea’s health-promoting antioxidants.
- Add lemon. A Purdue study found that citrus juices enable more of tea's unique antioxidants to remain after simulated digestion, making the pairing both tasty and healthy.