January is National Hot Tea Month, so it’s the perfect chance to sit back and appreciate the most popular beverage in the world (that isn’t water), tea.
Tea’s long history
Tea was first “discovered” in China over 5,000 years ago.
The legend says that Emperor Shen Nung was boiling water when some leaves blew in on the wind and landed in the pot. Intrigued by the scent, he drank some and fell in love. Whether that story is true or not, tea played a huge role in ancient Chinese culture and later became key to the expansion of trade between China and its neighbors. Eventually, tea reached every corner of the globe.
It’s had religious and ceremonial significance, been a status symbol of the wealthy and powerful, has been the foundation of the wealth of nations, and has even started wars. In many lands today, people routinely drink several cups of tea each day. Some, especially in China, Tibet, and Japan, still observe elaborate rituals with tea at their center. Most, however, simply enjoy hot tea for its comforting warmth, rich flavor, staggering variety, and of course, for its legendary medicinal qualities.
Five main varieties of tea
There are five main varieties of tea being consumed today:
- White tea
- Green tea
- Oolong tea
- Black tea
- Herbal tea
The first four types of tea are all made from two variations of the same plant: Camellia sinensis, the tea tree. The difference between them has to do with how the tea is prepared. White and green teas were the traditional Chinese version for centuries, and green tea is becoming more popular worldwide. Oolong teas are traditionally the favorite for ceremonial use and “high society,” although most Chinese restaurants serve it upon request today. Black tea makes up 90 percent of the tea consumed outside of China and is most likely what you think of when you picture a cup of hot tea.
The differences between these teas are in how the leaves are dried and processed, including fermentation. Black tea is the most processed version, making it the most shelf-stable and suitable for shipping long distances. White tea is on the opposite end of the spectrum as it’s the least processed version. Green is processed only slightly more than white, and oolong tea falls somewhere between green and black teas for processing. The spectrum from white to black impacts tea’s health benefits, as we’ll see below.
Herbal teas are a different animal altogether, as they can be made from any of a thousand different edible leaves, plants, and other ingredients, and may or may not include actual tea leaves. While also popular in many lands, and originating just as far back in Chinese history, herbal teas have never caught on with the power of black tea. They are, however, even more intriguing from a health standpoint due to their long history of use in traditional herbal medicine around the globe.
The health benefits of tea
Tea’s legendary health benefits have been utilized for thousands of years, but have only been scientifically explained relatively recently.
Polyphenols — specifically a group known as catechins — are bioactive compounds found in all teas from the tea tree and many herbal teas as well. These compounds are antioxidants, meaning they combat the natural oxidation of cells behind many diseases, including some cancers. The less processed the tea is before consumption, the more catechins remain in the final product. So, white and green teas have the greatest health impacts. But, black tea still contains enough polyphenols to be healthy.
Aside from polyphenols, the health benefits of tea can also spring from its moderate caffeine level, trace amount of fluoride, and numerous other chemicals that can impact specific systems in the body. Here are just a few examples of the health benefits you can enjoy by making a hot cup of tea part of your daily ritual:
- Heart disease and stroke - Numerous studies have found links between habitual tea consumption (especially green tea) and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, this study confirmed that catechins in green tea significantly lowered systolic blood pressure. Others have noted an impact on bad cholesterol levels and blood vessel elasticity, with habitual green tea drinkers enjoying an estimated “25 percent lower risk for incident heart disease and stroke.” Some popular herbal teas that are linked with heart health include rooibos and hibiscus.
- Diabetes - While clinical studies are not as numerous on this topic, there is ample reason to expect that tea consumption can have a balancing effect on blood sugar, reducing the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. What evidence has been obtained indicates the antioxidant EGCG, which is especially highly concentrated in white tea, could be responsible.
- Cancer - In general, antioxidants are already known to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer, including liver, breast, prostate, and colon. And, we know tea is an excellent source of several powerful antioxidants. Some studies have been able to correlate tea with lowered cancer risk, and scientists are eagerly pursuing this exciting avenue of research.
- Stress and anxiety - Beyond the fact that sipping on a warm beverage can be soothing in and of itself, several different herbal teas are well known to promote relaxation and battle insomnia. Many people rely on a cup of tea to keep otherwise dangerous stress and anxiety levels manageable. Some favorites include rose, chamomile, and lavender.
- Weight loss - Unfortunately, there are a lot of tea-based “detox” diets on the market that promise rapid weight loss with dubious evidence behind them. They muddy the waters when it comes to tea’s actual weight loss benefits. However, clinical studies confirm that drinking tea seems to correlate to lower BMI and waist circumference, both important markers for the most impactful weight loss. Theories abound as to what mechanisms may be at work, including caffeine and catechins boosting the metabolism, or polyphenol impact on the gut biome.
- Digestion - Another popular long-standing use of herbal tea involves peppermint as a soothing aid for an upset stomach. It’s also reportedly effective in treating constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and nausea caused by motion sickness. Ginger tea is used in much the same way, being favored by pregnant mothers dealing with morning sickness.
- Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia - The amino acid L-theanine, which is prevalent in oolong tea, has been found to help prevent neurodegenerative and cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. This effect seems to be amplified by the impact of antioxidants like ECGC, making tea an excellent source of both.
So, why not enjoy a hot “cuppa” tea this afternoon? It might just be the healthiest thing you do all day!