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It’s All in a Cup of Tea

As the weather turns cooler, a warm, steaming mug in our hands brings us both refreshment and comfort. Instead of heading for the coffee pot this winter, try a cup of hot tea instead. Your body will thank you; the health benefits of tea are coming to light in the United States with studies showing links to better heart health, reduced cancer risk, and better skin, just to name a few.

Recent research exploring the potential health attributes of tea is leading many scientists to agree that tea, both black and green, may contribute positively to a healthy lifestyle. “Fruits, vegetables and tea all contain important antioxidants. Research suggests these phytonutrients may contribute substantially to the promotion of health and the prevention of chronic disease. Recent research studies reveal the antioxidants in tea may inhibit the growth of cancer cells, support dental health, increase bone density and strengthen cardiovascular health”, stated Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

Which tea to choose? A rainbow of color choices: black, green, white and red are available, each offering unique health boosters. Both green and black teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis. Black tea undergoes a fermenting process that produces the darker color, while green tea is steamed and dried. Green tea that has undergone minimal handling processes is referred to as white tea. A newcomer to the publicity surrounding the health benefits of tea is red in hue and is not really a tea at all. Red tea, or rooibos, is an herbal brew, or tisane, from a South African plant that has a citrus flavor.

Flavanoids, a type of plant nutrient found in tea, are reportedly responsible for the amazing health benefits of the beverage. Thousands of flavanoids are distributed throughout the plant world and many have antioxidant functions. This means they are capable of mopping up and deactivating potentially harmful free- radicals when, if left to roam the body, may spark chronic health problems such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, cataracts, inflammation, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s disease. For example, evidence from a study in Holland has indicated that people with a measurably higher falconoid intake have a reduced risk of heart disease compared with those who consume less. One cup of tea provides nearly 200mg of flavanoids, most of which are released in the first minute of brewing. Upping your tea consumption to three cups a day will boost your falconoid levels by 25% over just two weeks.

One Boston area study has concluded that folks drinking five to six cups of tea per day can also boost the body’s first line of defense against infection. “We found that certain molecules were shared by bacteria, parasites, and vegetables – and one of the vegetables was tea,” says study author Dr. Jack F. Bukowski, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and staff rheumatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “These molecules could activate a certain component of the immune system called gamma delta T lymphocytes, which are very important as the first line of defense against infection and tumors,” he says.

In animal research, tea has been shown to reduce cancer risk by about two-thirds. Both clinical and large-population studies suggest black or green tea reduces the risk of a host of cancers, in particular, stomach and colorectal. “There’s a lot of evidence that oxidative stress is what damages DNA, causing it to mutate and become cancer,” explains Blumberg. “Catechins seem to promote something we call programmed cell death: when an injured cell can’t repair itself, it commits suicide instead of becoming cancerous.” Consumption of about three large cups per day should provide significant cancer protection. Good examples of these benefits are populations in Japan and China, where tea consumption is highest and cancer rates are significantly lower than the Western world.

Tea helps prevent sunburn and even skin cancer. At the University of Arizona, researchers found that drinking hot black tea appears to protect against squamous-cell carcinoma. The polyphenols in tea interfere with the cell reproduction that leads to these cancers. Wearing tea may be just as useful: studies show that green-tea compounds in skin lotions may protect against, and even reverse, sun damage.

Increased bone density is also reported among tea drinkers, possibly due to the fluoride in tea, coupled with the catechins. Tea, especially oolong, has been shown to suppress bacterial growth in the mouth, and it helps to prevent cavities. Natural chemicals found in tea can also inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause bad breath.

The health benefits listed above all refer to properties of green, black and white teas. The new kid on the block in the West, red tea, is reported to have similar effects. Indigenous to the Cedarburg mountain region of South Africa, the rooibos plant produces a mild-tasting tea that has no caffeine and high levels of polyphenol antioxidants. Recent studies cite protection from cancer, stroke and heart disease among the benefits of red tea. Though not backed by scientific study, there are anecdotal reports dating back several decades indicating a decrease allergy symptoms, headaches, sleep problems, and even infant colic from drinking rooibos.

So, warm up the healthy way this winter. Enjoy a hot cup of your favorite tea, whether it is green, black, white, or red.  For maximum health benefits, drink three to five cups daily. Be sure to steep for at least one minute – when it comes to steeping, the longer the better.

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