Does a Cup of Tea a Day Keep the Doctor Away?
With a new year comes new resolutions, one common one being reducing coffee consumption and caffeine dependence. While a cup or two of coffee a day is not likely to be detrimental to your health (and may even have some benefit, depending on your individual makeup), replacing at least some of your coffee with tea is worthwhile. Tea has been consumed for thousands of years in the East and is regarded as being the key to health and happiness by many. Regardless of its numerous cultural uses, it is known to carry a multitude of health benefits and can be utilized in the management of various physical symptoms. It has less caffeine than coffee (the amount varies with the type of tea that you are consuming), therefore can be a great substitute for coffee when trying to cut down on your overall caffeine consumption.
While the term “tea” is used to refer to a plethora of varieties including green, black, white, and herbal types, there are only a few which are considered to be “pure” by tea aficionadas. These include green, black, white, oolong, and pu-erh. All five of these varieties are derived from the Camellia sinensis plant and contain caffeine in combination with l-theanine, an amino acid that induces a “calm but alert” feeling and can improve attention (1). They also contain anti-oxidants called polyphenols which are the primary health-promoting components of tea. These polpyphenols include compounds called catechins (the most prominent one being ECGC, aka epigallocatechin-3-gallate- try saying that 3 times fast!), theaflavins, and thearubigins. While all of the polyphenols in tea confer health benefits, ECGC, found primarily in green tea, has been the focus of the majority of the research thanks to its role in disease protection.
Herbal teas, while not rich in polyphenols like their “true tea” counterparts, have their own set of health benefits and can be used as natural remedies for a variety of physical and mental ailments. One peek inside of a loose-leaf tea store and you will quickly realize that there are herbal teas for anything and everything! Which is why I wanted to lay out a quick summary of specific tea benefits and describe which varieties can be consumed for each one.
Energy and Mental Focus
I think this one goes without saying. While not as rich in caffeine as coffee, tea does contain it in varying amounts. Black tea tends to have the highest caffeine content with 50-70mg per 8 oz cup (compared to 90 mg or more for a cup of coffee). Oolong tea, green tea, and white tea follow with 37-55mg, 35-45mg, and 15-30mg, respectively. As mentioned above, these varieties of tea also contain l-theanine, therefore have the ability to make you feel alert without being anxious. A systematic review looking at the effect of green tea on cognition, mood, and human brain function presented evidence that “green tea influences psychopathological symptoms (e.g. reduction of anxiety), cognition (e.g. benefits in memory and attention) and brain function (e.g. activation of working memory seen in functional MRI).” (2) It also found that it is the combination of caffeine and l-theanine that imparts the beneficial effects of the tea, as administering either component alone had a lesser impact (2).
Disease Risk Reduction
As alluded to above, research has indicated that tea polyphenols (especially ECGC) can help to protect against numerous chronic diseases (3, 4). While the data is somewhat mixed, many studies have suggested a relationship between tea consumption and a reduction in cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol, glucose, and blood pressure (3). While there are not enough quality scientific studies to make specific recommendations regarding tea consumption to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease, it is still likely worthwhile incorporating tea into your diet. That being said, please consult first with your healthcare provider as there can be interactions between the constituents in tea and certain medications.
In addition to cardiovascular disease, tea consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of certain cancers (3, 5, 6) and protection against infectious diseases (7). ECGC specifically has been shown to have preventative and therapeutic potential in certain autoimmune disorders when studied in animal models (8).
Digestive Symptom Relief
Ginger tea is a common natural remedy for nausea and its gastrointestinal benefits have been well documented throughout the years in medical publication. Ginger has been proven to protect/prevent/heal gastric ulcers (9,10) and ginger tea specifically helps to soothe the stomach and decrease inflammation. Ginger does have blood-thinning properties, so if you take aspirin or similar medications (coumadin, Xarelto, Eliquis etc) be sure and consult with your practitioner before adding it into your diet.
Fennel tea is another beneficial tea variety in the management of digestive symptoms. Fennel contains an active ingredient called anethole which helps prevent gastrointestinal spasms and reflux. Fennel has also been studied in infants with colic and administration of fennel seed oil has been associated with a significant decrease in symptoms (11). When used in combination with turmeric (another herb that can be consumed in tea form that has anti-inflammatory effects in the GI system and can aid in the management of acid reflux symptoms and excess gas), fennel can improve symptoms and quality of life in those who suffer from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) (12).
Chamomile, like fennel, has been proven to reduce inflammation, gas buildup, the overproduction of hydrochloric acid, and gastrointestinal spasms (13). Because it balances the acidity in your stomach, drinking chamomile tea 30 minutes prior to bed can help to prevent night-time reflux symptoms. A quick side note for those who suffer from excessive gas/bloating and IBS symptoms- both fennel and chamomile are considered to be “high FODMAP” (refer to my previous post on the Low FODMAP Diet for further information), so I would suggest paying close attention to how each of these teas affect you.
Last but not least, peppermint tea can be a helpful adjunct therapy in the management of distressing GI symptoms. Peppermint has been repeatedly shown to reduce gastrointestinal spasm and can be effective in the management of IBS symptoms and abdominal pain/cramping (14).
It is worth pointing out that many of the studies examining these herbs in the prevention and management of digestive diseases and symptoms look at oil extracts versus tea formulations. Regardless, the teas can still be very helpful and tend to be much easier to incorporate into a routine.
Sleep and Relaxation
Drinking a warm cup of tea prior to bedtime is a long-loved ritual by many- and for good reason. While I would suggest avoiding caffeine-containing teas prior to sleep (unless you are absolutely sure that caffeine does not affect you and disrupt your sleep), many of the herbal varieties can induce relaxation and promote a restorative sleep. Chamomile is the superstar in this category (13), but others such as lemon balm, lavender, and passionflower deserve some attention as well. There are a variety of blends on the market that include one or several of these herbs. As with most natural remedies, quality scientific evidence is lacking, but small studies have shown support. And just to be clear- the lack of quality evidence for a lot of these remedies is not always due to lack of benefit, but rather it is often because the studies are not done in the first place. A word of caution- chamomile does have some blood thinning properties, so check with your health care provider if you are on blood thinners before starting it.
Overall, tea carries a variety of preventative health benefits and can be used as an adjunct in the management of many symptoms ranging from digestive distress to insomnia. It can also be used in place of coffee if you are trying to cut down on caffeine consumption. Consuming it can serve to either boost energy and mental focus in the morning or induce a calming effect when you are trying to wind down at the end of a long day. Regardless of its beneficial qualities, be sure and consult with your healthcare provider prior to incorporating into your routine if you are on any medications or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any further questions and, as always, continue to follow your gut!