Monday, June 14, 2010

to tea or not to tea: is it even a question?

Today I received a very enthusiastic Facebook message from my boyfriend, Erik: "Read these Wiki pages!" he exclaimed, linking to two Wikipedia pages he'd just read devoted to the health benefits of coffee and tea. "Did you know these things? If so, why didn't you tell me?" While I couldn't help but laugh at his adamance, I could certainly relate to where he was coming from. The list of purported beneficial health effects of tea and coffee is extensive. And while some of these health claims are lacking in quality scientific evidence, many of them are well-accepted by practitioners of both Western and alternative medicine. If you aren't already drinking these popular beverages on a daily basis, you may want to consider doing so.

Now, most tea and coffee-drinkers are in it for the energy boost that a few-dozen milligrams of caffeine kindly bestow upon their consumers. For others, hot beverages are appreciated for more social or nostalgic reasons (my great-aunt Arlene decided to start drinking coffee at the age of 35 so that she could begin joining her mother at the kitchen table for a cup of coffee and a chat). And for yet others, like me, hot beverages are simply a soothing start or end to the day.

In addition to all of these great reasons to drink hot, caffeinated beverages, more and more people are taking up the habit purely for its health benefits. Wait a minute, you may be thinking, I know tea is healthy, but coffee too? And isn't caffeine dehydrating? If these questions are running through your head, you'll be pleasantly surprised to learn that caffeinated tea and coffee can, in fact, be very good for you (in moderation of course). They are chock-full of cancer-fighting antioxidants and other beneficial plant compounds. And while you may have been warned in the past that caffeine will dehydrate you, new research has found that this simply is not the case. While caffeine is a mild diuretic, if you consume one cup of coffee you'll retain nearly the same amount of fluids that you would retain from drinking one cup of water. The diuretic effects may be stronger if you rarely consume caffeine, but regular drinkers need not worry about this side effect at all. But if you find that caffeine simply makes you too jittery, prevents you from getting a full night's sleep, or otherwise makes you miserable, please don't drink it. Decaffeinated beverages still provide many of the same perks as their caffeinated counterparts.

A lot of scientific terms get thrown around when talking about the benefits of tea and coffee. Here's a quick guide to what means what.
Antioxidants (biological)- substances that inhibit the oxidation of biological compounds; common examples are Vitamins A, C and E;
Catechins - phytochemicals that are considered potent antioxidants; currently being researched for benefits in preventing/fighting cancer and heart disease; highest concentrations are found in green tea
Flavanoids - a large group of plant chemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; may prevent heart disease and cancer
Free Radicals -chemically unstable molecules that "steal" electrons from other molecules, causing oxidative stress
Oxidation - when a chemical element or compound loses an electron
Oxidative Stress - damage caused to molecules through oxidation that can lead to injury of whole cells and tissues
Pro-oxidants - substances/events that increase the rate of oxidative stress in the body; common examples are UV radiation, cigarette smoking, and inflammation
Phytochemicals - chemically active compounds found in plants; include flavanoids, catechins, and carotenoids
Polyphenols - a group of antioxidant chemicals found in plants; have been found to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease
(Sources: Guide Jennifer Moll and TheFreeDictionary's Medical Dictionary)

Now that we've covered some general info about caffeinated beverages let's break it down and look at the individual benefits of drinking tea and coffee.

TEA (specifically Green Tea)
1. Prevents and may even fight cancer: Green tea is rich in polyphenols, especially a type called catechins. One specific catechin, EGCG, has been found to kill cancer cells in test tubes. It's been harder to find this powerful of a cancer-fighting effect among actual human studies, however. The strongest evidence for green tea's role in cancer prevention is for that of cancers of the digestive tract.
Studies have found:
-  Drinking green tea may reduce the risk of developing stomach, esophageal, prostate, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer.
- Breast cancer patients who have surgery and consume green tea may have a lower risk of cancer recurrence than those who have surgery and don't consume green tea.
- Increasing your consumption of green tea by 2 cups a day could decrease your risk of developing lung cancer by 18%. 
- Women under the age of 50 who consume 3 cups of green tea a day may have a 37% reduction in the risk of developing breast cancer than women who don't drink tea.
- The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of the EGCG compound in green tea can prevent skin cancer.
2. Benefits arthritis patients: Some studies have found that green tea may reduce arthritis pain by reducing overall inflammation. It may also slow the rate of cartilage breakdown.
3. Prevents and manages diabetes. Green tea may place a role in regulating blood glucose, which is important for both preventing the development of diabetes as well as dealing with the condition if already diagnosed.
4. Can reduce risk of heart disease: The antioxidants in green tea can prevent the clogging of arteries by increasing vessel flexibility and dilation. One Japanese study found a decrease in the severity of coronary heart disease among males who drank four cups of green tea daily; a Dutch study found similar results. 
5. Prevents Alzheimer's disease: Several promising studies suggest that the green tea catechin EGCG can prevent the buildup of plague in the brain that is correlated with Alzheimer's disease.

While there may not be enough evidence for your doctor to start prescribing you green tea as a cure or preventative step, there is enough for you to add it to the rest of steps you take to becoming a healthier person. So why not?

To be continued (with some specific benefits of drinking coffee) ...

Sources: Mayo Clinic, WebMD Health & Cooking, WebMD Alzheimer's Disease Health Center, University of Maryland Medical Center

Photo Credits: Nick J Webb, Ayelie, and Dano.


  1. I can't drink coffee or tea without enough sweetener to mask the bitterness. Does all that sugar take away from the benefits of the drink?

  2. don't you just love that story about arlene? i finally embraced coffee around 25 or 26, and i thought THAT was late! can't wait for the upcoming coffee post ... though this green tea info is practically good enough to eat. er, drink.
    and DERP i just remembered you asked for an invite to your blog. i just need your email address! let me know. you can comment back or send it to me at:

  3. AHHH early-morning-baby-brain! invite to *my* blog. where's that green tea, again???

  4. I feel the same way about tea, Shevyhoops (aka Rachel). I'll talk about "healthier" sweeteners in the next post.


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