Monday, November 26, 2012

Tea and your health

Over the past couple of years, my health has been a big area of focus and one of the many things I turned to was (is) tea for its many benefits big and small.

Tea along with its healing properties has been a big area of research and debate, becoming increasingly popular, over the past many years with advocates for both sides. Some people think tea is little more than a pleasant, relaxing, drink while others feel that tea plays a fundamental role to maintaining good health and helping to fight disease and illness.

Different types of tea have differ properties but all tea share the following basic components (warning: complicated words coming up to be explained below): Polyphenols & alkaloids.

I didn't do so well in my organic chemistry class (hence why I went into engineering instead of becoming a veterinarian) but let us take a look into the two main components of tea and how they play a role in our well-being and health.

Polyphenols is a fancy word for organic molecules found throughout numerous plant species. If the word polyphenol does not ring a bell, then how about Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)? No? Don't worry, I only knew this component by its common name: "tannins". It's thanks to tannins that we have the boldness, astringency, and the slight bitterness (or heavy bitterness depending on steeping time) in tea. Tannins are not unique to tea but can also be found in red wines. They are known to be antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-parasitic and help to maintain overall good health

Though the word polyphenol might not have been familiar, I can guarantee you that you've heard of alkaloids, or more commonly known as caffeine. Alright, that is not entirely true since alkaloids are not restricted to caffeine, but caffeine is the main alkaloid found in tea (and is the same as the one found in coffee). Although tea contains caffeine, chances are you will not get the same affect as if you had a cup of coffee. It won't keep you up all night, you won't get the jitters, and you won't have the crash.

Caffeine in tea miraculously bonds and reacts with the natural tannins found in the same cup. This helps to stabilize the caffeine and ensures a slow, constant release into your system as opposed to the one-shot-jolt of coffee. It's interesting to note that because of this effect, the caffeine in tea works with, and stimulates, the central nervous system as opposed to the caffeine in coffee which reacts with your blood circulation. It is not uncommon to have an elevated pulse and higher blood pressure after drinking coffee, however tea will not give you this effect. Because it is released in a timely manner and reacts with your central nervous system, tea will help stimulate your body and mind (as oppose to excite it). This helps you be alert, think better, and concentrate as opposed to having a rumbling stomach and the jitters.

It is important to note that not all tea has the same benefits and this is due to the methods of preparation and age of the leaf when picked. Different teas are known to help in different ways.

Before I get into the different benefits of tea types, it would help if I quickly introduced my five friends. Tea is most popularly divided into the following five groups; green, white, black, pu-er, and oolong (wulong). I won't go into detail about them now, but will reserve that topic for a future post.

Back to the health benefits.

Generally oolong (wulong) are known to be very calming, rich, teas. Some believe that oolongs (as well as green teas) are good for loosing weight as they help to stimulate your metabolism and which boosts energy consumption slightly.

Green teas have been increasingly popular over the years and this is attributed to its high contents of catechins (a type of poluphenal, one of which is EGCG mentioned above). Along its slimming effects, green tea is very high in anti-oxidants (another big source of controversy and studies) and is said to have anti-cancer effects, increase mental performance, and be overall good for the body. It is recommended to have one cup of green tea a day, but you can always have more if you can't get enough. Green tea has a bit of a twist to watch out for however. It is a bad idea to drink green tea on an empty stomach as it is the harshest among it's brothers. Green tea is made from the freshest leaves (and sometimes youngest) and contains many extra components and nutrients due to it's freshness and preparation style. When consumed on an empty stomach, expect a bit of discomfort (or if it is a particularly strong green tea, quite a bit of discomfort...I learned the hard way).

Pu-Er teas (among being my favorite kind of tea) are much more gentle than his green tea counter part. After being allowed to age and think about life, pu-er tea gives up many of the harsher qualities of tea, favouring instead, to keep the calming effects and to aid with digestion. Pu-er teas are great to eat with dinner as they help to digest and dissolve fats and are quite forgiving caffeine wise, before bed.

Black teas decided to lean towards the dark side (ha!) and idolize its coffee counterparts. Rather than releasing caffeine slowly, black teas have an increased rate of release acting closer to coffee than green teas. Though lower than green teas, they still contain anti-oxidants.

White teas have the short end of the stick and are not commonly known to stand out one way or another. They are relaxing and delicious, 'nough said.

Is there a particular tea you drink for health reasons?

For more information about tea and health benefits, check out wikipedia's page about tea and health.

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