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It's tea time! The health benefits are out of the bag

It's tea time! The health benefits are out of the bag.

If you've never been much of a tea drinker, it may always seem too weak or too strong, too grassy or too perfumed, too milky or too lemony. And definitely too British. But after 4,738 years of tea drinking, it might be a good time to take a closer look at this elixir.
Tea has no calories from fat because it has no calories but it does contain a variety of compounds that benefit everything from your teeth to your cardiovascular system. More than that, according to laboratory studies, tea provides up to five times the cancer-fighting, anti-aging antioxidants of a typical serving of fruits or vegetables.

These days, more Canadians are swallowing their prejudices along with their pekoe.

The evils that tea may counteract range from cavities to arterial plaque buildup, and its polyphenols can help fight infection by increasing white blood cell counts. "The antioxidants in tea neutralize the cell-damaging effects of free radicals in the body," states Simon Maxwell, a clinical pharmacologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary in England. "Without detoxification, this cell damage can lead to cardiovascular disease and cancer."

Steep Inclined

In an age where everything seems to either cure cancer or cause it, you may be skeptical about this last report. Yet a survey of current research reveals dozens of animal studies in which polyphenols have been shown to inhibit cancers of the lung, mouth, breast, pancreas, prostate and skin. Experiments at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, published in Nature, and Purdue University in Indiana showed that epigallocatechin gallate (egcg), the active ingredient in green tea, prevents angiogenesis, the process by which cancerous tumours nourish themselves by growing blood vessels that supply them with nutrients. In higher concentrations (about as much found in three or four cups of tea), egcg actually killed cultured cancer cells in vitro.

According to Kit Chow, co-author of All the Tea in China, tea consumption has a positive effect in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both major factors in heart disease. The components of tea stimulate the circulatory system, which strengthens blood vessels and decreases the cholesterol level in the bloodstream, states Chow. Several investigations indicate that regular tea drinking reduces the risk of stroke. One English study suggests that five cups of tea per day can cut the chance of a "brain attack" by as much as 70 per cent.

Less Caffeine

The good news continues to pour in. Because tea contains only 20 to 90 milligrams of caffeine per cup (about one-third to one-half of the amount in coffee), there's less chance of it working up your nerves or upsetting your stomach. Caffeine can intensify certain heart rhythm problems and can also cause a temporary rise in blood pressure, though usually in people who drink coffee only occasionally.

Far from upsetting your stomach as coffee can, the essential oils and polyphenols found in tea leaves actually aid digestion by increasing the flow of digestive juices. Other researchers are looking at tea's germicidal and antibacterial properties in helping to prevent dysentery, cholera and some throat infections. And dentists have begun recommending tea because its polyphenols are known to break down bacteria in the mouth, thus reducing plaque formation.

Perhaps the best discovery of all is that tea is tea; one needn't seek out exotic blends to achieve its effects. All of tea's natural benefits can be had from the inexpensive black or green teas on the market. And, of course, organic is better.

So, all you Lapsang souchongaphobes out there, put that in your pot and steep it!

Three for Tea

How come tea comes in different colours? It's all in the timing. Green, black and oolong teas are derived from the Camellia sinensis plant. Green tea leaves are fired right after picking, which stops the fermentation and pulls most of the moisture from the leaf. Black tea is left to ferment for several hours before it is air-dried, which turns the leaves a bright copper colour. And oolong? That's just a funny name for black tea that has been fermented about half as long.

Green tea has been singled out more often for its healthful properties, but that's because the majority of studies have used it. Black tea is just as good for you; the fermentation process may change the structure of its polyphenols (from catechins such as egcg, to theaflavins and thearubigins) but the amounts remain the same. However, products that have been through additional processing, such as decaffeinated and instant teas, often contain fewer polyphenols. Contrary to popular opinion, there's as much caffeine in green tea as in black.
Herbal tea isn't actually tea at all, but a blend of leaves, flowers and roots of plants other than Camellia sinensis. While herbalists usually recommend more concentrated forms of herbs for serious ailments, teas can be very effective for milder complaints. "If someone has clinical anxiety, they would probably need a stronger preparation," says naturopath Michael Murray. "But if someone is just feeling a little tense, then tea could help."

10 Popular Herbal Brews

Herbal Tea

Part Used

Medicinal Effects

CatnipLeavesSedative and digestive aid. Reduces fever. Its pleasant taste makes catnip especially suitable for treating children's colds and flu, especially when combined with elderflower and peppermint.
Chamomile, (German and Roman)Leaves, flowersAnti-inflammatory, diuretic and induces sweating. Exceptional herb for coughs, colds and flu, especially when combined with peppermint. Good for allergic rhinitis (including hay fever, ear infections and candidiasis). Diuretic qualities help arthritic problems by promoting removal of waste products from the body.
ElderflowerFlowersAnti-inflammatory, diuretic and induces sweating. Exceptional herb for coughs, colds and flu, especially when combined with peppermint. Good for allergic rhinitis (including hay fever, ear infections and candidiasis). Diuretic qualities help arthritic problems by promoting removal of waste products from the body.
GingerRootsExcellent digestive aid. Alleviates morning and motion sickness, nausea and vomiting. Antiseptic qualities help with gastrointestinal infections including some types of food poisoning. Warming and soothing for coughs and colds. Circulatory stimulant. Can cause stomach upset in some people if taken in large quantities.
Ginkgo bilobaLeavesImproves brain performance by increasing blood flow and oxygenation. Helps with migraine, depression and memory loss. May cause migraine in some people. Don't combine with alcohol.
Kava kavaRoot

A relaxant with analgesic, diuretic and antiseptic actions. May cause drowsiness. Recent concerns regarding liver toxicity remain unsubstantiated.

Lemon balm

Leaves

Effective for anxiety, irritability, insomnia and mild depression. Digestive aid. Powerfully antiviral. Doesn't dry well. Best used fresh.
PeppermintLeaves, flowersExcellent digestive aid. Useful for colds and flu (good combined with elderflower), colic, diarrhea, headache, indigestion, nausea, cramps and gas. May inhibit iron absorption. Inhaled peppermint enhances memory and concentration.
Yerba mateAll parts

Effective blood cleanser. Good for constipation and bowel disorders. Works synergistically with other herbs as overall stimulant and against allergies.

The ABCs of Herbal Teas

The cosy fire is bright and gay,
The merry kettle boils away
And hums a cheerful song.
I sing the saucer and the cup;
Pray, Mary, fill the teapot up,
And do not make it strong.
—Barry Pain

Barry Pain's poem underscores the fact that the ritual of tea is more than a therapeutic function or a simple sipping pleasure.

In Asia, where the tea ceremony includes a significant spiritual component, this has been appreciated for centuries. Preparing and drinking tea requires us to slow our hectic pace and just be. How much healthier this is than gulping some capsules on the run. Moreover, when we sip our herbal tea, our brain, via our nose and tongue, receives the aroma-therapeutic message and the medicinal value is thus enhanced.

When making herb tea from the aerial parts of the herb (flowers and leaves) known as tisane use one heaping teaspoon (five milligrams) of dried herbs or three heaping teaspoons (15 mg) of fresh herbs for every cup. Pour boiling water (use only bottled or filtered water) over the herbs and allow to steep for 10 minutes. When making tea from herb roots and barks known as a decoction simmer one heaping tablespoon (15 mg) of fresh or two heaping tablespoons (30 to 45 mg) of dried herb in three cups (750 ml) of water in a covered saucepan for about 20 minutes. Then strain and serve.

The experience of blending herbal teas to suit individual tastes and for synergistic medicinal value can be great fun. Be adventurous and dry your own orange and lemon to add to your herbal teas. In addition to the herbs in the accompanying chart, try adding herbs and/or spices such as lavender, rose petals, basil, thyme, anise, cloves, cardamom or whatever your taste buds fancy or your garden or kitchen cabinet yields up.

Source: Bruce Burnett, CH

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