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Tea brims with health benefits

Christine McKelvie

— A cup of tea can be refreshing, relaxing and energizing. And unlike so many other indulgences, drinking tea is a healthy habit.

Good thing, because I’ve been a dedicated tea drinker since I was a teenager. At the ripe old age of 16, I was on my way to England for a summer study program when I was suddenly struck by a scary thought: “They’re going to make me drink tea!”

My only previous run-in with the beverage had occurred several years previously I was offered iced tea. Too polite to decline, I managed to take a few small sips of a dark liquid that tasted terrible.

Fortunately, English tea was an entirely different experience. Loaded with milk and sugar, it was not only palatable but downright tasty. Tea is central to the British way of life. Tea at breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, teatime and whenever anyone looked a “bit peaked.”

“A spot of tea will do you good,” my solicitous landlady, Mrs. Humby, was fond of saying. She probably didn’t know that Chinese writers had been extolling the healthy qualities of tea for 12 centuries. Now, science is proving the wisdom of Mrs. Humby and the Chinese sages.

Numerous studies over the past decade have identified the specific chemicals that make tea healthy. There is solid evidence that regular tea drinking can lower the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, increase bone density and reduce inflammation that leads to arthritis.

Many studies of tea have focused on green tea, although scientists now believe that black and red tea have most of the same benefits. Regardless of color, all true tea comes from a flowering shrub native to China, camellia sinensis. Herbal “teas” may offer their own specific benefits but are not true tea.

Green tea has extremely high concentrations of an antioxidant known as EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate). Antioxidants help rid the body of free radicals, thereby preventing damage to cells that causes cancer and other diseases. EGCG is supercharged, 100 times more powerful than vitamin C when it comes to zapping free radicals.

Lab studies show that EGCG is capable of killing cancer cells in a test tube. A Japanese study of women with breast cancer found that after the treatment phase, early stage breast cancer spread less rapidly in women with a history of drinking five or more cups of green tea per day.

Other types of cancer that seem to be inhibited by tea consumption include cancers of the skin, stomach, bladder and liver.

Studies in Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Taiwan and Boston have highlighted the health advantages of tea. Antioxidants in tea have been shown to promote heart health by lowering total cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL levels and decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. Research also suggests that tea may help improve levels of bone mineral density. Low bone mineral density is associated with the development of osteoporosis.

Tea is an easy, inexpensive addition to your diet. If you drink it black or with a squeeze of lemon, it doesn’t add calories. I am long past the days of loading my “cuppa” with sugar, but I still enjoy it with milk. When I’m being good, I use non-fat milk instead of half-and-half. Some early studies suggested that adding milk to tea dampens the antioxidant activity. Now it appears that tea is beneficial even if you use milk.

It is still fun to brew tea the old-fashioned way, with loose tea in a pot, using about one teaspoon of tea per cup. Tea bags are easier to use and even many British have bowed to convenience. Check the labels carefully on the cold tea drinks that have become so popular. Many have high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners that make them very high in calories.

Tea is the most popular beverage worldwide, aside from water. We’ll certainly see more scientifically controlled human trials that will better pinpoint the health benefits of tea. In the meantime, it is safe to suggest that tea can help protect against cancer, strengthen our bones, lower the risk of heart disease and fight infection and inflammation.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.


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