Tea is absolutely incredible in terms of health benefits, but is often considered the underdog, or perhaps not even thought of at all. However, once you’ve come to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of flavor, tea explodes into a world of versatility! But honestly, how awesome is it that tea is nutritious AND delicious?
Today I'll talk about...
- The main health benefits of different tea types
- The tea versus coffee argument
- How caffeine works
- The main chemistry terms bandied about when talking about tea
- The debate about alkaline diets when choosing tea or coffee for your morning pick-me-up!
The almost innumerable health benefits of tea vary in effect depending on the type of tea and which herbs or plants are used. However, across the board, I can think of almost no negative side effects associated with appropriate consumption, and that’s even counting us tea fanatics who drink tea every day.
Note that when I refer to 'tea', I am including 'true' teas from the Camellia sinensis plant and the much broader category of 'herbal' teas (also known as tisanes) from a variety of plants. For more about tea vs 'tea', read Elizabeth's post here about this very topic.
So… what kind of health benefits, you ask?
It all depends on the type of the tea or tisane. Each does different things, and of course actions vary on how much tea you consume, the brewing temperature, the preparation method and how frequently you drink it.
To give you an idea of how amazing herbal and true teas can be, I've put together a brief summary of different health benefits attributed to these fantastic plants.
TABLE 1: Health Benefits by Tea Type
|Health Benefit||True and Herbal Teas (see references below for links to studies)|
|Suppress appetite||Nettle, Yerba Mate / chimarrão, Fennel, Rooibos|
|Aid in weight loss||Burdock, Chickweed|
|Are nutritive (herbs high in micronutrients and some macronutrients [vitamins/minerals/amino acids (proteins)])||Nettle, Chickweed, Red Clover, Oatstraw, Moringa|
|Improve digestion and absorption||Turmeric with black pepper, prepared as "Golden Milk", Fennel, Ginger, Cinnamon (Warming herbs, combined with healthy fats and herbs which increase bioavailability, such as black pepper).|
|Support organ detoxification||Alternative herbs as listed above, in addition to dandelion and milk thistle|
|Have antioxidant action||Green tea, Rooibos, Tulsi, Moringa, Chamomile, Yerba Mate / chimarrão, and most herbs prepared as teas|
|Support sleep quality||Relaxing nervines, and calming adaptogens (and adaptogens that have a multifaceted action based on the body's need such as Tulsi in some cases, and Ashwagandha), such as Passionflower, Lemonbalm, Chamomile - particularly if combined with Lemongrass, California Poppy, Valerian, and Lavender.|
|Are cardio-protective||Hawthorn, Motherwort, Moringa, and Tulsi|
|Help control symptoms of the common cold and strengthen the body||Licorice, Calendula, White Cedar, Yarrow, Burdock, Ginger, Elcampane, and Mullein.|
|Anxiolytic (reduces/calms anxiety)||Calming nervines such as Passion Flower, Lemonbalm, Lavender, Valerian, Chamomile, and Skullcap. Rooibos. Adaptogens will help reduce the stress response over time with consistent application.|
|Antimicrobial||Yarrow, Calendula, Echinacea, Oregon Grape, Goldenseal, Marshmallow, Garlic, Lavender, White Cedar|
|Reduce blood pressure||Moringa, Green tea, Tulsi (normalizes), Olive leaf, and if the hypertension is due to stress, the adaptogen class of herbs would be helpful as they help the body have a healthier response to stress.|
|Supports pregnancy*||Moringa, Red Raspberry leaf (3rd trimester), and Nettle|
|Have galactagogue (milk-increasing) properties||Moringa, Anise, Fennel, Carroway, Oatstraw, Nettle|
|Tumor-suppressing||Chamomile, Moringa, Burdock root and Dandelion root, Medicinal mushrooms, such as Reishi, Turkeytail, & Chaga|
|Cancer-protective||Green tea, Moringa, Chamomile, Tulsi|
|Anti-infection||Garlic, Burdock, Cherry bark, Oregano, Ginger|
|Refreshing and Supportive of the body system as a whole, i.e. Adaptogens**||Tulsi, Schisandra berry, Ashwagandha, Moringa|
* While this herb has been used safely by thousands+ pregnant without any negative incident, please talk to your qualified healthcare professional/midwife before taking any herb when pregnant or trying to conceive.
** Adaptogens are herbs which help the body’s physiological response to stress, and they have “non-specific action” to balance multiple body systems, in addition to being generally non-toxic with frequent use. Different adaptogens may have an affinity for certain body systems, but as a whole they are herbs that help the body reestablish homeostasis. Click here to read Parts 1 and 2 of my series on Adaptogens.
What are the health benefits of green tea specifically?
Green tea is the most famous of the teas and tisanes out there for its health benefits, and the hype is true. For a full introduction to green teas, read my Spotlight on Green Teas post. Below is an excerpt listing the key health benefits of green tea:
- Green tea contains ECGC (Epigallocatechin gallate), an antioxidant unique to tea which increases metabolism and supports healthy weight-loss.
- It plays a role in helping with glucose management (mainly by interfering with the process of breaking starch down into sugar).
- Green tea helps protect the heart: The cardioprotective aspect is due to its ability to accelerate heart antioxidant defense mechanisms and normalize lipid peroxidation levels (lipid peroxidation is when free radicals damage the lipids in cell membranes), meaning the cardioprotective effects are largely due to antioxidant content! Read the study here.
- It helps balance “good” and “bad” cholesterol: Green tea catechins seem to improve the metabolism and excretion of both good and bad cholesterol. It appears that catechins in tea reduce intestinal absorption of both forms of cholesterol, but is more effective at reducing the absorption of "bad" LDL cholesterol. (We don't understand why, exactly, yet.) Read the study here.
- Green tea can prevent infections plus help address ongoing infections: it contains catechins which exhibit antibacterial and antiviral properties.
- Green tea aids relaxation and anxiety: Because it contains theanine, an amino acid that induces relaxation, antagonizes caffeine (and thereby prevents jitters), it can reduce anxiety by reducing excitatory brain chemicals.
- It decreases blood pressure: The flavonoids in green tea dilate the blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely and thereby decrease pressure. Read the study here.
The ORAC* level of green tea varies considerably by tea type, however the general value is 1253. A 2012 study (Carloni, "Antioxidant activity of white, green and black tea obtained from the same tea cultivar") found that low-caffeine green tea had higher levels of antioxidants than standard green tea.
*ORAC is a measure of antioxidant levels that allows comparison between foods, teas, etc. You can see a chart of ORAC levels in the teas sold at MatchaAlternatives.com here.
Tea vs coffee: Hot leaf water or hot bean water? (Hint: tea wins)
But in all seriousness, teas contain high levels of antioxidants, varying levels of caffeine - or none at all, such as chamomile, rooibos, honeybush, and tulsi - and they can energize or sedate depending on the type. Yerba mate and green tea are good examples for energy, and chamomile is great for winding down. (Click links to read my Spotlight pieces introducing each type of tea, or view all of them here!)
One thing to consider in the tea vs coffee debate is the pH impact. Tea is mildly acidic, neutral, or alkalizing (depending on the type), while coffee is highly acidic. If you consume a lot of acid-forming foods it can negatively affect the body’s pH buffering system and eventually overwhelm it, which can result in chronic disease
Safest bet? Choose teas over coffee, and herbal teas (such as Yerba Mate) as a default as they tend to be the less alkalizing.
(There is a lot of 'noise' right now about alkaline diets, and if you're wondering what the deal is, scroll down to the Note from the Herbalist section below to read my take on it.)
Is the caffeine in tea different from coffee? Does it have any health benefits?
The caffeine in tea differs from coffee in its action, but is molecularly the same. Here's a good way to think about it:
Caffeine in coffee is a kid unsupervised. Caffeine in tea, for contrast, is generally balanced out by another component called L-theanine (caffeine’s babysitter).
L-theanineprevents the coffee-jitters. In a study that compared caffeine vs. caffeine with L-theanine (often referred to as simply theanine), they found that both groups experienced increased alertness and accuracy on tasks, but the theanine group experienced less distraction and increased speed in task completion.
Another study found that the combination of caffeine and theanine caused reduced headaches, reduced tiredness, and increased alertness ratings. Now there’s some evidence-based health benefits of tea! Next time you have a big test to study for or a mentally demanding task at work, reach for a tasty cup of tea!
What teas have this amazing theanine+caffeine combination? All 'true' teas is the quick answer. The longer answer is that green tea is considered to have the best balance (as compared to black tea, for example).
|Shop Matcha Alternatives' Green Teas here|
What do all those crazy chemical names mean?
You've probably heard a lot of chemistry terms bandied about when talking about tea, but without much background info or context. Don’t worry! It's simpler than the jargon makes it sound:
We all know the name caffeine, right? Caffeine comes from a family of phytochemicals called alkaloids (as introduced above in the tea vs coffee debate). Some alkaloids are harmful. Some are healthy. Most have a dose-dependent relationship, meaning you shouldn’t consume too many, but a few is fine (for example, caffeine… again).
Many teas and herbs are rich in things like catechins, flavonoids, flavonols, polyphenols, and amino acids. But what are these things?
Catechins and Polyphenols
These terms get thrown around a lot with the term “antioxidant” (and then we all nod like we know what they’re talking about…). Here’s a quick guide so next time, you can nod with confidence:
These are a type of phenolic compounds (see below) with powerful antioxidant properties. Catechins can make up 30% of the dry leaf weight in tea leaves!
Catechins are important for new blood vessel formation, cancers that are resistant to drugs, cell death regulation (all healthy cells have a lifespan), and preventing or repairing extracellular matrix degradation (a complex component of the cellular microenvironment)... *nods head*
Polyphenols / Phenolic compounds
Some phenolic compounds include simple phenols and phenolic acids, hydroxycinnamic acid derivatives, and flavonoids. In layman's terms, these compounds are generally responsible for certain flavors, aromas, and the nutritional value in teas. Many of them have powerful antioxidant activity and help inhibit genetic mutations and cancer formation.
These are a class of flavonoids (phenolic compounds). They differ from flavonoids and flavonols by molecular structure and health benefits. But, they all act as antioxidants. Flavanols affect aroma and flavors. These have nerve-protective properties, protect the heart, are antimicrobial, and they inhibit the growth of cancer by counteracting the effects of carcinogens. Way to go, flavanols!
These are the building blocks of proteins. There are essential and non-essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those we must get from our diet because our body cannot make them. There are 9 essential amino acids, 11 non-essential amino acids, making for 20 altogether.
These are found in varying amounts in nature, but it is incredibly rare to find all 9 essential amino acids present in a plant. Moringa is that rarity (pictured below), boasts a grand total of 17 amino acids, including all 9 essential ones!
A Note From The Herbalist...
When it comes to the health benefits of tea, I could write a book! Plants are intelligent and incredibly complex that science is still trying to catch up with the knowledge of the ancient systems of herbal medicine.
Many pharmaceuticals are derived from plants: One of my favorite stories is how old herbalists were able to cure dropsy (heart failure) using minute doses of a very poisonous plant - the active component being digitoxin. Science recognized its importance and was able to formulate a drug from it called Digoxin, which was a safer way to regulate dose.
As scientific studies further expand our knowledge of what properties herbs and teas have, it is no wonder people are turning to botanicals to as a preventative measure that acts to support their health and empower them!
What's the deal with alkaline diets? Are they pseudoscience?
Alkalizing diets are not pseudoscience - but there is a divide between conventional and non-conventional medicine in that opinion. Here are my two cents:
Those calling them pseudoscience stand by the idea that the body balances its own pH via a system of buffers which utilize alkalizing minerals to rebalance pH. This is true, it does do this. But, if you aren’t getting enough of those minerals in your diet, the body starts pulling from other areas.
The most common example is osteoporosis which has been linked to diets high in animal proteins (coincidentally, animal protein creates a very acidic ash which then acidifies the pH. The body buffers this by pulling calcium from the bones).
However, this is not generally taken into account in the existing literature, mostly due to under-funding of studies and poor methodologies. For example, critics claim that the alkaline diet doesn’t help cancer patients because, in the studies conducted, they have supplemented with alkalizing sodium bicarbonate.
The issue there is that it alkalizes the pH of some systems in the body, but the blood generally remains unchanged, and the cancer cells don’t respond.
This is a major flaw in the methodology: The problem is in that case they need to be concerned about intracellular pH, as the bicarbonate needs a transporting agent to get inside the cells, and supplements lack such an agent. When the intracellular pH is alkalized, however, the cancer cell cannot maintain its lactic acid protective environment and will soon die.
Generally a diet should be 80% alkalizing foods, 20% acid forming foods. If we look at anthropological data, we can see that groups of people whose diets did not follow this 80/20 principle were often riddled with problems such as atherosclerosis, osteoporosis and high cancer rates (for example the Inuit population in Canada).
Historically, people naturally ate an 80/20 diet. Now, most Westerners eat what I would estimate to be a close opposite. Our diets are high in animal proteins (meat and dairy) and acidic plant foods (grains, sugar) and low in alkalizing plant foods (fruits and veggies).
The buffer system can be overwhelmed, and that is when chronic disease sets in.
I would say that an “alkaline diet” is actually just how we naturally ate for thousands of years and only within the last 100-ish years has that begun to shift over to more acid-producing diets.
The best teas and tisanes to get you started...
If you are new to the world of teas and tisanes, Matcha Alternative's Discovery Selection is the best way to get started:
The selection contains a bold Rooibos-Tulsi and a highly caffeinated Yerba Mate for morning, a gently caffeinated Green Tea and Red-Green Rooibos for all day drinking, and a soothing Chamomile-Honeybush for the night.
It also includes a Moringa powder so you can ensure you get your daily antioxidants, vitamins and (a full) protein into your cereal, smoothie, latte or anything else you might eat, drink, bake or cook that day.
Finally, it includes a 2 1/2" tea ball infuser so you'll be ready, set, & go as soon as your Discovery Tea Selection arrives!
- $45.00 for six 1oz bags, or ~84 cups
- $145 for six 4oz bags, or ~336 cups
- $210 for six mega 8oz bags, or ~500 cups of tea!!
And of course... All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. The information here is for educational use only.
Health Benefits of Teas and Tisanes References and Further Reading
Health Benefits of Tea & Sources for Table 1
King, Jacelie & Raguindin, Peter Francis & Dans, Leonila. (2013). Moringa oleifera (Malunggay) as a Galactagogue for Breastfeeding Mothers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. The Philippine journal of pediatrics. 61. 34-42.
Jamshidi, N. and Cohen, M., The Clinical Efficacy and Safety of Tulsi in Humans: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017; 2017: 9217567. Published online 2017 Mar 16. doi: 10.1155/2017/9217567. Accessed November 6 2019.
Mukesh Nandave, Shreesh Kumar Ojha, Sujata Joshi, Santosh Kumari, and Dharamvir Singh Arya. Moringa oleifera Leaf Extract Prevents Isoproterenol-Induced Myocardial Damage in Rats: Evidence for an Antioxidant, Antiperoxidative, and Cardioprotective Intervention. Journal of Medicinal Food 2009 12:1, 47-55. Accessed November 6 2019.
Naghma Khan and Hasan Mukhtar. Cancer and metastasis: prevention and treatment by green tea. Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2010 September ; 29(3): 435–445. doi:10.1007/s10555-010-9236-1. Accessed November 6 2019.
Ahmed A Abd-Rabou, Aboelfetoh M Abdalla, Naglaa A Ali, and Khairy MA Zoheir. Moringa oleifera Root Induces Cancer Apoptosis more Effectively than Leave Nanocomposites and Its Free Counterpart. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2017; 18(8): 2141–2149. doi: 10.22034/APJCP.2017.18.8.2141. Accessed November 6 2019.
Articles & Studies on the Chemistry of Tea & Caffeine
Crystal F. Haskell, David O. Kennedy, Anthea L. Milne, Keith A. Wesnes, Andrew B. Scholey. The effects of l-theanine, caffeine and their combination on cognition and mood, Biological Psychology, Volume 77, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 113-122, ISSN 0301-0511, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.09.008. Accessed October 15 2019.
Gail N. Owen, Holly Parnell, Eveline A. De Bruin & Jane A. Rycroft (2008) The combined effects of L-theanine and caffeine on cognitive performance and mood, Nutritional Neuroscience, 11:4, 193-198, DOI: 10.1179/147683008X301513
Pengfei Lu, Ken Takai, Valerie M. Weaver, and Zena Werb. Extracellular Matrix Degradation and Remodeling in Development and Disease. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol 2011;3:a005058. Accessed October 15 2019.
Tea Vocabulary References