Before it was one of the world’s most popular beverages, tea was considered a herbal remedy that helped digestion, cleared the skin and reduced a fever. How much of this folklore has proven to be true?

Tea was medicine before it became a beverage. In ancient China people would add herbs, and even onions, to tea to enhance its natural healthful properties before purist Lu Yu made it popular to savour tea without enhancement.

Asian societies believed tea increased wakefulness and aided digestion, which is why they would have it with or after food. It also contributed to a person’s vitality, hence the Japanese proverb, “If man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.”

When tea first appeared in the West, buyers would visit an apothecary rather than a tea shop to purchase tealeaves as it was considered a herbal tonic. Apothecarists sold tea to address skin ailments, stomach complaints, sleepiness and memory loss, among other things.

While tea isn’t some magical remedy, it actually does possess a number of health-giving properties. Here we sort the myths from the truth.

Tea cures cancer

  • Status: Not quite

Tea, especially matcha where you drink the whole leaf, contains plenty of antioxidants, which have a number of beneficial health properties including reducing the risk of cancer—not a cure, sorry! Terms you’ll hear regarding tea and cancer are polyphenols in relation to green tea, and theaflavins and thearubigins for black teas. These have ‘antioxidant activity’, which may help fight or prevent certain cancers. However, studies are inconclusive.

Tea does, however, support cardiovascular health, which can help prevent heart disease, and lower cholesterol, according to the Australian Heart Foundation.

Tea improves your teeth

  • Status: True

The tannins in tea may stain your teeth but what you can’t see is the benefits that the fluoride in tea provides. For those concerned about fluoride toxicity, you’ll be glad to know that the antioxidants in tea (as discussed above) counteracts oxidative stress, which is apparently how fluoride can damage cells in the body. Tea also inhibits the plaque-forming ability of oral bacteria and can help freshen your breath.

Tea addresses drowsiness

  • Status: True

There’s a legend that one day Buddha fell asleep while trying to meditate. Annoyed at himself, he cut off his eyelids so he couldn’t fall asleep and threw them on the ground. A tea tree then grew where his eyelids fell, which is why tea provides wakefulness.

Drinking tea does not give you such a severe wake-up call, however. Tea promotes wakefulness because it contains caffeine. Unlike coffee, which gives a quick burst of stimulation that then drops off quickly, tea also contains the amino acid L-theanine, which is a relaxant. As a result, tea drinkers experience a gentle incline towards alertness and stay there longer.

Tea grown and processed under different conditions and methods will have varying levels of caffeine that also affects the individual drinker differently so there’s plenty of disagreement on which tea has the most caffeine and provides the most stimulation. It’s generally agreed, however, that pu’er has the least caffeine, so you can have it before bedtime.

Tea is nutritious

  • Status: Not quite

Tibet is meat and dairy country, so when the tea trade started there, the beverage soon turned into a kind of soup, which we call butter tea, which used tea to add nutritional value—vitamins and minerals—to the traditional diet that relied heavily on protein.

Although tea does have some minerals and vitamins (B1, B2 and C), the amounts are small enough to be negligible. In fact, the tannins in tea can block the absorption of iron, which is something to note if you’re anaemic or your haemoglobin levels are low. Green tea has the higher traces of vitamins, whereas there is no vitamin C in black tea at all.

Were the Tibetans right to add tea to their diet? The minor nutritional benefits gained from tea are better than none at all. For the rest of us, eating fresh fruit and vegetables may be a better way to consume those vitamins.

Tea is good for your skin

  • Status: True

Remember those antioxidants I mentioned earlier? Well it turns out they have some anti-ageing properties, preventing wrinkles and other signs of ageing on the skin if you drink your greens.

Topical use of tea leaves reduces sun damage and tea liquid can be used as a cleanser and toner in a beauty routine. You can also make a face mask from a poultice of the leaves to reduce inflammation and detox the skin. Tea decreases oiliness and the tannins also help tighten the skin.

Tea is good for digestion

  • Status: Depends on the tea

The Chinese say oolongs get your stomach going, whereas pu’er strengthens your digestive system and this has largely proven true. Oolongs stimulate your metabolism and alkalise your digestive tract, helping to balance the acids that break down food. Aged pu’ers, because they undergo microbial fermentation, contain a number of beneficial enzymes that can address ailments from constipation to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Both help lower cholesterol.

Research done on green tea extracts has shown increased fat oxidation and improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. It is not clear if you can access these benefits in their entirety by drinking green tea because the liquid and the extracts are processed differently but empirical evidence indicates there are similar, though less pronounced, digestive benefits from drinking a few cups of green tea a day.

Do you drink tea for your health? How do you take your tea as medicine?

– written by Adeline Teoh for Still Steeping, the Teabox blog

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