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Tea has been used for over 4700 years and is likely the healthiest beverage on the planet. Because it is loaded with antioxidants, tea can biochemically slow some aspects of aging. The EGcG (catechin) compounds in tea help maintain calorie burning, and have been shown in particular to prevent rebound weight gain. Tea consumption promotes bone health and also reduces gum inflammation.

But likely the greatest benefit from drinking tea is that it lowers your risk for future heart attacks and strokes. Compounds in tea improve arterial function, blood flow and blood pressure. Drinking tea decreases inflammation in arteries (by decreasing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol) which in turn, decreases arterial plaque growth. Drinking tea also keeps your platelets from sticking together, which reduces your risk for a major blood clot. Studies have shown that these cardiovascular benefits come from drinking as little as 3-4 cups of tea daily.

While tea contains caffeine which acts as a stimulant, one cup of tea has only 20-50% of the caffeine content of 1 cup of coffee. And tea has another compound called theanine which improves mental focus and clarity—which is why Buddhist monks have consumed it for millennia. Some people are highly sensitive to caffeine, and the 30 mg of caffeine in a cup of black or green tea can cause symptoms for these individuals. So if you need to avoid caffeine, all information available suggests that drinking decaf tea should have the same health benefits.

As I am writing this blog, my wife Nicole and I are on vacation in the tea production capital of the world, Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, which is reported to produce 80% of the world’s tea.  We discovered a great deal about tea while touring Sri Lanka’s hill country region.

Traditionally, tea pickers with baskets on their backs hand pick the top three leaves on a new stem from tea bushes planted over hillsides. While there are machines that pick some tea, most of the finer teas are still picked by hand.

The tea is dried until half its moisture content is removed. Then the leaves are crushed and rolled inside large machines. To make black tea, the crushed tea leaves are next subjected to so-called “fermentation.” This process is not actually a real fermentation, like making wine from grapes, but rather an enzymatic oxidation of the compounds in the tea leaves, transforming the tea’s flavor. To stop the fermentation process, the leaves are fully dried, allowing some control in the fermentation process.  Typically, the longer the tea leaves are allowed to ferment in their half dried state, the stronger the tea flavor. Green tea preparation skips the fermentation process altogether and the leaves are dried completely or sometimes steamed. Oolong tea is mildly fermented, typically for less than 30 minutes, so it is half way between black and green tea.

Both green and black tea have similar proven health benefits. Black tea has slight more anti-oxidant activity, while green tea has a higher EGcG content. But for your overall health, feel comfortable drinking any unsweetened tea you prefer.

Tea sold in the US often comes in tea bags. Generally speaking, the worst quality of tea leaves are used for instant tea and for tea bags.  The best quality tea comes from dried loose tea leaves that are sold in sealed, air-tight containers.

In particular in Sri Lanka, tea leaves collected from higher altitude have a more refined flavor and are sought after by tea connoisseurs. Lower altitude tea leaves have bolder flavors which some people find harsher but in reality, the elevation differences in flavor become a matter of personal taste.

Many have stated that tea decreases cancer risk, but this remains an unproven claim for now and is based upon laboratory studies. In China, tea has been reported to be contaminated with heavy metals, like lead, while tea plants across the planet are sometimes sprayed with chemicals during the growing season. These unfortunate factors may actually offset some of the theoretical cancer prevention properties from drinking tea. The risk of contamination does make me cautious as to where I buy my tea leaves, and likely makes buying organic tea leaves a better option.

I would encourage you to prepare yourself a proper cup of tea. Start by buying a container of good quality loose tea leaves. Some good regions for tea production that we have found here in Sri Lanka come from Nuwara Eli and Dimbula but there are many excellent tea regions, so you are not limited to just these.

The standard technique to brew tea is to add one teaspoon of loose tea leaves to one cup of pure and clean boiling water and to allow the tea leaves to steep for three minutes, more or less depending upon the strength of tea you prefer. Remove the tea leaves and enjoy. If your tea seems a touch too bitter, then don’t succumb to adding sugar, but take out the tea leaves a bit sooner next time.  A variety of tea leaf screens and spoons are available. You can serve your tea with milk or lemon, but of course from a health perspective, please avoid adding sugar or sweeteners.

I wish you the very best of health!

Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS