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tea & your health: an orientation
Dr John Weisburger(1), President Emeritus for Research, American Health Foundation
Since antiquity, many have written of the health effects of tea. When the beverage reached the English speaking world, its salutary effects were one of the first selling points(2). Various experiments had been conducted since but it was in the 1960’s that systematic and serious scientific researches began, intensifying in the past three decades. Findings have increasingly pointed to the extraordinary potency of tea as a health drink, exceeding even the claims in traditional beliefs.
These health benefits are printed in many publications and posted all over the internet so we shall present some of the more reliable sources and list the summaries in several pages in this site. We think, however, there are more we can share as experienced insiders and users, so we shall also write about it from our experience and understanding.
A Holistic Look
Before you read on to some of the recent scientific findings, I would like to stress that they cover only a part of what tea is. There are tens of potent materials in tea and we are only beginning to understand a few. They have been isolated in studies and applications now but the synergic effects of these substances are yet to be understood.
Tea had begun as a medicine over 3,000 years ago, some say 5,000. Today, leaves from certain older strains of drinkable varieties of Camellia sinensis, if just dried under the sun like they still do in Yunnan, can still be bitter and harshly astringent, which could well be what tea tasted like then. By 59 BC, however, tea had somehow already become a household drink and a hospitality item in the western half of China(3). In order for it to be used in such capacity, the taste of the plant must have changed because of the domestication over that early millennium.
tea: Most abundent in flavonoids
Both the horticulture and processing of tea have evolved dramatically since then. Hundreds of cultivars yield thousands of selections available today to suit different taste preferences and consumption pattern. Because of the change in the plant nature as well as processing methods, the biochemical compositions of the products become different. The salutary properties thus vary from one another. Quality grades make even greater gaps between selections. In 2007, US Department of Agriculture published a survey(4) of the different flavonoid contents (a group of crucial health contributing substances in plant products, to which tea polyphenols belong) of various produces, highlighting especially those of green and black tea. The flavonoid amounts in the tea in this survey can be tens of thousand times different. The staggering figures reflect not only the potency difference between tea types but also that between different qualities. Use of better qualities is therefore not only a matter of taste, but also one of health.
The USDA survey was only preliminary in terms of presenting tea as green, black, and an under-representation of oolongs. Within these groups, the vast biochemical differences between the hugely available selections have yet to be studied. They have not even touched the categories of white and post-fermented teas. Flavonoids are just one group of substances in the many bioactive constituents of tea. In fact, many unanswered questions have yet to be researched in this unique drink.
The Next Direction: A Gestalt Understanding of Tea
Although there have been a large number of medical researches in tea in the past twenty some years, only a few substances have been isolated for studies for their effects against limited number of ailments. The gestalt effects of tea on the human wellbeing as a whole have much areas yet to understand.
Nevertheless, tea has been considered as a health beverage both in the East and West with long lists of its benefits.
For a few years I have spent much time in the retail frontline to be in close contacts with end-users from various backgrounds. Healthy people, old and young, from school children to medical scientists, and people with ailments, from emotional trauma to cancers. These people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds have helped to reinforce and refine my understanding the drink. Their experience added significant dimensions, additional observations and insights to my own experience, and all the scientific reports I have read.
I think one most overlooked topic in understanding the drink in health term is the understanding of its holistic nature and the various manifestations in the different varieties. Their relationship with the unique physiological state of the individual is an important consideration. I can only share my empirical understanding in this respect and some of the language would have to be mixed with that of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I hope the readers will forgive this mix of tones in the related writings published here now and in the future.
Not just a supplement or medicine
Tea can mean harm though, if abused or misused, though the effects would be far lighter than if you abuse other substances, such as food or alcohol. I have listed some common sense in the “Do’s and Don’ts” page in this section, as well as a few substances in tea that some people would have a concern of.
However, tea should not be seen as a medicine<more>. Not only, maybe. A customer with terminal multiple cancers made the best of the last few months of her life spending much time over tea in the hospital, doing tea interest groups and preparing it for inmates. Less than a year before, she had joined one of my tea classes to learn about tea and gongfu infusion skills. Tea failed to change around her fate, but it has most positively been a companion, to her and the people she shared with.
I have been encouraging my 9-years-old boy to experience more tea, but I cannot tell how well it has contributed to his health. However, his confidence in telling people about handling hot teapots and distinguishing various teas by taste is always amusing.
As for myself, tea is not only a “keep well” and the finest drink, but it is also my regular excuse for leaving the seat for a break.
Tea is a healthy habit far more than the biochemical dimension.
1. Dr Weisburger has held many titles in the medical fields and has been a well-recognized researcher in cancer prevention in the US. This quote is seen in many publications and similar sayings appear in his own books. He said he drinks 8 cups of green tea a day. He is 89 yrs old at the time of this writing. American Health Foundation went bankrupt in 2004 due to financial issues.
2. There were quite a number of artifacts advertising tea in 17th century England, but the most quoted one was a circular by Thomas Garway "in Exchange Alley, near the Royal Exchange, in London, Tobacconist, and Seller and Retailer of Tea and Coffee" in 1660. It was written in a style that maybe suitable in his time, but really hardselling and not that scientific. We suspect that he might have been inspired from some dainted translation of classic Chinese writing passed to him by merchant sailors by words of mouth. Click here to read a replication of his leaflet.
3. "Tong Yue" (Contract for Household Male Slave), by Wang Bao in 59 B.C., as compiled in the encyclopedic “Gu Wen Yuan” (The Garden of Ancient Literature), vol 17 in the 9th century A.D. In an incidence when a male household slave argued that he should not be sent out of town to buy wine, the minister in Chengdu (capital, Sichuan Province) wrote a standard contract, so as to set the scope of duties for all to follow. The duties included preparing and serving tea to the guests and buying tealeaves from a famous source 30 km away in Wuyang.
4. Data available from USDA Database for the Flavonoid Content of Selected Foods, Release 2.1 (2007) at the USDA official link.