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Taking Time for Tea

The spotlight is on tea, with questions about whether it may be the ultimate health drink. Drinking this age-old beverage has been reported to potentially protect the body from ailments as serious as cancer. Do these claims hold water? For now at least, scientists are taking a wait-and-see approach, as research continues.

Antioxidant power

True tea—black, green, white, and oolong—all come from the leaves of the same plant, Camellia sinensis. What interests researchers are the chemical compounds in tea leaves (polyphenols, flavonoids, and catechins) that serve as powerful antioxidants. In the body, antioxidants help repair cell damage that can lead to serious health problems, including cancer.

In recent years, scientists have conducted tests on tea to better understand what its health benefits may be. Researchers especially want to learn if and how tea might:

  • Prevent certain cancers

  • Strengthen bones

  • Reduce the risk for heart disease and stroke

  • Protect the skin against sun damage that leads to skin cancer

Tea and cancer

Some reports about tea’s cancer-fighting abilities have been encouraging and others disappointing. Early research showed that when mice with cancerous tumors were fed black and green tea, the tumors got smaller. But in cancer studies on humans, results were mixed. Some researchers found that tea drinkers had less cancer than nontea drinkers. But in other studies, no difference in cancer rates was seen. In weighing the evidence so far, the National Cancer Institute has called results from tea reports “inconclusive.”

More studies to determine the benefits of tea are under way. In the meantime, you may want to drink more tea just to take advantage of the beverage’s natural antioxidants. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Make it green. How tea is processed determines whether it is classified as green, oolong, or black. Green tea, produced when fresh-picked tea leaves are steamed or heated, is the least processed. As a result, it contains higher levels of antioxidants than black tea, which is fermented and oxidized.

  • Herbal teas are different. Herbal teas come from the leaves of a variety of plants. Only green, black and oolong teas are authentic teas. Use herbal teas with caution. Some varieties, such as “dieter’s tea,” may be harmful.

  • Drink it dark. Faster isn’t better when it comes to health benefits. To get the maximum benefit from your tea, experts suggest steeping a tea bag in water for five minutes. This gives the antioxidants time to be released into your drink.

  • Be wary of supplements. You can buy supplements that contain concentrated tea extracts, but regular tea in your cup is a safer bet. The extracts may interfere with blood-clotting medicine, such as aspirin. Check with your health care provider before taking any supplement, natural or otherwise.

Don’t count on tea alone to prevent or cure health problems. Many other factors, such as exercise, a healthy diet, your genes, and your lifestyle, determine your overall health and well-being.