Tea, healthy tea

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Popping the kettle on is always a welcome remedy, and the humble cuppa is bursting with health benefits


We don’t need scientific studies to confirm we’re a nation of tea-lovers. Various statistics show that the average Irish person drinks four to six cups of tea a day.

What science can confirm, though, is that tea is officially good for us, in countless ways. It can help to prevent strokes, type 2 diabetes and can even reduce stress. In short, it’s a bit of a wonder product.

“[We] started drinking tea in the 17th century, when it was introduced by the Dutch and Portuguese,” says Jane Pettigrew, a tea historian who’s written a number of books on the topic, including A Social History Of Tea (Benjamin Press, €18.99).

“The East India Company, who had the monopoly on trading goods from the South China seas into England, started importing its own supplies in 1669.”

At the time, all tea came from China. Initially, it was an expensive luxury item enjoyed by royals, wealthy aristocrats and the upper classes but over time, this began to change.

“When tea was first drunk it was hailed as a cure-all, with such benefits as curing headaches, memory loss, stomach problems, skin disorders, scurvy,” says Pettigrew.

“Back then, those stories were based on legends and experiences arriving with travellers and tea merchants from China. But gradually over time, research has shown that a lot of these stories are actually true.”

Dr Tim Bond, from the Tea Council’s Tea Advisory Panel, will vouch for this.

“One of the most interesting things about tea is flavonoids. They’re antioxidants and help support our body cells, and are recognised as being important in terms of long-term health.

Black tea is actually the number one source of flavonoid antioxidants… there have been some really good studies recently on the associated health benefits, including reducing the risks of certain types of cancer.”

These studies, he explains, analyse data gathered through other research, looking at incidence rates of particular illnesses and people’s lifestyles and diets, and rooting out significant correlations. Recent examples found regular tea drinkers were less likely to develop oral cancer, for instance.

“There’s also evidence that tea helps control blood pressure fluctuation, and growing evidence for a link with reduced cognitive decline,” adds Bond.

Research published in the American Society of Nutrition earlier this year reported that high tea intake (seven or more cups a day) was associated with a 63 per cent reduction of cognitive impairment, medium intake (four to six cups) with a 55 per cent reduction and low intake (one to three cups), 44 per cent. A number of recent studies have also found strong suggestions that drinking tea can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

But don’t worry, adding milk won’t ‘undo’ these beneficial effects, Bond points out,. Drinking cups of tea throughout the day even count towards your recommended daily water intake.

Green and herbal teas are often portrayed as being ‘more healthy’ but, scientifically speaking, Bond says that’s not the case. In fact, the qualities associated with all varieties of tea are vast, and even if you’re making your selection based on personal preference, you can’t really go wrong.

Of course though, we don’t just love tea because it’s ‘good for us’.

“If we only drank for hydration, we’d just drink water,” says tea expert Bruce Ginsberg, “the reason people drink something for a second time, is because it pleases them. Tea has a curious pleasing affect.”

Ginsberg is passionate about all sorts of tea, but has a particular affection for Rooibos (also known as Red Bush), which hails from the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa.

Rooibos is naturally sweet and caffeine-free and Ginsberg says it helps him sleep.

“It has a very subtle, relaxing effect,” he says. “I always have it at night, and remarkably I always have an extremely good sleep. I know people who wake up in the night and they’ll make a strong mug of it.”

The wellbeing benefits of drinking tea go far beyond the contents of the brew too. Ginsberg has travelled the world exploring the culture and history of tea, and explains how for Buddhist monks drinking tea was an essential part of their meditation rituals.

“In meditation, what you’re after is relaxed alertness,” he says. “You’re very relaxed, but your senses are also open and alert, and this is the curious affect that tea can have.”

The ritual of tea drinking is a big part of its magic, and Ginsberg says we shouldn’t underestimate the wellbeing-boosting power of the whole experience of taking tea.

“There are two ways to drink tea, and that’s either through a social ritual, people coming together and having fun or having a gabble, or it’s a quiet moment on your own,” he says.

“The smell and taste are crucial parts, but the ritual begins before that. Even as the tea is brewed and poured and passed to you, you begin to compose yourself. You calm and quieten down and your senses are engaged, ready to lift that cup to the nose, and then you have a taste. You’re bringing your whole body into a state of mindfulness.”

Tea, in its ultimate form, combines experiential and ingestible elements, and similar principles are at the heart of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian health system which inspired the popular Pukka tea range.

“Drinking herbal tea is one of our longest and favourite pastimes,” says Sebastian Pole, author of A Pukka Life (Quadrille, €15).

“Natural plant compounds have developed to protect plants from the ravages of nature, and they can also be of benefit to our health. For example, lots of essential oils that give a plant a delicious smell can help ward off infections [and other illnesses].”

Connecting people and plants is at the heart of the Pukka tea range, Pole notes, and different types promise different effects.

“For example, if you want more energy herbs like liquorice, cinnamon and ginger are helpful,” he says. “If you want to soothe your nervous system, chamomile, oat straw flowers and lavender are helpful.”

With such endless benefits, it’s no wonder that Ginsberg and Pettigrew are confident the popularity of tea is certain to endure.

“Tea consumption’s growing because people recognise the health benefits,” concludes Pettigrew. “But it’s also popular because of its ability to calm us, cheer us, make us feel safe, comforted, relaxed, soothed.”

As Ginsberg puts it simply, “tea is very, very special” WW