The health benefits of tea – and when to drink it

Green or black tea – containing antioxidants and compounds that may help reduce inflammation in the body – is commonly seen as superior for our health, but don’t worry if you can’t bear it without a drop of the white stuff.

“It is a health myth that adding milk to tea reduces the health effects of a cup of tea,” says Dr Ruxton. “Research studies have found inconsistent results for aspects like antioxidant effects or polyphenol levels in the blood. This is because polyphenols in tea are not absorbed in the small intestine but are acted on by gut bacteria in the colon. As a result, there is no evidence that adding milk has a negative impact on the health benefits of tea. In fact, for women, adding milk to your tea provides other health benefits as it will add to calcium intakes which protect bone density”.

Supports heart health

“Tea is good for the heart on a couple of levels,” says Ruxton. “The polyphenols, specifically flavan-3-ols – part of the flavonoid family – have positive effects on vascular function, which helps blood flow more easily through blood vessels, making them more elastic and reducing blood pressure. A lower blood pressure helps to reduce our risk of stroke and heart attack (myocardial infarction).” 

Gunter Kuhnle is a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading. He says that the flavanols, found in tea, have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease so much that there is even a recommendation by the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to consume 400-600 mg per day.

“We tried to convert this into normal foods – and that’s roughly three cups of green or eight cups of black tea a day,” says Prof Kuhnle. 

Drinking three cups of black tea a day for six months significantly lowered blood pressure by 2-3 mmHg, it was found in a clinical trial. This is the equivalent effect on blood pressure of losing 2-3 kilos of weight.

Ruxton says the polyphenols may also aid heart health by helping to lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and when Harvard University carried out a large survey on tea drinkers, it found that people who have at least 3-4 cups a day are less likely to have a heart attack.

May improve gut health 

We’ve all become increasingly aware of the importance of gut health – but not all of us fancy drinking kefir or kombucha. Happily, a tea bag is much cheaper and will also bring some benefits to our bellies.

Several natural foods are prebiotic, meaning they promote healthier species of bacteria in the gut, says Ruxton, and tea – both green and black – is one of these special foods. 

“Having a healthy gut microbiota has been linked with a lower risk of constipation, inflammatory bowel disease and respiratory infections, as well as a more balanced immune system.”

She explains this is because the polyphenols in tea are mostly not digested in the upper intestine, they instead pass through to the colon (large intestine) where they are broken down by the gut bacteria for food. 

“The ‘friendly’ bacteria in the gut tend to be the ones that prefer to use polyphenols, and so regular tea drinking promotes these species.”

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