Americans should take tea more often

Published 10:43 am Monday, March 7, 2011

Tea is the most popular drink world wide, but in the United States, it ranks behind coffee, soft drinks, milk and fruit juice.

Medical researchers though are finding potential healing powers in this ancient beverage.

The most popular teas are black, red or green. These teas are produced from the leaves, buds and stalks of the Camellia Sinensis plant. Black and red teas are dried, crushed and fermented.

The length of fermentation determines whether the tea will be red or black. Green tea is simply steamed quickly before packaging, and therefore is the least processed. The leaves of the Camellia plant contain chemicals called polyphenols.

These polyphenols act as antioxidants to protect our body’s cells from free radical damage, help prevent premature blood clotting and boost the immune system. Some researchers believe these polyphenols can lower cholesterol levels, neutralize enzymes that aid in the growth of tumors and deactivate cancer promoters.

Since green tea is unfermented, it retains more polyphenols than either red or black tea. Apart from polyphenols, tea contains theanine, an amino acid unique to tea. Theanine, along with the vitamins and minerals found in tea, help fight high blood pressure and premature aging, improve digestive function and help fight viral and bacterial infection.

Tea also contains fluoride for strong teeth. When it comes to caffeine, tea leaves do have higher concentrations than coffee by weight, but more coffee than tea is required to make a cup. Tea also contains small amounts of caffeine-related substances, theophylline and theobromine. These substances, along with caffeine are known as xanthenes. All three have similar actions in the body, but differ in their intensity.

Caffeine is absorbed rapidly and appears in all the body’s tissues within about five minutes of ingestion, and reaches it’s peak in about 30 minutes. Mild doses of caffeine; 85-250 milligrams (the equivalent to one to three cups of coffee) help suppress fatigue and improve alertness, but higher doses produce nervousness, restlessness and insomnia.

Xanthenes increase blood flow to the heart, but if used in excess, may trigger irregularities in the heartbeat. In contrast to the dilating affect on other blood vessels, xanthenes constrict the blood vessels in the brain. For this reason, caffeine may relieve some headaches, and is often a component of both prescription and nonprescription headache medications.

With the focus of so many individuals today on “natural,” “caffeine-free” alternatives to coffee and tea, “herbal” teas have become very popular. Actually herbal teas aren’t really teas at all in the true sense of the word-that is they aren’t made from the Camellia Sinensis bush, but rather are brewed from flowers, leaves, seeds, bark or roots of any plant or combination of plants. Popular tea blends include ginger, cinnamon, mint, lemon, orange and apple.

While it’s true, many herbs have been approved by the FDA, it is equally true many have not been tested for safety for use as teas.

For example, a pinch of nutmeg, when added to eggnog, produces no harmful effects, but when brewed into tea can cause dizziness, rapid pulse and disturbed vision.

Also, remember, just because its “herbal” or “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe. Mandrake, hemlock, belladonna, curare, lobelia, root of pokeweed, mistletoe, wormwood and fox glove are all herbal, but highly toxic.

This is what I recommend to enjoy herbal teas safely:

1) Buy only tea bags (not loose tea) from well-know manufacturers. 2) Use any new variety sparingly. If there are no adverse effects, use more next time. 3) Read the ingredient label carefully. The names of certain teas don’t really tell you what’s in them. 4) If you take medications, over the counter, or by prescription, check with your physician before indulging in herbal tea. 5) Never gather leaves, buds and other plant parts to make your own herbal tea, some of these can be deadly. 6) Don’t drink more than 2-3 cups of herbal tea a day, since its long-term affects aren’t really known. 7) If you are pregnant, always check with your doctor before starting any herbal tea.

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David Crocker of Landrum has served as strength director of the Spartanburg Y.M.C.A., strength coach S.C. state champion girls gymnastic team, USC-Spartanburg baseball team, Converse college equestrian team, lead trainer L.H. Fields modeling agency, taught four semesters at USC-Union David was also a regular guest of the Pam Stone radio show.