Antioxidants Make Your Tea a Truly Superior Drink

We've all heard that tea has tons of health benefits. We may sip a steamy cup when we have a cold, or drink it to soothe a sore throat, but few of us know exactly how and why it improves our health, and even fewer know that the chemical compounds of the delicious, calming brew can actually help gird your immune system against certain types of cancer. The secret lies in the naturally occurring compounds found in the tea leaves. What makes tea such a perfect addition to a healthy lifestyle? It’s all in the antioxidants.

Before you roll your eyes, yes, it’s true that the antioxidants claims are wildly overblown. Objectively unhealthy snacks full of empty calories and loaded with sugar will sometimes add a bit of acai berry or blueberry and proclaim in a splashy graphics that seem to evoke those daytime television segments that describe antioxidant as the cure to cancer, the mood-elevator, and every other superlative that might make any discerning individual view antioxidants as nothing short of snake oil. From red wine to carb-loaded energy drinks, antioxidants now seem to be everywhere. But what made antioxidants such a marketing craze?

Antioxidants are molecules that work on your behalf to slow down and fight oxidation, which is a chemical process that produces free radicals. Now, this can be good and bad, depending on where the oxidation takes place. Oxidation in the human body can cause cell breakdown, wreak all kinds of havoc, and lead to sickness and disease, even causing cancer. Oxidation in tea is part of the process that takes our beloved beverage from a plant to something we can drink, and is partly responsible for the color and taste of each type of tea. The longer a type of tea is allowed to oxidize, the more complex the flavor will be.

The type of antioxidants that come from plants, including tea leaves, are called polyphenols. Now, polyphenols are divided up into six kinds, the largest of which are called flavonoids. Of course, flavonoids are separated into their own sub-classes, but when talking about tea, we only care about two of those: flavanols (that's not a typo, folks; the names are really that similar!) and catechins.

Still with me? Hold on tight, because we're going deeper! As the tea leaves go through their color change during the oxidation process we talked about, the catechins are changed from one relatively simple molecule into two far more complex ones: theaflavins and thearubigins. This, in a nutshell, is what makes these types of teas, including black tea and oolong, so good for you, and why even though tea is allowed to ferment and “oxidize,” it's still packed with antioxidants that fight the oxidation process in our bodies.

In fact, studies now show that the thearubigins in black tea have many, many health benefits, and can reduce the effects of various diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, melanoma, and prostate cancer. The arubigins can also reduce the amount of cholesterol your body absorbs from the foods you eat to help ward off hyperlipidemia and heart disease.

Theaflavins have been shown to improve microcirculation in women (this refers to the circulation of blood in the tiniest blood vessels embedded in organ tissue), though the clinical research on this is still in its infancy, and more study will be necessary to really see what it can do. The catechins found in tea also help reduce body fat, and prevent bad breath and tooth decay.

Certain antioxidants in green tea are great for reducing your risk of cancer. These antioxidants act as protection against breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer (colon cancer). However, it has been proven that adding milk to your tea negates the effects of its antioxidants. Even the proteins in soy milk have negative effects on antioxidants.

Of course, tea isn’t the only source of antioxidants. Antioxidants can be found in most fruits, tons of vegetables, and even nuts! Eating healthy is a great way to up your antioxidant intake, but not all of us can eat healthy all the time. On those days when you only have time to grab food on the go, a cup of tea at the end of the night becomes all the more important.

Antioxidants alone are not some a panacea, but you might consider working in a nice cup of tea into your daily routine instead of trusting in your red wine—however tempting those “glass of red wine a day” articles and TV segments may sound! Your body will thank you for it.

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