For decades now people have made claims for the health benefits of various beverages we ingest regularly. Coffee, wine (remember the French paradox, now known to be based at least in part on faulty public health reporting), and beer have all had their media moments of being touted as healthy. Sometimes the claims can be quite extravagant. Among those drinks common to cultures the world over – tea has had it share of exposure. Among the health benefits made online and in popular media outlets are that green tea promotes brain health, bone density, supports immunity, protects against cancer, balances blood sugar and helps prevent diabetes, slows aging of skin – the list goes on. Due to much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer in most of East Asia, scientists have honed into major elements of the eastern diet. Tea, naturally, has drawn considerable attention. One study concluded that tea (black or green did not matter) administered to lab animals prevented the development of atherosclerosis in the test subjects by as much as 68%! After I finish reading things like that, I want to stir up a gallon of green tea and drink it down. Bam! Methuselah, here I come. If I drink a gallon of green tea daily, maybe living to 938 is not all that far-fetched. Or is green tea the beverage equivalent of the chiropractor: having definite benefits, but unlikely on its own to cure cancer?
The good news is there is sound science behind the anti-oxidative properties of green tea. Teas are particularly rich in polyphenols. Green tea is especially rich in epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) with well attested anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties, which studies have indicated has a protective role in disease prevention. EGCG is a powerful free radical scavenger and antioxidant. Multiple independent scientific studies relate EGCG with health benefits, including its potential role in prevention and treatment of ocular disease. Research also indicates that green tea ingestion – five cups daily seemed to be most beneficial – correlated with lower cardiovascular disease.
Unfortunately, like most antioxidants, EGCG is unstable in the human GI tract and has poor bioavailability, so scientists continue to search for ways to deliver it effectively in a whole host of therapeutic conditions. While drinking that third mug of green tea is not going to harm you and very likely is beneficial, potential efficacious effects are likely governed by a whole host of factors, among them individual metabolism. Not only do we still not fully understand the precise relationship between oxidative stress and illness, we have very little knowledge about how to deliver efficacious polyphenols to targeted areas in the body – or if these antioxidants which, on the surface, seem so promising, are even really a major key to health.
The bottom line? Drinking tea probably offers a small net good to your body, but it probably is not the panacea that it is often touted to be.
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