Tea. The word conjures up colorful mental images. At this moment, I am visualizing a coterie of young ladies, attired in Victorian-style apparel, properly seated around a lace-draped table, gingerly sipping a beverage from dainty English bone china teacups, and tittering in high-pitched melodious tones while sharing the day’s gossip.

But tea drinking is so much more than a social ritual; it could actually be a lifesaving one. Although more research is needed, there is considerable evidence that tea drinkers may have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer.

In the early 1990s, researchers noted that Japanese women who practiced the art of chanoyu, the traditional tea ceremony, had much lower mortality rates than other women. Scientists soon realized that the chemical compounds in tea, mainly polyphenols, are among the most potent antioxidants ever discovered. Antioxidants are substances that can prevent or slow down free radical damage to cells.

Tea may help battle cancer

Studies confirm that drinking tea cloud be among the most effective lifestyle approaches to preventing cancer. One study found that people who drank green tea as seldom as once a week had lower rates of pancreatic, and possibly, colon cancers. It has also been found that women who drink tea regularly run about half the risk of contracting rectal or pancreatic cancer as compared to women who rarely or never drink tea. In skin cancer studies, laboratory animals that were given tea developed only one-tenth as many tumors as animals that were given water instead.

Tea may reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke

The polyphenols in tea play a protective role anywhere in the body where free radicals can do damage, including the arteries. The chemicals in tea prevent cholesterol from oxidizing.

Dutch researchers reported that men who consumed the most polyphenols had a 58% lower risk of dying from heart disease than men who consumed the least. A recent study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology involved more than 100,000 adults in China, and found those who regularly drank tea were less likely to develop atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, or die prematurely from any cause — particularly stroke — compared to others during a seven-year follow-up. European research discovered that people who drank eight ounces of tea a day were less likely to have severe narrowing of the arteries.

Types of teas and their health benefits

The type of tea you drink can make a difference in the health benefits you receive. All non-herbal teas are derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, a shrub native to China and India, and all contain antioxidants called polyphenols. The more processed the tea leaves, the less polyphenol they contain.

Green tea is made with steamed tea leaves. This tea contains antioxidants which may interfere with the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic and colorectal cancers, prevent clogging of the arteries, and reduce the risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Black tea is made with fermented tea leaves. This tea contains a lower level of antioxidants than green tea, and has the highest caffeine content of all teas. It may protect the lungs from cigarette smoke damage, and may reduce the risk of stroke.

White tea is uncured and unfermented. One study showed that white tea has the most potent anticancer properties compared to more processed teas.

In an animal study, those given antioxidants from Oolong tea were found to have lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.

Pu-erh tea is made from fermented and aged leaves. Considered a black tea, its leaves are pressed into cakes. One animal study showed that animals given

Pu-erh tea had less weight gain and reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.

The bottom line

Tea has less caffeine than coffee. All teas contain flavonoids, which are good for the heart and may reduce the risk of cancer.

In fact, most nutritionists agree that any tea is good tea. Brewed tea is preferable to bottled, to avoid the extra calories and sweeteners.

So, why not sit back and relax, any time of day or night, and enjoy a pick-me-up

from a cup of your favorite tea. Sweeten it with honey. Squeeze in a bit of lemon juice.

Flavor it with cinnamon, ginger or a spice of your choice. Drink it hot or iced.

And rest assured: You will be treating your mind and body to a cup of health!

Louise Whiteside, a long-time resident of D.C. and Maryland, now resides in the Colorado Rockies. She loves memoir writing, bargain hunting, cooking, country music, theater, and travel.

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