The Science of How Tea Benefits Your Brain

There’s no denying that, as you age, your brain slows and cognitive function declines. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re destined to live out your days in a brain fog or develop dementia or worse. The best bet you have to put the odds in your favor are your lifestyle habits. Take care of your brain and it will take care of you.

It may seem daunting to adopt healthier habits, but this doesn’t mean you have to overhaul your whole life at once. One really easy thing you can do to today to benefit your brain is drink tea. That’s right. Research is showing that simply adding a few cups of tea to your day can help your brain and body stay healthy.  

What Exactly is Tea? 

Tea, which has been consumed for centuries, is still one of the most favorite drinks around and is the second most popular beverage in the world today – surpassed only by water.  Over 158 million people in the US drink tea on any given day, according to the Tea Association of the USA. In Britain, 165 million cups of tea are consumed daily

Just to clarify, the term “tea” can be broadly used to mean any blend of herbs, fruits, flowers, or leaves, steeped in water to make a beverage. True “tea” comes from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. What many of us call herbal teas, such as chamomile and rooibos, are actually tisanes or infusions. The differences in true teas result from how the tea plant’s leaves are processed: black teas are oxidized (exposed to oxygen) a few hours before rolling and drying, deepening their color, while white teas and green teas are simply steamed, rolled and dried. Think of oolongs as hybrids; their leaves are partially oxidized before drying.

Brain-Boosting Ingredients in Tea 

Tea, in general, contains a number of plant polyphenols, catechins, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals, which have been proven to have a wide range of health benefits for your body. Science is also determining that these ingredients may be just as beneficial for your brain and cognitive health. A phytochemical is any of various biologically active compounds found in plants. Some of the many found in tea are:

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are a diverse group of chemicals, found in almost all fruits and vegetables, which are responsible for the vivid colors.  They have antioxidant powers and reduce inflammation. Diets rich in flavonoids have been associated with reduced risk of a variety of diseases. Flavonoid-rich foods include cocoa, apples, onions, cranberries, tea, and red wine.

Caffeine

Caffeine, which is found in most teas, but not all, in smaller amounts than coffee, is the most well-known brain booster. As you are probably aware firsthand,  the effects of caffeine are fairly immediate and include increased alertness, wakefulness, and attention. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Studies have discovered that people who consume caffeine regularly have improved thinking ability and long-term memory performance.

L-Theanine

Tea also contains the amino acid, L-Theanine, which has a relaxing effect without inducing drowsiness. When caffeine and L-Theanine are consumed together, as in tea, research shows that people experience increased alertness, reaction times and working memory while the mental fatigue that can be felt with caffeine alone was reduced. When ingested regularly over 16 weeks, the combination also improved memory and cognitive alertness.

Studies reveal that L-theanine increases the production of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, which has anti-anxiety effects. It also increases serotonin and dopamine and the production of alpha waves in the brain.

Catechins

Tea has various catechins. Catechins are phenolic compounds, found in abundance in tea, cocoa, and berries, with potent antioxidant properties. In studies with mice, the catechins in green tea prevented cognitive dysfunction and other negative changes in the brains of “at-risk” mice while improving working memory. One study found them to also have cognitive enhancing and anti-depressive effects. Another study on humans showed catechins to improve attention.

The Many Ways Tea Helps Your Health

The outcome of much scientific study proves that tea is a powerfully healing elixir. Specifically:

The Science of How Tea Benefits Your Brain

Which Tea for What?

Regardless of the variety or how you serve it, cold or hot, you can maximize the power of tea’s healthy ingredients by drinking it freshly brewed. If you want to keep a pitcher of cold tea in your refrigerator, add a little lemon juice, to it before storing. The citric acid and vitamin C in the lemon helps preserve the flavonoids.
Making your own iced tea is easy—and much cheaper than buying the bottled or powdered stuff. It can also be healthier. While iced tea is generally lower in antioxidants than hot tea because it’s diluted with ice and water, you can counteract that tendency by starting with an extra-strong brew. For a stronger, healthier brew, steep it longer.

The article, Types of Tea and Their Health Benefits, provides the following information about which teas to drink for specific benefits:

  • Green tea: Made with steamed tea leaves, it has a high concentration of EGCG and has been widely studied. Green tea’s antioxidants may interfere with the growth of bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers; prevent clogging of the arteries, burn fat, counteract oxidative stress on the brain, reduce risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, reduce risk of stroke, and improve cholesterol levels.
  • Black tea: Made with fermented tea leaves, black tea has the highest caffeine content and forms the basis for flavored teas like chai, along with some instant teas. Studies have shown that black tea may protect lungs from damage caused by exposure to cigarette smoke. It also may reduce the risk of stroke.
  • White tea: Uncured and unfermented. One study showed that white tea has the most potent anticancer properties compared to more processed teas.
  • Oolong tea: In an animal study, those given antioxidants from oolong tea were found to have lower bad cholesterol levels. One variety of oolong, Wuyi, is heavily marketed as a weight loss supplement, but science hasn’t backed the claims.
  • Pu-erh tea: This tea is considered a black tea and is made from fermented and aged leaves.  One animal study showed that animals given pu-erh had less weight gain and reduced LDL cholesterol.
  • Chamomile tea: The antioxidants may help prevent complications from diabetes and stunt the growth of cancer cells.
  • Echinacea: Often touted as a way to fight the common cold, the research on echinacea has been inconclusive.
  • Hibiscus: A small study found that drinking three cups of hibiscus tea daily lowered blood pressure in people.
  • Rooibos (red tea): Rooibos is a South African herb that is fermented. Although it has flavonoids with cancer-fighting properties, medical studies on this tea are limited.

A Few Words of Caution

  1. Most teas are benign, but the FDA has issued warnings about teas marketed to dieters. They may contain senna, aloe, buckthorn, and other plant-derived laxatives.
  2. It’s best not to drink tea on an empty stomach. Tea can dilute and inhibit the secretion of gastric fluids, reducing lower digestive tract function.
  3. Try not to drink tea 20 minutes before or after eating. The oxalic acid in tea can interact with iron and protein in food to inhibit absorption.
  4. Watch your caffeine intake with tea. Too much caffeine can lead to increased anxiety.  Drinking tea before sleeping. could disrupt your sleep.
  5. People with gout should know that drinking too much tea can aggravate the condition. The tannin in tea can interact with uric acid casing high levels in the body.
  6. It’s best not to medication with tea. The tannin in tea can interact with certain medications, lowering their efficiency and absorption.
  7. If you have a stomach ailment, green tea can irritate the problem. Red tea is better.
  8. Children under 12 should avoid drinking strong teas because the polyphenols can interact with iron in food. This can inhibit absorption and result in anemia in children.
  9. Pregnant women should also avoid drinking strong teas because both the polyphenols and caffeine. These substances can interfere with the development of the fetus.

Contributing Author

Michael Austin is a blogger, healthy lifestyle enthusiast with slight “addiction” of planning and organizing – whether it’s about weight loss, body detoxing or yoga. Evidence of these addictions can be found as informative articles at sirjasonwinters.com website where Mike is currently working as a content manager.

7 Comments

  1. Fascinating! I no longer drink black tea – too much caffeine for me. But I love green tea and feel encouraged reading about all it’s benefit.

  2. I used to be a big black tea drinker, being a Brit…but once I stopped having diary, hence no milk in my tea, it didn’t taste so good. And other milks just didn’t work for me. But it’s good to know that the other teas I now drink have loads of benefits. Can’t go wrong with that! 🙂

    • I understand. Cofee just has no appeal to me without the creamer – although I did make the switch to almond milk based creamer just fine. I usually only like green teas with honey and lemon. 🙂

  3. I want to know which is better for reducing Parkinsons risk and dementia risk. Coffee or tea? I only have so much liquid I can drink in a day.

    • Dean, I’m sorry. I do not know. I would have to research it, and I’m pretty sure then, it would boil down to an opinion. My advice to you is to see which one you think works better.

    • Hi, Dr. Greger has plenty of information on tea and coffee at nutritionfacts.org.
      He no longer recommends coffee.

      • Interesting. Thank you for sharing that info. Some things I read still have coffee with neuroprotective benefits. But then, some things I read advise against it. I think it’s still undecided.

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