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From legend to science the health benefits of tea

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From legend to science the health benefits of tea

From Legend to Science: the Health Benefits of Tea

Throughout the world, tea and coffee rival each other as mankind's most popular brewed beverages. For thousands of years, however, tea has had one great advantage over coffee: it is believed to have a wide range of medicinal properties. In his book, Tea in China, John C. Evans states that ''if tea had not possessed a medical reputation, the beverage we know today might never have existed.'' (Evans 19) Research in fact proves that tea owes its reputation as much to its health benefits as to its taste, and this has been true, since tea made its first appearance in ancient China more than two thousand years ago.

No one is sure where and when tea was first brewed; stories about tea's origins are more myth than reality. One story tells that a legendary Chinese leader and medical expert, Sheng Nong, discovered tea as a medicinal herb in 2737 B.C. One day while he was boiling water under a tea tree, some tea leaves fell into Sheng's pot of boiling water. After drinking some tea, he discovered its miraculous powers and immediately placed tea on his list of medicinal herbs.

John Blofeld, in Chinese Art of Tea, writes that ''it can be confidently stated that tea was known in the three kingdoms epoch (AD 222-277).'' More importantly, however, ''tea [was] originally drunk for its medicinal properties.'' (Blofeld 4) Evans links the early popularity of tea to Taoist religious practices during the Qin Dynasty (201 'V 207 B.C.). ''Taoists in particular became obsessed by long life and an Elixir of Life became a Taoist ideal. For Taoists the Elixir of Life was believed to be tea.'' (Evans 20)

Almost every writer who records the history of tea notes that it was originally consumed for its therapeutic effects. Zhang Binglun says that ''much was written in ancient Chinese books'' about tea, and in particular, about its health benefits:

Drinking genuine tea aids in quenching thirst and in digestion, checks phlegm, wards off sleepiness, stimulates renal activity, improves eyesight and mental prowess, dispels boredom and dissolves greasy food. One cannot do without tea for a single day. (Binglun 334)

Zhang Binglun refers to modern studies that that lend scientific support to ancient claims of tea''s medicinal properties: ''Experiments made on guinea pigs reveals two-thirds less fatty acid in the faeces of animals that have been given 10ml. of tea after each meal than in the controls.'' (Binglun 335) He concludes, ''it is not without scientific basis that tea drinking has since ancient times been considered health inducing and a remedy for disease.'' (Binglun 335)

Eventually the tea trade began, and the reputation of tea as medicine spread beyond China''s borders. In his book, Tea, Jamie Shalleck states that ''tea reached Germany and then France from Dutch sources.'' (Shalleck 45) At first, reports Shalleck, ''French medical authorities were on guard;'' some Seventeenth Century doctors approved tea''s medical benefits, while others ridiculed it ''as both cure and mental stimulant.'' (Shalleck 47)

Eventually French medical authorities argued that tea did have medicinal properties, but to realize its benefits, tea must be ''properly administered.'' (Shalleck 49) In 1759, tea became listed in Nicholas Lemery''s Dictionnaire Universel des Drogues Simples, which states:

It rejuvenates and recreates the spirits, it disperses the vapors, it prevents drowsiness, it fortifies the brain and the heart, it hastens digestion, it stimulates urination, it purifies the blood, it is appropriate for gravel and gout.'' (Shalleck 51)

As early as 1615, English traders with the East India Company were aware of the existence of tea. Surprisingly, the English and Scottish were suspicious of tea and saw it as ''an improper diet, expensive, wasteful of time, and calculated to render the population weak and effeminate.'' (Shalleck 68)

In recent years, the legendary medicinal properties of tea have been given serious scientific support. In Psychology Today (May 'V June, 1999) an article on tea discusses ''an explosion of research" which indicates that,

tea, particularly green tea, provides numerous health benefits. Studies show that drinking four cups of green tea a day can reduce the risk of developing stomach and lung cancer as well as heart disease. (Chatterjee 26)

The Journal of Alternative Therapies reports the results of a recent Dutch study showing that the flavonoids found in tea could dramatically reduce the risk of stroke. Flavonoids are ''vitamin-like compounds that occur naturally in tea and in fruits and vegetables. They make blood cells called platelets less prone to clotting, and they also act as antioxidants, countering the artery-damaging potential of highly reactive free-radical chemicals.'' (Mollins 10) One of the great values of the Dutch study is that it is the first one to show that the flavonoids found in tea can protect from stroke as well as heart attack.

In a very detailed analysis of tea's chemical properties, M.J. Mulky points out the same thing as the Dutch researchers did. Tea contains chemical agents such as polyphenols which can cleanse the body of free radicals:

Cancer, arthritis, skin wrinkling, and the aging process have been ascribed to [free radicals]. The polyphenols in tea can offer a logical ...

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