THE BLOG
06/11/2010 07:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tea: The Elixir of a Long Life

Lengthen your years, starting with this one simple tip: drink more tea. Delicious, low-calorie and brimming with antioxidants, tea is one of the most commonly enjoyed beverage by centenarians around the world, second only to water. Even in the US, its popularity is rapidly growing. With the healthy longevity benefits you stand to gain, you too will want to drink up.

What is tea and what makes it so healthy?
Technically speaking, "tea" is the dried and processed leaves of Camellia sinensis, a tree that is indigenous to Asia. There are four main varieties of tea: black, oolong, green, and white tea. (Yellow and pu-erh are two other varieties of tea, but are not as widespread.)

Black tea, produced when tea leaves undergo an oxidizing process that turns the leaves black, has the strongest flavor and the highest caffeine content -- about one third the caffeine you would get from the same cup of coffee. Oolong tea is slightly less oxidized and has less caffeine. Green tea is steamed, rolled and dried immediately after harvest, which halts the oxidation process, allowing the leaves to retain their green color. White tea undergoes the least processing -- the young tea buds are picked and air-dried. All of these varieties have different health benefits, with green tea and white tea leading the pack.

According to studies published in the Journal of American Medical Association, tea lowers your risk of death from all forms of cardiovascular diseases. And, there is growing evidence that tea potentially has cancer-fighting properties, plays a role in improving beneficial intestinal microflora, wards off diabetes, and helps protect your brain from free-radical damage. Also, the amino acid L-theanine, found almost exclusively in the tea plant, actively alters the attention networks of the brain, stimulating the production of alpha waves in the brain and producing feelings of well-being. Because it crosses the blood/brain barrier, it can increase levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which benefits mood while improving learning and concentration.

While all the choices are good, in many ways, green tea brings the most benefits to the table. Research has found that green tea has the power to effectively protect against Alzheimer's disease and other forms of mental degeneration with its natural anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory properties. Green tea is packed with polyphenols, antioxidants that have been found to increase cognitive acuity and learning ability. One particular polyphenol is responsible for these beneficial brain effects: catechin. The concentration of catechins in green tea is four times that of black tea. Researchers aren't exactly sure why, but some conjecture that the minimal processing used for green tea may help to preserve a higher concentration of the antioxidants.

How to get the benefits into your body? A study from Purdue University found that more antioxidant catechins are absorbed in the bloodstream when citrus is added to the tea, so for best effects, squeeze a little lemon in your teacup.

What about herbal tea?
Well, herbal tea is not really tea at all, but actually an infusion or tisane made from various leaves, flowers, fruit or herbs. For thousands of years, the Chinese have blended specialized herbal teas from plants that exhibited medicinal properties to maintain health and prevent illness.

While "real" tea has many health benefits, a major pro to herbal tea is that it is caffeine-free. Originating from plants, herbal tea also offers many of the same polyphenol antioxidants that benefit your long-term health. Also, you can tailor your tea to your needs by selecting herbs and plants that address the health issue you want to target. To soak up some of the health benefits, try the following key herbal teas for health and longevity.

Peppermint has many well-documented properties: it increases healthy gastric secretions, relaxes the intestines, soothes spasms, settles the stomach, and alleviates gas.

Ginger, also extensively studied, has been shown to soothe the digestive lining and balance gastric juices. It will also naturally fire up your energy. Make ginger tea by slicing fresh ginger root into two inch long slices and boil in one cup of water for five minutes. Strain out the ginger and sip the tea slowly.

Chamomile is another excellent herb for settling the stomach. It also soothes the nervous system and relaxes the muscles, making it a perfect choice for the evening, an hour before bed.

For maximum health benefits, I suggest you work with a licensed acupuncturist or traditional Chinese medicine practitioner to find an herbal blend tailored specifically to your health needs. Among my patients, a very popular herbal tea is Internal Cleanse Tea, which is specially combined to detoxify, calm nerves, clear the mind, balance emotions and ease digestion.

Here are some brewing tips for the best health benefits:

• Tap water affects the taste of tea, so it is better to use water from a high-performance filtration system, such as Aquasana.
• To extract the most beneficial compounds from the tea leaves or bags, let them steep for three to five minutes.
• It is best to drink tea unsweetened and without milk, which can minimize some of the health benefits. Forgo the sugar and try instead honey, stevia products, or a stick of cinnamon.

I hope you drink to your health for years to come! May you live long, live strong, and live happy!