There’s a certain trendiness to some healthy lifestyle choices. Whatever the latest Hollywood starlet is doing to keep her skin clear and her hair shiny can become all the rage among fans who want to follow suit.
But it can be a little hard to figure out the fads from the facts.
Because one minute it may be kale… and the next, it’s grapefruit… and next thing you know, they’re sending you off to the health food store for some other new ground-breaking elixir. That’s why I like to let the science speak for itself. I dive into the literature that’s out there so I can analyse the genuine health breakthroughs from the popular ones.
And few natural substances have as much research behind them as the antioxidant properties of green tea. But with all due respect to green tea and its remarkable healing properties, I confess: I do love drinking black tea.
During my time studying Traditional Chinese Medicine in Warwickshire in the heart of England, I watched my professor enjoy his afternoon cup of tea (always a good English black tea) and lemon biscuit, day after day.
Now, many years later, I enjoy the same ritual.
While I do drink green tea, I still crave the rich taste of an English breakfast tea… the smoky quality of Russian caravan tea… or the aromatic blend of Earl Grey. And so, you can imagine how pleased I was to come across research supporting the health benefits of black tea – especially when it comes to the ageing brain!
But first: a little background on green tea and why there’s been such a ‘craze’ about its health benefits.
Why so many folks go green
When it comes to green tea, researchers tend to focus on its component with the fancy name of epigallocatechin-3-gallate, which is mercifully better-known as EGCG. EGCG is a type of antioxidant known as a catechin, which belongs to a larger grouping of plant substances collectively known as polyphenols. With their strong neuroprotective properties, as well as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, polyphenols are one of the most powerful tools you can use to reduce the presence of damaging substances in your body, known as reactive oxygen species (ROS).
And since inflammation and oxidative stress damage almost always arise in cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia, it’s not surprising that researchers would study how EGCG-rich green tea might combat these neurodegenerative conditions.
There are far too many studies about the use of EGCG in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease for me to review them all here, but to give you a sense of the massive scale, a quick search on Google Scholar turns up 4,530 articles that have focused on EGCG and Alzheimer’s since 2013!
Much of this research focuses on the effect of EGCG on beta-amyloid deposits – specifically, how it can prevent them from creating the neurofibrils (the ‘tangles’) that eventually lead to an increase in neural-cell death in Alzheimer’s disease.
In one pilot study, even normal levels of green tea consumption reduced the progression of loss of cognitive function in the elderly… and, in some situations, even improved it.1 Interestingly, black tea and green tea actually come from the same source: Camellia sinensis leaves.
At the beginning, they BOTH have EGCG!
But whereas the green tea leaves are withered and then heated, the black tea leaves are macerated and then allowed to ferment before being dried. And that fermentation lowers the amount of EGCG in the black tea leaves, which is why it’s gotten a ‘bad rap’ compared to green tea.
India cracks the health benefits of this English afternoon tradition
But that doesn’t mean that black tea comes without any positive health effects!
In fact, in 2011, German researchers found that black tea has uses in the treatment of both Alzheimer’s (beta-amyloid) and Parkinson’s disease (alpha-synuclein).2 And here’s where it gets interesting – because it seems that the maceration and fermentation process actually increases another group of important compounds in black tea. And those are called theaflavins.
Now, theaflavins have antioxidant properties in their own right. In fact, some researchers feel that the theaflavins in black tea and the catechins in green tea are of equal potency!
But more recently, some research has suggested that the theaflavins are potentially even MORE useful than EGCG!
That’s because the theaflavins from black tea actually may interfere with those beta-amyloid deposits at multiple points, and not just one.3
The newest findings that really got me excited came out of India – which is no surprise, since it has the highest consumption of black tea in the world.
In this particular study, 150 patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s were divided into three groups. Two of the groups were on the drug donepezil, a common treatment for Alzheimer’s.
Some of them were given black tea without milk or sugar – just 2g of tea that was steeped in hot water for 15 minutes – and they drank six cups a day for six months.
Using a standardised cognitive screening test called the Montréal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), the study found that while both groups that took the drugs actually improved their score (whether or not they drank the tea), the improvement in the black tea group was significantly higher.4
Bounce back even after your brain takes a beating
But that’s not all that’s beneficial about this remarkable beverage and its chemical components. Black tea also contains an unusual amino acid called L-theanine.
A number of studies have demonstrated L-theanine to have a neuroprotective effect after stroke and cerebral injury. L-theanine has even been shown to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is essential in repairing the brain.
In addition, L-theanine freely crosses the blood-brain barrier, where it acts as a neurotransmitter to calm the brain and lower anxiety. This is a pretty amazing activity – in spite of the fact that regular black tea contains a fair amount of caffeine!
But it certainly explains why having a cup of tea can be so relaxing.
How do you take your tea?
So, while I’ll still be drinking a few cups of green tea spread throughout my day, I’ll still be having my ‘wee cuppa’ (as the Brits called it) around 2 in the afternoon.
I do it, of course, for all of the above reasons – but that’s not all.
It also provides a calming and tasty afternoon break – especially if I treat myself to one of those lemon biscuits as well.
After a lifetime of chugging caffeinated tea and coffee, though, these days I mostly drink decaf. My wife tells me that I had a good run – and now it’s time to put my youthful habits away!
And I don’t add milk or sugar, either.
If you don’t like drinking your tea, you can get the compounds I’ve mentioned above in supplement form.
L-theanine is most often found in ‘stress relief’ or ‘sleep support’ formulas, though you can find it in capsule form on its own as well.
Green tea extract in powder or capsule form has a particular potency of green tea catechins like EGCG, which can make up as much as 30 to 42 per cent of its total composition!
Just keep in mind that when you’re taking polyphenols as supplements, it’s especially important to choose a high- quality product instead of opting for the cheapest one available.Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.