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Healing Tea:
Wonder Plant and Restorative
Beverage of the Ages

by Nozomu "Nez" Tokugawa

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Tea is an ancient beverage steeped in culture and romance. Each day more than a billion cups of tea are consumed, making it second only to water. Many believe tea to be beneficial to the skin, eyes, mental clarity, maintaining a youthful appearance, and longevity. In short, tea has a long and impressive history as a "natural medicine chest" or even a life saving herb.

There are more than 5,000 types of tea, but only one plant, the Camellia sinensis. Types of tea are distinguished by the processing they undergo. Leaves begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried quickly after picking. The leaves turn progressively darker because chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released. The next step in processing is to stop the oxidation process at a predetermined stage by heating, which deactivates the enzymes responsible. This process although not technically correct is often referred to as "fermentation" in the tea industry.

Tea can be generally classified into three major categories: green, black and oolong. Green tea is not fermented at all and most like the actual unprocessed tea leaf. Black tea is fully fermented and oolong tea is partially fermented. The oolong group is very large with specific teas crafted as "greener" or less fermented to almost "black" or more fully fermented.

The differences in "fermentation" gives us distinct flavors and aromas with slight variations in the content of each active ingredient, however all tea contains the same active ingredients: Polyphenols, Caffeine, Phyto-nutrients, Amino Acids, and Aromatic Oils. So how do they work and what do they do in our bodies?

Polyphenols are the antioxidants, collectively referred to as catechins, which work to neutralize free radicals and lower LDL cholesterol levels. This helps reduce the risks of many health problems including cancer and heart disease. Catechins are also helpful for allergic reactions by retarding histamine release. Green teas are the highest in catechins, which is what gives them a more astringent taste. In black and oolong teas, catechins transform into theaflavins and theorubigins which mimic insulin, and thus can be helpful with diabetes.

Caffeine is the first of the water-soluble components in tea to release, making naturally decaffeinated tea as simple as a 30 second hot water "rinse." Caffeine promotes mental alertness, is a diuretic, helps burn fat, and stimulates the central nervous system. However, too much caffeine tends to make us nervous or even experience nausea. Green tea is generally lower in caffeine than oolong, while black tea has the highest levels--still only about half the amount found in most coffee. Tea also has related compounds that work in conjunction with caffeine, resulting in a more relaxed yet alert feeling as they help to regulate over-stimulation. Coffee contains caffeine but none of the related compounds, which may explain why tea has a longer and more pleasant effect on the body and has been used by monks in Asia for over 5,000 years in support of long meditation sessions.

The term phyto originated from the Greek meaning "plant." Phyto-nutrients are certain organic components of plants thought to promote human health. How phyto-nutrients work in the body is an ongoing area of research, however some studies show they stimulate detoxification enzymes, stimulate the immune system, act as antibacterial or antiviral agents, and positively affect hormones.

Amino Acids
L-theanine represents more than 50% of the amino acids found in tea. It remains unaltered only in non-fermented leaves. L-theanine breaks down in the body and primes the response of an immune system element called the gamma-delta T cell. Some studies show gamma-delta T cells in the blood to be the first line of defense against many types of bacteria, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections. L-theanine also promotes the formation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, and increases alpha-waves in the brain. It can relax us, improve memory and work to repair the cranial vascular system assisting in the prevention of dementia. The high levels of L-theanine found in green tea is what gives it a mild sweet taste.

Aromatic Oils
There are hundreds of volatile oils found in the tea leaf contributing to its complex fragrance and taste. The oils accumulate as the tea leaf is growing and will differ due to soil, climate, and seasonality. Some of the oils begin to evaporate during and after harvesting while the processing of leaves can contribute to the formation of other aromatic oils that remain in the finished tea. Larger leaves tend to hold more aroma while finely cut leaves (often found in teabags) may have little or no natural fragrance remaining.

According to The Green Tea Book: The Science-Backed Miracle Cure by Dr. Lester Mitscher and Victoria Dolby Toews: one to two cups of tea daily lowers the risk of severe hardening of the arteries by 46%. Two cups a day leads to a 50% reduction in heart disease in general. Three cups daily lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Four cups a day greatly lowers the risk of skin cancer, and five cups daily lowers stroke risk by 62% in women and 42% in men, plus reduces the chances of developing breast cancer in women.

The story continues to develop as new research is done everyday, but clearly it appears tea can't hurt and could possibly be the answer as to why many cultures for thousands of years have used this single plant to improve health and wellness. To view recently published studies published by the World Green Tea Association of Japan and the fourth International Scientific Symposium on Tea and Human Health visit the Tea Docents website at www.chadoen.com.

A native of Japan, Nozomu "Nez" Tokugawa was raised in San Francisco. He and his wife Donna are the Founding Directors of The Wellness Gardens, a non-profit organization based in Bodega Bay focused on prevention and coping with cancer and other degenerative diseases with the use of horticultural therapy and healthy lifestyles. They are also the co-owners of Chado-En, a premium loose leaf tea company located in Sonoma County. For more information visit www.chadoen.com or call (707) 875-9370.

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