When I started eating a paleo/primal diet, the hardest thing for me was giving up black tea with (skimmed) milk. This great British staple is such a way of life for many of us that to even consider giving it up seems intolerable. We have a cup of tea to get us going in the morning. We collapse with a cuppa in the afternoon to enjoy a moment’s peace in a frenetic day. If we have a friend or loved one in a crisis we will offer: “How about a cup of tea”. But to folks in other countries this is a strange and unfathomable habit.
Now, while this was one of the most difficult aspects of my new diet, in the long term it has been the most rewarding. In trying to find an alternative I discovered the wonderful array of Chinese teas. This was inevitable really. I couldn’t drink coffee all day or I’d be totally wired. I loath herbal teas, especially fruit flavoured teas. I haven’t drunk sweetened soft drinks in decades. Tea was the way to go.
Tea drinking in China is alleged to go back to the mythical Shen Nong, ‘the Father of Agriculture’ and herbal medicine. Legend has it that one day Shen Nong was poisoned by some wild plants he was tasting to see their effect on the human body. He brewed some tea leaves and the toxins were cleared from his body. Although tea (Camellia sinensis) was originally drunk as a medicine, it became a popular drink amongst China’s wealthy and educated classes. Today it is the national drink of China, especially green tea.
During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) teas was attributed the properties of:
- Improving health, relieving fatigue and headaches.
- Dispelling hunger.
- Counteracting the effects of alcohol.
- Preventing drowsiness.
- Cooling the body in summer.
- Clearing the Shen (mind) and banishing worries.
- Helping the digestion of fatty foods.
- Clearing evils (toxins) from the body.
- Promoting long life.
- Promoting self-knowledge.
Modern scientific research has also found many good things to say about tea drinking. The healthy properties of green tea, for example, are attributed to anioxidant compounds called polyphenols. The active polyphenol in green tea is epigallocatechin and research is focused on proving that it protects healthy cells in the body by clearing damaging free radicals (that is, a negatively charged reactive molecule, not a single anarchist). The research suggests that drinking tea can reduce the risk of developing serious illnesses like heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Tea in general, and white and green teas in particular, contain less caffeine than coffee. Green tea contains an amino acid called theanine. Theanine is an analog to glutamine and glutamate and can cross the blood-brain barrier. It has psychoactive properties and and has been shown to reduce physical and mental stress and improves cognition and mood. It has multiple effects in the brain, including increasing GABA and dopamine. Its ability to promote a relaxed but alert state of mind was utilised extensively by both Chinese and Japanese monks (Buddhist and Daoist). Indeed, modern research suggests that L-theanine is able to promote alpha wave production in the brain, which is associated with this relaxed but alert state.
A small study has suggested that theanine may help the body’s immune response to infection.
So it would seem that modern research does back up the claims of the ancient sages of the Tang dynasty of China. There are many different tea varieties in China which I will discuss in a future post, but it is fair to say that they all taste delicious without the addition of milk.