Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Tea and Health?

I try not to read too much about the health benefits of tea. (Yes, I know I just wrote a couple of posts about how good ginger and chamomile are for you… and they ARE good for you… and so is regular tea, particularly of the green variety… but I don’t really think that my comments fall into the tea-vangelical category that many other tea-and-health postings on Camellia sinensis do.) As someone with a background in herbal medicine, who is also often stubbornly resistant (still) to taking Panadol for even the most blinding headache, I am fascinated by the capacity of plants to do us good.

Yet the most tea-vangelical of the tea-vangelists (and I may be thinking here about some of the lovely people at T Ching, who are clearly passionate about their tea, but sometimes a little obsessed; witness some of the comments posted to articles on their blog) often decry the practice of drinking black teas – particularly with milk, heaven help you – and portray green and white tea drinkers as the chosen few who will inherit the kingdom of good health… and woe to anyone who dares to touch a nice cup of English Breakfast with milk and a bit of sugar… (cue thunderclaps, lightning, and the howling of wolves)

Ok, so maybe that was a bit extreme, but truly, I find all this information a little bit depressing, which is why I tend to avoid it. I like my black teas (with milk, depending on the kind) equally as much as my greens and whites and oolongs, and nothing spoils enjoyment of something so much as being told that it isn’t good for you. Well, nothing spoils my enjoyment more, anyway; I imagine there are some quirky perverse spirits out there who would revel in such information and indulge with all the more relish in the ‘guilty’ pleasure.

I can certainly see why adding milk to black tea (or any tea, mind you, though that would largely be yukky instead of potentially delicious) may inhibit its health benefits: tea derives many of its healthful properties from flavonoids which, as I understand it from my herbal medicine classes, are bound by proteins (such as those in milk) and rendered less active. But honestly, so what? There are many many other sources of health-giving plant nutrients in the world, and so long as you’re consuming a variety of them I don’t think anyone should be too fussed about their tea consumption, of whatever sort.

There are also vast differences between an infusion of a plant, which is drunk, and the individual constituents of that plant extracted in a laboratory and then concentrated, made into creams and applied topically, or sold as tablets to be taken. MarshalN makes this point beautifully in a recent post at his Tea Addict’s Journal. What’s more, there are oodles of other reasons to drink tea of all kinds, completely apart from any health benefits that might accrue to you: it’s warming or cooling, depending on the type and how it’s brewed; it’s refreshing and thirst-quenching; it can be a pleasant social ritual or a soothing quiet time on one’s own; and it comes in so many myriad shapes, colours and flavours that you could probably spend the rest of your life exploring them. I certainly intend to…

Monday, 18 May 2009

Gingerly, gingerly...

I have been suffering from the most rotten cold over the last week or so. I thought I might be going to escape the plague that was sweeping my work area, but alas, it was not to be. I’m through the worst of it now, but up to probably the most annoying stage – where you’re clogged and coughing but, unfortunately, unable to dislodge anything useful by blowing your nose. Very irritating – but fear not, I shan’t continue with any more detailed dissection of my symptoms, it is quite safe to read on.

So needless to say my sense of taste is rather shot at present, which means that only the strongest flavoured teas are of any use to me… I’ve been having quite a bit of peppermint (indeed, I am drinking some greedily as I type), but my current favourite morning tipple is ginger tea with lemon and honey, guaranteed to soothe my throat and refresh me after a night of sniffle-interrupted sleep. I am normally quite a fan of just lemon-juice-in-water first thing in the morning (that’s my inner naturopath for you), but it’s 2 degrees or less in Canberra when we get up at the moment so something rather more warming is called for, and ginger tea hits the spot.

Ginger is a very therapeutic herb, whether as tea or as part of the diet. It reduces nausea, soothes the digestion, warms the stomach (promoting better digestion that way as well), and improves circulation to all parts of the body, particularly the hands and feet. It also appears to have strong benefits for the other parts of the circulatory system, helping to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as being anti-inflammatory.

Ginger tea is a funny thing for me, though. It has to be plain, or combined only with other spices – I cannot bear it mixed with lemongrass, which is a very common combination and it is almost impossible to find ginger tea bags that are unadulterated with lemongrass. (Don’t get me wrong; lemongrass is delicious on its own or with other citrusy-flavoured herbs, but add it in with ginger and it makes me sick. I believe I am rather unique in this respect.)

Fortunately, at the health food shop where I used to work in Melbourne, Health Reflections ‘Just Ginger’ tea bags are available (this is one case where I prefer tea bags, as I think dried ginger makes better-tasting tea than fresh, but the powdered stuff you use for cooking is too fine to be much use). I bought myself a couple of packets in the early stages of my pregnancy, during a trip back to Melbourne, to help with the nausea – ironically, as it turned out, the very idea of ginger tea made me even MORE nauseous, so I never drank any (should’ve got the capsules instead). However, I’m super-glad that I had it on hand because it has been terrific for helping with my cold.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Liquid Gold

I read a Terry Pratchett book some years ago – I can’t remember which one it was now – in which he described a sunrise as flowing over the land like molten gold. This was followed by a footnote which explained that, given that actual molten gold would be very very hot, very heavy and set things on fire in short order, the sunrise actually wasn’t that much like molten gold, really. This is the kind of thing that simultaneously amuses and irritates me about Terry Pratchett’s writing, but obviously it was a snippet that stuck with me, seeing as how I remember the lines something like 15 years after I read the book.

So, if we are going to be as literal about it as all that, chamomile tea is not actually THAT much like liquid gold either, but taking a metaphor as a metaphor, it could certainly be worth its weight in gold,* for all its usefulness and good qualities.

Chamomile is an excellent calming tonic for the nerves; many herbal books point to its use by Mrs Rabbit when Peter comes back all upset after his escapades in Mr MacGregor’s garden to indicate its soothing qualities and suitability for children (and rabbits, presumably). It can be used for anxiety and sleeplessness (it is not a sedative, just relaxing). It also is excellent for digestive upsets and bloating, particularly those of a nervous or stress-related origin, but also on its own merit because of its volatile oil content and somewhat bitter taste.

(Just to crack out my inner naturopath for a bit, bitter foods tend to be underappreciated in this day and age, despite the many benefits they have. The bitter flavour stimulates the digestion, promoting the production of digestive juices such as stomach acid, and it cleanses and cools the liver; it draws energy into the centre of the body, rather than leaving it out at the periphery, and thus has a calming effect on the fight-or-flight response, in which circulation is diverted out to the muscles. The liver-cleansing properties of many bitter herbs and foods also means that they can have useful secondary effects on other conditions, such as skin and hormonal problems. But ok, that’s probably enough information for now and I’ll leave off my rave. The take-home message is: don’t be afraid of bitter foods and drinks; welcome things like radicchio, dandelion, endive, grapefruit, chamomile, even Angostura bitters into your life!)

Chamomile is also anti-inflammatory, and the tea can be used to soothe skin inflammations and sensitive skin. Chill it and soak some cotton pads in it to make a very refreshing eye mask, or use as a toner after cleansing.

Chamomile blends well with other relaxing herbs such as rose petals, lavender and lemon balm; or for a stronger digestive effect, mix equal parts chamomile, peppermint and lemon balm.

Some people who have an allergy to plants in the daisy (Asteraceae) family may not tolerate chamomile – but for just about everyone else, it’s great!

* although, given how light and fluffy chamomile is, you might get an even better deal if you were able to wrangle it so that you received its volume in gold… now that would be something


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