Sometimes there’s nothing cozier than a good book, a soft blanket, and a steaming cup of tea. But tea can do more than just fend off the cold. For centuries, people have drunk different varieties of tea to get specific health benefits. And modern research has shown that teas can have all sorts of healing abilities, from aiding digestion and circulation to fighting cancer, slowing aging, and boosting your immune system. Teas are generally divided into herbal and non-herbal varieties; both types provide a range of benefits.
Non-herbal tea is made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The amount of processing that the leaves undergo determines what type of tea is produced and the amount of caffeine in it. White teas are minimally processed, and the leaves are picked when they’re very young and still covered with the fine white hairs that give the tea its name; green teas are made by simply drying the leaves; and the leaves of black teas undergo different degrees of oxidation. Herbal teas are, of course, made from many different types of dried herbs, such as ginger, chamomile, and peppermint, to name just a few. They typically contain no caffeine.
The Green and the Black
Non-herbal teas contain tons of antioxidants—in fact, some studies show that they can have up to 10 times more antioxidants than certain vegetables. Antioxidants are known to help fight cell-damaging free radicals in the body, including those caused by tobacco use or other harmful chemicals.
More and more studies also show that consuming green and black teas helps combat certain cancers, including skin, prostate, lung, and breast cancer.
The strongest evidence of tea’s beneficial effects applies to cardiovascular health. A recent study showed that people who drank four or more cups of green tea a day reduced their chances of heart attack by up to 32 percent. If the idea of downing four cups of tea a day seems a bit much, try drinking one cup of matcha instead, which is made from ground green tea leaves and has much higher concentrations of both antioxidants and caffeine than an infusion.
Tea can be prepared in countless ways. If you tire of drinking it straight, make a zingy treat by adding some fruit juice plus a little ginger and honey to a hot green or black tea . If you’re feeling extra adventurous, try a smoothie made with matcha powder (available at almost any health food store or well-stocked grocery store), coconut milk, and avocado.
Herbs in the House
Herbal teas—also called tisanes—can be made from almost any type of herb, and each brings its own specific health benefits to the party.
Several varieties of herbal tea can address digestive health. In addition to its calming effect on the mood, chamomile tea helps quiet gastrointestinal spasms, so it’s a helpful supplement for those with irritable bowel syndrome. Ginger teas are known to help reduce nausea, and mint teas also help relax the stomach.
While there’s more research about the benefits of green and black teas, , the medical world is beginning to study herbal teas more closely. For instance, preliminary findings have shown that drinking three cups of hibiscus tea a day can help lower blood pressure, and that the antioxidants found in chamomile tea might help prevent complications from diabetes.
One of the best things about herbal teas is the myriad ways in which you can prepare them—there’s no limit to the concoctions you can create. Start by trying a turmeric-ginger tea with fresh-squeezed or muddled oranges (turmeric is anti-inflammatory); a mint tea with lemon and fresh herbs (mint is good for upset stomachs and cold relief); or hibiscus tea with a cinnamon stick (in some studies, hibiscus has been shown to lower blood pressure).
Whether you choose a green, black, or herbal variety, trying a new tea can open you up to a world of fantastic flavor that’s steeped in healthy benefits to boot.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.