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8 Surprising Health Benefits of Tea

Tea lovers live longer, healthier lives research suggests

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We don’t know exactly how the late Queen Elizabeth II managed to live a full, vigorous, 96 years. But we do know she had one habit, shared by many of her subjects in the United Kingdom, that just might contribute to a long, healthy life: She drank tea every day.

While tea is not as popular in the United States as it is in the United Kingdom, or many other parts of the world, the latest research on tea and health just might be enough to win over some U.S. converts. And the millions of Americans who already drink tea can sip their next cup knowing they might be fighting everything from heart disease to stress to thinning bones, researchers say.

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Although some of the research on specific benefits is inconclusive, “the bottom line is that tea is a healthful beverage,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, an active professor emeritus of nutrition at Tufts University. After all, he and other experts say, tea is a plant food. Whether it’s black, green, or oolong, all true teas come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. (Herbal teas, which come from a variety of plants, may have different benefits).  

True teas all contain compounds known as flavonoids that are antioxidants, meaning they can prevent or delay some kinds of cell damage. Some flavonoids in teas, called catechins, appear to fight inflammation, protect blood vessels and have other potentially healthful effects. While catechins are higher in green teas than in the black teas favored in the United States, it’s not clear whether that makes a health difference, Blumberg says. For one thing, he says, blood tests have found similar flavonoid levels in people who drink green or black tea.

Other substances in teas, including caffeine and an amino acid called L-theanine, might also contribute to health benefits, researchers say.

Different teas might have some different effects, “but that’s the kind of detail we really haven’t hashed out quite yet,” says Marilyn Cornelis, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University. “We’re only really beginning to understand more about tea and its health benefits.”

With that said, research done so far does suggest that tea might help you:

1.  Live longer

People in the United Kingdom who drank two or more cups of tea daily had a reduced risk of death over more than a decade of follow-up, according to a study published in September in Annals of Internal Medicine. The study, led by researchers at the National Cancer Institute, was notable because it was big, including half a million people, and because it included mostly black-tea drinkers. Previous studies showing that tea drinkers live longer had mostly focused on green-tea drinkers in Asia.

A caveat: While these studies show tea drinkers live longer, they don’t prove tea is a reason. Tea drinkers could have other characteristics or habits, unaccounted for by researchers, that matter. Cornelis, who was a coauthor on the recent study, also notes that British tea drinkers might differ in some ways from tea drinkers in the United States, though both favor black teas.

One difference, Blumberg says, is that the Brits tend to drink their tea stronger. The study didn’t look at tea strength, though.

2.  Lower your risk of heart disease

If tea helps people live longer, a big reason might be that it protects heart health. The recent longevity study of people in the U.K. found that tea drinkers were less likely to die of any sort of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.


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Other studies have suggested tea might help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol profiles. Inflammation plays a big role in heart disease, so it makes sense that the anti-inflammatory flavonoids in tea could help, Blumberg says.

3.  Lower your risk of diabetes

Studies on whether tea is linked to a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes have produced uneven results. But one recent review of multiple studies suggests that tea drinkers do get some protection — if they drink quite a lot of tea. The study, presented by Chinese researchers at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, found a 17 percent lower risk among people who drank at least four cups a day.

4.  Manage your weight

Tea, like coffee, has an obvious appeal for people trying to avoid extra pounds: It’s calorie free, at least if you don’t add milk or sugar, says Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic. It can be a tasty, hydrating, hunger-curbing alternative to sugary sodas and other caloric drinks, she says.  

Some studies suggest the pairing of caffeine and catechins in tea might help people burn more calories and fat. But the jury is out on any real-world effects on weight.

Supplements containing green tea extracts “haven’t been shown to produce a meaningful weight loss in adults who are overweight or obese,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Some weight loss products containing green tea have been associated with rare cases of liver damage, the center says.

5.  Stay sharp and alert

Caffeine, of course, helps many people perk up. Studies show it can boost alertness, attention, reaction times and physical performance. But the amount of caffeine needed to maximize benefits without getting unwanted side effects, such as jitters and poor sleep, differs from person to person, Cornelis says.

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That’s one reason tea might hit the spot for some people: It has less caffeine than coffee. In one small study, people who sipped caffeinated drinks all day got a similar boost in alertness whether the drink was coffee or tea — but they slept better after a tea-drinking day.

An open question, Cornelis says, is whether caffeinated drinks can boost longer-term cognitive functioning and reduce dementia risks.

6.  Feel less stressed

Just the act of brewing a cup of tea can provide a “calming moment,” Blumberg says. “It’s really very mindful to put a kettle on the stove to brew a cup and wait a minute while it steeps in your cup.”

Taking another few minutes to just sit with a warm beverage is relaxing too, Zeratsky says.

But some substances in tea, including the amino acid L-theanine, also may aid relaxation, Cornelis says. Some research supports the idea that tea drinking helps people recover from stress more quickly.

7.  Keep your bones strong

In some studies, drinking tea is associated with greater bone density in older adults. One study that included about 1,000 men and women found the highest bone density in those who had been habitual tea drinkers for at least 10 years.

8.  Prevent cancer… maybe

Studies on whether tea drinkers get any protection from cancer have produced inconsistent results, Blumberg and Cornelis say. Some studies suggest a benefit might exist for certain cancers. But, in the recent study of people in the UK, researchers did not find a lower rate of cancer deaths among tea drinkers. Some studies even find a possible link between drinking very hot tea and an increased risk of certain esophageal cancers.

Does It Matter How You Take Your Tea?

What’s in your cup (or glass or bottle) of tea? The answers can vary widely. While some differences might not matter, others probably do, experts say.

Among true teas, from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, these are most popular:  

  • Green tea: This is the favored tea in Asia and is less processed than other varieties, leaving more of certain plant compounds in the finished product. A typical cup has 28 milligrams of caffeine.
  • Black tea: This is the most popular tea in the United States. It is processed in a way that leads to fermentation and changes in color and taste. A typical cup has about 50 milligrams of caffeine, roughly half of what’s in a cup of coffee.
  • Oolong Tea: This tea is processed in a way to create a flavor and caffeine profile about midway between green and black teas.

Current research provides no strong reason to pick one over the other, says nutrition researcher Jeffrey Blumberg of Tufts University. You might take your lead, he says, from aficionados who “pair tea with food the same way that some people pair wine with certain foods.”

Other factors to consider:

Decaffeination: Tea, like coffee, can be decaffeinated. The process reduces antioxidant levels, but only by 10 to 15 percent, Blumberg says.

Milk: Some studies suggest that proteins in milk bind to flavonoids in tea and make them less available in the body, Blumberg says. But other studies find no such effect. A recent large study showing a longevity advantage for tea drinkers found no differences among those who took milk in their tea. Blumberg notes that a splash of milk in a big mug of tea may have a very different effect than a drink that’s half milk and half tea.

Sugar: Loading your tea up with sugar, which has many negative health effects, could easily cancel out any benefits, says researcher Marilyn Cornelis of Northwestern University.

Icing it: A recent tea industry report said that 75 percent of tea consumed in the United States is iced. Much of that tea may lack the benefits of hot tea, Blumberg says. For one thing, he says, it tends to be diluted, by ice, and is often loaded with sugar. Also, much of it is bottled and, partly because of long shelf times, lacking in helpful plant compounds, he says. The fix for iced-tea lovers, he says, is to make your own strong brew, with two tea bags per cup, then add ice and drink immediately. Even leaving tea in the fridge, he says, can lower its potency. Also good to know: The recent longevity study found no differences among people who drank their tea at varying temperatures.

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