What is Inflammation? And How Can Tea Help?

Inflammation has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of the health implications. Inflammation is the body’s immune system response. This article will give you a basic understanding of inflammation and how tea can be used as a tool to combat it.

Two Different Immune Responses

You’re born with a natural immune response system, also called innate immunity. Think of it as a sort of general purpose immune response.  Adaptive immunity is developed after a vaccination or an infection where the body learns to fight a specific agent.

Two Different Types of Inflammation

Acute inflammation is immune system response, such as a scratch or bruise (think of the swelling),  or a germ or virus (think of a fever).   This type of inflammation is shorter lasting – it peaks, as your body deals with it (hopefully) then your body heals and the inflammatory response goes away.

Chronic inflammation can be caused by a variety of pathogens but also environmental and lifestyle factors. Chronic inflammation is slow, and is responding to something it cannot get rid of or stop. One example is Lyme disease, or it could be a deeply lodged splinter, pollution, or exposure to chemicals. Regardless, the long-lasting nature of chronic inflammation eventually leads to serious physical issues that can affect organs and other vital systems. This leads to more serious diseases like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. The problem with this type of inflammation is that you cannot always see it, especially if it’s internal. But it may reveal itself in other ways – such as getting sick often, lack of energy, lethargy, etc.

Thermographic image of the front of the whole body of a woman with the photo showing different temperatures in a range of colors from blue showing cold to red showing hot which can indicate joint inflammation.

You Feel OK, But Are You?

Assuming you are not diagnosed with any serious medical condition, how can you avoid the environmental factors that may lead to inflammation? Some inflammation may not be easily noticed, or might be mild enough to where you feel ‘ok’ but still might be not healthy beneath the surface.

One of the biggest culprits is diet. It’s no surprise that the modern western processed food diet corresponds to the worst possible diet. This is why the prevalence of chronic diseases is very high for people that eat the typical American diet. This is the type of food found in many low-cost restaurants and big chunks of supermarket shelves. Some of the specific culprits are fried foods, white refined carbs, sugary drinks, red meat, and lard.

On the opposite end, foods like olive oil, tomatoes, nuts, leafy greens, fatty fish like salmon, and fruit (including blueberries and oranges) can reduce inflammation. But there are also herbs like ginger and turmeric that are also very effective.

Drinking Tea – An Easy Way to Reduce Inflammation

Your goal should be to prime the immune system using a proper diet. One great way to increase the intake of beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds is through tea. You can drink plain tea to get anti-inflammatory benefits. Polyphenols are the antioxidant compounds found in tea, and specifically catechins. These are found in higher concentrations in un-oxidized tea, such as green and white. Tea also stimulates T-cell production, so you will have a stronger immune system overall. One newcomer on the scene is purple tea. Purple tea is processed just like a green tea, but it has the distinctive purple color from the anthocyanins, the same anti-oxidant compound that makes blueberries so healthy.

As mentioned, many herbs also contain inflammatory compounds. Ginger and turmeric are some examples, but there are many others such as sage, lemon verbena, milk thistle, the list goes on and on. One long-term analysis looked at blue zones: Areas of the world that have longer living inhabitants. Two distinctive areas were Okinawa, Japan and Ikarus, Greece. Both of these areas had certain diet aspects that rank high on healthy foods list, but they both also drank tea. In Japan, it was green tea. In Greece, it was a wild herbal mountain tea. They took the herbal tea and tested in a lab and found the tea contained all sorts of beneficial compounds, and thus the drinkers were exposing themselves to a constant low dosage of nature’s medicine.

A more recent story in the Wall Street Journal showed how gene therapy can be used to customize diets based on your genetics. During the initial trials, they exposed mice to a variety of diets. The control group, representing the “general” population was given these 5 different diets to compare longevity. It was no surprise that the #1 diet in this general group was the Japanese diet, which included green tea extract. Until we get to the stage where individual DNA can be analyzed and the diet custom, tea will at least better the odds for a healthier outcome.

Some people may try to take the shortcut and go to pills. This is not recommended because often the doses of the compounds are too high, and because they are not consumed as a food or drink, they hit your body at much higher concentrations than recommended. Drinking the teas will prevent this, because you would have to drink a massive amount in order to get into the danger zone. And your body will flush out a lot of the excess liquid through urination.  Besides, drinking tea is the same as drinking water.

What are some recommended teas to drink to get these benefits?

Any green/white/purple tea. From a broad health perspective, any type whether flavored or non-flavored will provide benefits. For someone totally new to tea, flavored is always a good way to start out.

Matcha. Matcha is simply a ground up form of tea. Because you are drinking the leaf you get the added benefit of soluble fiber. New tea drinkers may not be totally used to the matcha flavor, but luckily there are a wide variety of flavored matchas. One note, Matcha lattes often contain sugar. Making matcha at home allows you to control this and keep added sugar low.

Herbal teas – Drink herbal teas that contain a variety of spices and herbs. While herbs can be consumed solo, we prefer to have teas that contain a variety of different herbs. We looked at some popular herbal blends and found nearly all the ingredients had some sort of anti-inflammatory benefit.

Oolong tea can be considered as well, especially the green varieties. Just look at the color – if you see green, then it’s probably a good candidate.

Selecting the Best Tea to Fight Inflammation

Quality loose tea is always the best way to go, and remember adding lots of sugar will negate or reverse any of the health benefits. This is why bottled teas, for the most part, are NOT RECOMMENDED as many of them have enormous amounts of added sugars. If you are on the go, take a tumbler with you and just drop a little tea.

Chronic inflammation is heavily influenced by lifestyle choices, diet, and genetic history. Genetics are something we can’t control, but diet and lifestyle we can. 

Diet Factors That Promote Inflammation

  • Highly processed foods, such as those that contain refined carbohydrates, trans fats, and lots of artificial ingredients.
  • Processed meats like hot dogs and cold cuts, which contain sodium nitrate.
  • Fried foods.
  • Sugar.

There are other diet specifics that are beyond the scope of this article which need to be customized to the individual. There is no one-size-fits-all standard. For example, certain meats and dairy may aggravate inflammation in certain individuals while others do not.

Using Tea to Reduce Inflammation

As part of good eating habits, drinking tea will provide your body with many different sources of anti-inflammatory compounds. Tea contains anti-oxidants known as polyphoenols. Catechins are a class of polyphoenols that are found in the highest concentration in green, white, and purple tea. Drinking these teas every day will ensure that you have exposure to these compounds.

When it comes to green tea, loose tea is always preferable over bags. The main reason is that bags, being “fannings” or very small particles, will lose their potency quicker than the loose tea. Also, lower quality tea is used mainly in bags. The main factor in determining a tea’s quality is location. Elevation and soil quality are the main considerations. Higher elevation tea not only exposes the tea to more UV rays, which yields more antioxidants, but they are also away from industrial pollution. 

Why Not Just Take Green Tea in Capsule Form?

The major mistake people make with regards to supplements is thinking that they are a replacement for food. They also do not understand dosing. Green tea, when converted into an extract, can be toxic and lead to liver failure. This is because the dose is many, many times higher. It is a classic example of more is not always better. Therefore drinking tea in moderation will expose your body to a low, but effective dose.

General Tea Recommendations

White and Green Tea

Green tea and white tea contain a lot of these potent anti-oxidants. Some oolong tea (especially the lighter, greener types) will contain them as well. Most herbal tea will also contain anti-inflammatory compounds. Generally, a blend of different herbs will taste better versus just drinking a single herb by itself. As mentioned above, try to limit sweetening your tea. If you are used to sweet tea, gradually lower the sugar content over time. Eventually, your taste buds will become used to the tea flavor. In fact, you’ll realize that high sugar content will cover up the true flavor of the tea.

Herbal Tea

We did a cursory search on a variety of herbs – things like lemon balm, sage, ginger, coriander, nettle, and cinnamon. Each herb was linked to a study with anti-inflammatory and/or anti-oxidant properties. As we mentioned in a previous article, many people who live in Blue Zones (areas of the world with higher life expectancy) all drank tea in one form or another throughout the day.

In Summary

Drinking tea–especially the ones mentioned above–throughout the day provides a mild dose of ‘medicinal properties’ that correlate with improved health. With chronic inflammation being a source of disease, food and beverages that reduce inflammation should be consumed regularly.

Photo “Tea in Cup” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Ryan Adams and is being posted unaltered (source)

This article has been updated from the original 2018 publication.