Everyone's familiar with the myth of the fountain of youth. Legend has it that if you drank from the magical spring's waters, you would remain eternally young.
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While no mystical spring exists to extend your youth (drat!), there is some truth to the fairytale: Drinking water and staying hydrated is important for a healthy body — inside and out — especially as you age.
But H2O isn't the only beverage with big benefits for aging. There's another hydrating drink that adds amazing antioxidants to the mix, multiplying water's benefits: We're talking about tea, people!
Yep, drinking tea daily is associated with having many healthy years ahead. Just ask the tea-sipping adults in the Blue Zones, regions of the world with the longest lifespans and lowest rates of chronic disease, who make teatime a regular part of their day.
In fact, a December 2020 study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that habitual tea drinkers who enjoyed three or more cups a week had a lower risk of heart disease and death (more on this later).
Here, we spill the tea on this healthy beverage's benefits for longevity.
True Teas vs. Herbal Teas
First things first: With so many tea varieties, it can be confusing to suss out which to sip strategically for healthy aging. To simplify, the main difference lies between true teas and herbal teas.
"True" teas — black, green, oolong, pu-erh and white — are all processed from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, says Katrina Hartog, MPH, RD, CDN, director of clinical nutrition at Mount Sinai Health System.
While the type of tea produced depends on different leaf harvesting and processing techniques, all true teas have certain key components in common that provide medicinal properties, including disease-fighting antioxidants and caffeine, Hartog says.
On the other hand, herbal teas come from the roots, leaves, flowers, herbs, spices, fruit, seeds or dried herbs of other plants, Hartog says. “Herbal teas do not contain any caffeine, and the polyphenol content is highly variable depending on the plant origin,” she adds.
Because the majority of the health benefits of tea hinge on antioxidants and caffeine, this article will focus on the perks of true teas unless otherwise specified.
Why You Should Drink Tea for Longevity
True teas tout a ton of health benefits linked with a lengthier lifespan. Here are the highlights:
1. Tea Helps Fight Inflammation
Teas are abundant in antioxidants, powerful plant compounds — including polyphenols, flavonoids and catechins — that counteract oxidation.
"Oxidation is a process that produces unstable chemicals, known as free radicals, which cause damage to various cell structures," says Amanda Holtzer, RD. Oxidative stress can also contribute to chronic inflammation, which plays a role in the development of diseases like cancer.
"As the name implies, antioxidants serve to battle, counter and prevent that process, thereby fighting against bodily damage and breakdown," Holtzer explains.
She says regular tea drinking ups the level of antioxidants in your blood, giving them a better shot at reducing oxidative damage and inflammation that contributes to chronic disease.
While research focusing on tea and cancer prevention is inconsistent (often limited by study methods and designs), there still may be a real connection between sipping tea and a lower risk for certain types of cancers, Hartog says.
Case in point: A large November 2020 meta-analysis in Advances in Nutrition found that drinking tea was tied to lower rates of 11 types of cancer, with the strongest evidence surrounding oral cancer.
Likewise, people who regularly drink tea black tea or green tea appear to have lower odds of developing ovarian cancer compared to non-tea drinkers, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Theoretically, the anti-inflammatory antioxidant compounds found in tea may help suppress the growth of cancer cells, Hartog says. But more studies are needed to understand the correlation.
3. Tea Is Tied to a Healthier Heart
A large, May 2017 study in Heart found that drinking tea daily was associated with a reduced risk of ischemic heart disease (heart issues caused by narrowed arteries).
Similarly, a March 2013 study in the Annals of Epidemiology demonstrated that people who drank four or more cups of black tea had a lower chance of stroke. And a May 2013 study in Stroke noted similar findings for green tea.
Tea's polyphenols may safeguard the inner lining (or endothelium) of the heart and blood vessels, therefore preserving both their structure and function, Holtzer says.
Antioxidants like flavonoids can also assist with improving cholesterol levels, Holtzer says. Specifically, quercetin has been linked with increased HDL or "good" cholesterol and lower triglycerides, she says.
4. It Keeps You Sharp
L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea, may be good news for your brain.
And an October 2017 review in Phytomedicine linked the combo of caffeine and l-theanine in green tea to improvements in anxiety, memory and attention.
The caffeine in tea also helps to improve alertness and attention, even in people without sufficient sleep, per the NLM.
5. Tea May Benefit Your Bones
While osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle, becomes more common with age, drinking tea may help mitigate your risks.
A November 2018 study in Osteoporosis International found that drinking tea was associated with higher bone mineral density scores in people assigned female at birth, but not in those assigned male at birth.
What's more, older black tea drinkers also seem to have a lower rate of hip fracture, per the NLM.
6. It's Associated With Better Quality of Life
Drinking tea may be beneficial for your overall sense of wellbeing and health-related quality of life (HRQOL), which is defined as a person's perception of their mental and physical health over time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That's what a May 2017 study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found. Older adults who were habitual tea drinks had a better HRQOL, as measured by fewer reported problems with mobility, pain/discomfort and anxiety/depression. The authors also noted that this association was stronger for black and oolong teas compared to green tea.
Do Herbal Teas Have Benefits for Longevity?
It’s hard to say. “There are too few studies observing effects of herbal tea consumption and health effects to draw any conclusions,” Hartog says.
Still, you shouldn’t rule out the possible plusses of drinking herbal tea, Holtzer says. For example, certain herbal teas (like mint tea) can help alleviate digestive difficulties, such as gas, bloating and stomach cramps, while others (like chamomile, lavender and valerian root teas) can be soothing and help you catch some shut-eye, she says.
8 Tips for Drinking More Tea
Try these tips to make cup of your tea an even more powerful longevity elixir.
1. Drink Tea Daily
"Make tea consumption a consistent part of your life," Holtzer says. This will ensure you're getting a steady stream of antioxidants.
And frequency is important. The authors of the same European Journal of Preventive Cardiology noted that the body doesn't store polyphenols long-term, so drinking tea daily may be necessary to enjoy its effects.
2. Sack the Sugar
Limit added sugar and pre-sweetened teas, as these add non-nutritive calories to your diet, Hartog says.
Holtzer agrees: "If you're a consistent multiple-cups-a-day tea drinker, I would work on slowly reducing the sugar that you add."
Think of it like this: "If you're adding one teaspoon per cup, and having three cups a day, that's about 12 grams of sugar per day, just from your tea alone," she says.
For extra flavor, add lemon slices or a cinnamon stick instead, Holtzer recommends.
3. Ditch the Dairy
"Avoid adding milk, as studies demonstrate this can reduce tea's antioxidant capacity," Hartog says. That's because "flavonoids are known to 'deactivate' when binding to proteins," she explains.
4. Cook With Tea
If you're not a tea drinker, you can still sneak it into other dishes and reap the health benefits. Here's how: Swap out water for tea when making beans or grains like oatmeal, use dried tea as a rub for meat or try brewed tea as a marinade for chicken, Hartog says.
5. Drink Tea in Moderation
Ever heard the saying too much of a good thing? Well, it applies to tea, too.
"Too much tea drinking can lead to caffeine overload and may cause sleep disturbances or gastrointestinal issues," Hartog says.
Stick to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day, tops, she says. For reference, true teas from the Camellia sinensis plant contain approximately 50 milligrams of caffeine per cup.
6. Talk to Your Doctor if You’re Taking Certain Medications
Certain components in tea may raise concerns for people on some medications. For example, green tea contains vitamin K (which helps your blood clot), so if you're taking blood thinners, talk to your doctor before drinking it, Hartog says.
7. Sip Tea Separately
"Tannins [a type of polyphenol compound] found in tea can reduce iron bioavailability and absorption," Hartog says. Your body needs iron for many essential functions, so to avoid this problem, simply sip separately from a meal, she says. If caffeine upsets your empty stomach, try drinking your tea shortly after a meal instead.
8. Drink (Herbal) Tea Before Bed
"Start a bedtime routine that includes chamomile tea," Holtzer says. "Its sedative effects will help you to relax, unwind and fall asleep faster."
Remember, herbal teas are caffeine-free, so they won't keep you awake.
Teas We Love
- Tazo Awake English Breakfast Tea ($19.68 for 120 tea bags, Amazon)
- Matcha Love Organic Matcha Powder ($18.03 for 0.7-ounce cannister, Amazon)
- Numi White Rose Tea ($5.89 for 16 tea bags, Amazon)
- Celestial Seasonings Peppermint Tea ($15 for 120 tea bags, Amazon)
- Traditional Medicinals Organic Chamomile Herbal Leaf Tea ($24 for 96 tea bags, Amazon)
- Buddha Teas Organic Lavender Tea ($6.99 for 18 tea bags, Amazon)
- European Journal of Preventive Cardiology: “Tea consumption and the risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality: The China-PAR project”
- Advances in Nutrition: “Tea Consumption and Risk of Cancer: An Umbrella Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies”
- Heart: “Tea consumption and risk of ischaemic heart disease”
- Annals of Epidemiology: “Black tea consumption and risk of stroke in women and men”
- Stroke: “The impact of green tea and coffee consumption on the reduced risk of stroke incidence in Japanese population: the Japan public health center-based study cohort”
- National Library of Medicine: “Black Tea”
- Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging: “Tea Consumption and Health-Related Quality of Life in Older Adults”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQOL)”
- Osteoporosis International: “Tea consumption and bone health in Chinese adults: a population-based study”
- Phytomedicine: "Green tea effects on cognition, mood and human brain function: A systematic review"
- Nutrients: "Association of Tea Consumption with Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and Anti-Beta-Amyloid Effects of Tea"
- PennMedicine: "The Hidden Health Benefits of Tea"