There are good reasons why black tea is one of the world’s most popular beverages, second only to water. It’s soothing to sip a cup of hot tea. And there’s nothing like a glass of iced tea to make a sweltering summer day more bearable. Black tea also has many health benefits.
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Tea drinking dates back to the third century. And yes, your ancestors knew what they were doing when they simmered black tea leaves over a fire. “Black tea is rich in flavonoids,” says registered dietitian Kayla Kopp, RD, LD. “These plant chemicals are good for you.”
Black, green, oolong and white tea all come from the Camellia sinensis plant. These teas differ from herbal teas, which are made from dried herbs, spices or the leaves of other plants. Whether you prefer traditional black tea or something different, all teas can be healthy.
Kopp shares three health benefits of drinking black tea.
Black tea is packed with flavonoids (a kind of polyphenol). These plant chemicals act as antioxidants to minimize damage from free radicals. “Your body makes free radicals, a type of molecule, in response to normal cell function. Free radicals also enter your body from the environment,” explains Kopp. “These unstable molecules can build up in cells and damage them.” Cell damage can cause chronic inflammation that contributes to heart disease, cancer and other conditions. Antioxidants “partner” with free radicals and keep them in check.
Antioxidants are also important for a healthy immune system. Your immune system helps your body fight viruses, bacteria and infections.
Theaflavins, a type of flavonoid, give black tea its dark color. One study found that theaflavins may help lower cholesterol levels by reducing how much cholesterol your digestive system absorbs.
Black tea is also high in a flavanol (a type of flavonoid) called quercetin. Another study found that people who had a diet high in quercetin and other flavanols were less likely to experience a stroke.
The flavanols may improve cardiovascular health by keeping blood vessels open and flexible. This also explains the results of another study that showed how drinking three cups of black tea every day for six months may help control blood pressure.
In the U.S., tea is the most common source of flavanols. You can also get them by eating more onions and apples. In England, where afternoon tea is a tradition, researchers found that people who drank at least two cups of tea each day were less likely to die from heart disease or stroke than non-tea drinkers.
An 8-ounce glass of black tea has about 47 milligrams of caffeine. “Caffeine is a stimulant, which is helpful if you need more energy to get through the day,” says Kopp. But too much caffeine — especially close to bedtime — can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. Kopp also recommends avoiding caffeine if you experience high blood pressure.
You can also become dependent on caffeine, which is why you may have headaches or feel cranky when you don’t get your daily cup (or cups). Because black tea has about half the caffeine of coffee, it can be a good option if you’re trying to cut back on caffeine.
Due to caffeine’s stimulating effects, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 200 milligrams a day. And experts recommend that children under 12 have no caffeine.
Although black tea is generally safe to drink, some people may need to limit or avoid it due to potential health risks. In some instances, black tea can increase your risk of:
People prone to kidney stones or at risk for chronic kidney disease may need to watch how much tea they drink due to black tea’s high levels of oxalates. This organic acid binds together minerals, such as calcium, which can cause kidney stones to form.
One study found that regularly drinking three or more mugs of piping hot tea (above 140 degrees Fahrenheit or 60 degrees Celsius) can damage the lining of the esophagus (your food pipe). This damage increases your risk of esophageal cancer.
Three seems to be the magic number when it comes to how many cups of tea to drink each day for good health. To get antioxidant benefits, stick to black, green, oolong or white tea made from the Camellia sinensis plant. You can also try kombucha, a fermented black tea that contains probiotics.
Herbal teas offer different benefits, like chamomile for sleep, ginger for upset tummies, and peppermint for nasal congestion and colds. Hibiscus tea also has several health benefits.
Whether you like your tea on ice or steaming (remember, not too hot!), go light on extras like milk, sugar and honey. “Too much sugar in your diet can increase your risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease,” cautions Kopp.
A splash of milk in your tea adds a small number of calories (and, depending on the dairy type, some fat). More importantly, research shows that milk lowers antioxidant levels in tea. “It appears that flavonoids bind to protein in milk, reducing the protective benefits of antioxidants,” she adds.
Skim milk seems to lower antioxidant levels in tea the most. So, if you must add milk, opt for whole or reduced fat. Or try a lower-protein milk alternative like almond or oat milk. If you’ve always been a black tea drinker, keep enjoying those healthy cups of antioxidants. And if you haven’t been, now you have a new, healthful and refreshing drink to add to your diet.