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For thousands of years, the Chinese have known the power of its healing properties, incorporating its use in their traditional tea ceremonies. Now green tea has found its way into the heart of Western medicine as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent capable of blocking the cancer-causing effects of free radicals in the body.
Santosh Katiyar, Ph.D., who has figured prominently in investigating the relationship between green tea and skin, says the tea has an "antioxidant activity superior to that of any other naturally occurring antioxidant known."
The antioxidant effect of green tea, estimated to be 200 times that of vitamin E, benefits almost every bodily system, according to Lester Mitscher and Victoria Dolby, authors of The Green Tea Book. "It lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, prevents cancer from starting and spreading, boosts immunity, fights infection and even helps prevent dental cavities," they write. Green tea is also known to protect the skin from free radical damage caused by sun exposure.
Antioxidants, and specifically the polyphenols in green tea, protect the skin in several ways. Healthy collagen and elastin are necessary in preserving a youthful look, but they are easily damaged by free radicals. Green tea prevents damage to collagen and elastin, keeping skin stronger, smoother and more elastic.
As a topical element, Katiyar says although more studies are necessary, using green tea in skin care products may have a "profound impact" on a variety of skin disorders in the future. However, caution is required as many of these cosmetic products have yet to be scrutinized.
Caution is also noted for those sensitive to caffeine. The caffeine content in brewed green tea generally ranges from 1 percent to 4 percent, far below that of coffee or black tea, but enough to be of concern to those overstimulated by caffeine. An alternative? Shorten brewing time, as each minute adds more caffeine to the drink. Another option is to take a caffeine-free green tea supplement that provides a controlled dosage of polyphenols, or buying a decaffeinated brand. Unfortunately, the decaffeinating process decreases the polyphenols.
Green tea aficionados usually recommend a high grade, whole leaf tea over commercially produced tea bags. Whatever the form, green tea should be taken without adding milk, as this can decrease the antioxidant effect.
How much green tea should you drink to reap the benefits? Although personal lifestyle and risk factors for disease obviously enter into the equation, some experts estimate 4-10 cups are needed daily to provide health protection. For some, supplements are an easier option.
From a medical point of view, there are those who should take caution with green tea products. Consultation with a physician is recommended to prevent risk of allergic reaction in those who are tea-sensitive. Cautions are also given against the use of green tea for pregnant women and those whose PMS or fibrocystic breast disease worsens with caffeine. In light of available research, infants and breastfeeding mothers as well should avoid drinking green tea.
As a final note, heralding back to the days of tried and true folk medicine, leftover tea can be used as a skin cleanser, a disinfectant for skin injuries and is especially beneficial for mild cases of acne and skin rashes.
Take a skin care lesson from civilizations past: put on the tea kettle and see what green tea does to enrich and protect your skin. Shirley Vanderbilt is a staff writer for Body Sense magazine.