What is it about tea that makes it the drink of choice for the stressed British public? Its chemical content? Its heat? The ritual of preparing it? Or are we simply subject to placebo effects whereby believing tea will de-stress us makes this outcome a reality?
The emotionally healing properties of tea: fact or fiction?
What is it about tea that has led the British public to so often call upon it in times of emergency and emotional crisis? Neuroscientists would cite the presence of Thianine (an amino acid found almost exclusively in the tea plant), which affects alpha brainwave activity, inducing a more calm and alert state of mind.
They may also appeal to the presence of flavinoids, which exert antagonistic effects on sympathetic nervous system activity, reducing blood pressure. Psychologists suggest that its physical warming effects positively affect pro- social behaviour. Sociologists claim that it is not the specific beverage itself that is important, so much as the ritual surrounding it and the cultural implications of tea-drinking. Yet others still would suggest that its effects are placebo: the very act of expecting tea to reduce our stress makes the results of its consumption a self- fulfilling prophecy.
But is there any solid evidence that tea is good for us? Black tea consumption is associated with enhanced positive mood and maintained alertness. In a study in which participants were asked to keep a diary of their mood and beverage consumption, drinking tea was significantly associated with subsequent increases in mood, particularly in those who described themselves as having high social support: perhaps tea as a shared or communal cultural ritual has increased positive effects to those gained by drinking tea alone. Studies on mice even have shown that drinking decaffeinated tea consistently over a few months reduces blood pressure and stress responses compared to just water.
Researchers from UCL built on this research by withdrawing 75 healthy non-smoking men from all caffeinated drinks for one month, during which they drank 4 cups per day of a caffeinated placebo. After this, they received either placebo or active tea treatment for 6 weeks. Following a series of stress tasks, the tea group had lower platelet activation, lower cortisol and greater subjective relaxation. So tea seemed to influence the effectiveness of post-stress recovery, rather than the magnitude of stress responses themselves.
More recently, it was found that when given tea before a stress-inducing task (instead of water), people showed a decrease in anxiety levels (compared to a 25% increase in the water group). When given tea after the stressful task, participants reported feeling more relaxed, “tending to frame their explanations in terms synonymous with a sense of partition which provided an end or break from the preceding period of anxiety”.
In a group context, they said that making tea was associated with a feeling of communality and solidarity, making them feel looked after and cared for. The researchers also claim that, where the water group drank their beverages in silence, tea helped to stimulate conversation and “helped build rapport between the participant and tea-maker, and amongst the wider group”.
So, it seems that scientific and sociological explanations of the significance of tea for stress-relief can be simultaneously true: it has both physiological and community effects, alleviating our biological stress responses and facilitating social cohesion. Perhaps the best thing you can do for yourself and your social group when someone offers to put the kettle on is to reply with an emphatic “Yes please”.