What Does the Science Say About Tea’s Impact on Cognitive Function As You Age?
“A systematic review of the effects of green tea on cognition, mood, and human brain function found that green tea may reduce anxiety, benefit memory and attention, and help activate your working memory,” says Julie Fratantoni, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and brain health advocate. Working memory, she says, is like a sketchpad in your brain when you need to remember and manipulate information, such as doing mental math. “Green tea [also] contains a class of flavonoids called catechins, and one catechin called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) has been found to reduce inflammation and may be protective against brain disease.”
But before loading up on green and black teas to add to your daily routine, Dr. Fratantoni advises taking into consideration the big picture as it pertains to cognitive function as we age. “We can get really focused on one specific part, like how much tea to drink, but it’s not just about what you’re eating and drinking,” she says. “You could be drinking the healthiest tea in the world, but if you're drinking it while you're stressed, like when you're running late to a meeting or stuck in traffic, the stress [from those situations] can almost cancel out any benefits of the tea.”
So before we get into the nitty-gritty of the latest research on the powerful impact of drinking tea, Dr. Fratantoni highlights how there are more than one way to implement brain-healthy habits to your routine outside of drinking tea. With that being said, let’s see what the latest research has discovered about the powerful brain-boosting effects of teas like green tea and black tea.
The science-backed link between drinking tea and cognitive function
Certain teas, like green tea and black tea, have anti-inflammatory properties, polyphenols, and catechins that help fight off free radicals, plus caffeine—all of which have been found to positively impact the brain as we age. “Aging is characterized by oxidative damage, meaning that as we get older our cells and tissues are less effective at detoxifying the build up of waste in the system,” Dr. Fratantoni says. “Catechins in green tea act as antioxidants, which help modulate cell function and mitochondrial function, which is essential in providing energy for brain function.”
In addition to antioxidants, Dr. Fratantoni adds that the latest research is focused on understanding how elements in green tea may be used as a preventative measure for aging and neurodegenerative disease. “Some of the components of interest [found in tea] include EGCG, L-theanine, and caffeine. EGCG is associated with reduced inflammation that may prevent brain disease, L-theanine is an amino acid that can enhance cognition and is considered neuroprotective—meaning it helps protect the brain—and caffeine can help with alertness.”
The other interesting thing one study found was that the combined influence of both caffeine and L-theanine had more of an impact when taken together (as they would be consumed drinking tea) compared to individual supplementation of each.
According to Dr. Fratantoni, studies show that drinking black tea similarly benefits certain aspects of cognitive function (i.e., attention, mind-wandering and focus) and mental well-being (stress and mood). However, it’s important to note that not all the research supports the notion that drinking tea can aid in cognitive function as we age. “One study found no effects of drinking black tea on cognitive decline among older males in the U.S.," she says.
While there’s no specific dosage or recommended amount of tea, one study found that those who drank between one to six cups daily, with three cups reaping the best benefits, had smaller risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Regardless of how much tea you drink, it’s important to be mindful of your caffeine intake to avoid disrupting your circadian rhythm and your ability to get a good night's rest. “Moderation is key—just because there may be health benefits, that does not mean more is always better,” Dr. Fratantoni says. “With most things in life, there's typically a bell curve of optimal benefit.”
So although three cups a day is a promising amount according to the latest research, Fratantoni doesn’t believe you should force yourself to meet that requirement. It’s important to listen to your body and figure out what works for you.
The bottom line
Drinking tea—especially green tea—can have some protective benefits for brain function as we age. But there is no magic bullet. Dr. Fratantoni says you must consider your lifestyle as a whole and how your habits may contribute to increase or decrease cognitive performance as each year passes.
“It’s so important to understand, aside from diet, what is needed for optimal brain health,” Dr. Fratantoni says. “For example, if your gut is not healthy, then it doesn’t matter what you eat if your body can’t absorb it. The gut brain connection is real—gut health is essential for brain health.” For that reason, she suggests taking time to identify what your body uniquely needs to function optimally. You can work with providers like a functional medicine doctor to address gut health and personalized nutritional needs.
Additionally, practicing mindful and intuitive eating are important for a healthy gut and brain. “Being present helps regulate your nervous system so you are not in fight or flight mode. Mindful eating can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the rest and digest system,” Dr. Fratantoni says. “If you're eating healthy foods, but you're not present or chewing your food fully, or you’re eating while multitasking, it makes it much harder for your body to digest and absorb the nutrients from your food.”
To sum it all together, research has found drinking tea can provide some brain-boosting benefits, but the biggest takeaway is to ensure you’re listening to your body. Take time to notice what gives you more mental energy, clarity of thinking, and good mood.
Learn more about the benefits of intuitive eating from a dietitian in this video:
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