A Warm Cup of Healing: Tea and Coffee for Winter Health

As winter’s chill deepens, warming, flavorful aromatic drinks offer comfort and health. While coffee is the hot drink of choice here in the United States, for every cup of coffee sipped around the world, there are four cups of tea.

If you’re a coffee achiever, there’s good health-science news for you. But if drinking coffee all day is too much of a good thing for you, transitioning to herbal tea after your morning cup or two can help manage your well-being and peace of mind throughout the day. And, at the time of year when colds and flu are most prevalent, tea may be just the medicine nature ordered.

Cuppa Joe—Friend or Foe?

Ahhh, coffee. Science on the impact of coffee on health is entertaining to follow, because of the enthusiasm of the researchers! The latest consensus is that coffee is, on balance, good for us. 

Caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant, is a powerful substance, and plays a big role in how coffee (like caffeine-containing green and black teas, colas, and chocolate) impacts health. Coffee’s punch, however, is due to more than caffeine: It contains about 800 different volatile compounds and antioxidants with complex actions, many of them beneficial.

Studies on coffee suggest a potential benefit for neurologic health and prevention of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, cardiovascular health, type 2 diabetes, and digestive health. But whether being a coffee achiever benefits your health depends on the coffee—its quality, how it’s roasted and processed, and what you add to it; black coffee is, generally, healthier than adding cream and sugar. It also depends on you—your liver function, digestive and nervous system health, age, Ayurvedic dosha, and overall health. For best results, choose the highest-quality coffee you can find and afford. Organic, Fair Trade Certified, and Rainforest Alliance Certified tend to be grown and processed with fewer pesticides and synthetic chemicals. If you drink decaf, choose an organic brand for a lower synthetic chemical load than brands that use traditional chemical decaffeination processes.

While the science on the effective components of coffee continues to unfold, much of the debate has been put to rest. Between one and four 8-ounce cups of coffee daily is the general recommendation; some studies suggest a dosage of as many as six to eight cups daily, but moderation is the operative word when it comes to coffee intake, and tolerance is highly individual. Many people are caffeine sensitive—that is, they have a threshold at which caffeine intake switches from energizing friend to rattling, jaw-clenching foe.

Not everyone benefits from coffee. People with anxiety or stress may not do well with it. And, while many benefit from coffee’s bowel-regulating abilities, people with inflammatory gut issues like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or even some food sensitivities may find that coffee is an irritant.

Interestingly, the science separating the effects of coffee and caffeine is progressing, and decaf may actually provide some benefits, without overstimulation, for those who are caffeine sensitive but enjoy coffee. As with so much of nutrition, a little trial and error regarding number of cups and caffeine level is in order.

Herbal Teas for Winter Health

Our ancestors had hundreds of simple folk remedies for preventing minor aches and pains from developing into more serious conditions. The steeping and drinking of hot-water infusions, also known as tea, has a rich history as folk medicine to enhance well-being. While much of that folk wisdom has been outsourced to the local pharmacy, herbal medicine is making its way back into modern life. Like yoga and Ayurveda, it reconnects us to our history.

Like coffee, most herbs and plants used to make tea contain an array of bioactive compounds. Because herbs are biocomplex—rather than being purified and refined like a single-nutrient supplement, the whole plant is used—they operate in a more holistic way. That’s why you often see a variety of benefits, from antifungal to anti-inflammatory, attributed to one herb.

On the most basic level, the practice of drinking tea through the day, particularly in the colder months, balances the chill of winter—as Ayurveda teaches, like increases like, while opposites balance. Tea also provides a world of options for personalizing the benefits you receive.

Here are five herbal and botanical teas to explore for their medicinal benefits as well as their comforting flavors and aromas.

1. Tulsi, or holy basil, is known as “the incomparable one” in the yoga and Ayurveda traditions, and is thought to bestow well-being on all who use it. From a Western herbal perspective, tulsi is an adaptogen, meaning that its complex array of phytonutrients acts in a variety of balancing ways, from supporting immune health to acting as an anti-inflammatory. Sipping tulsi tea during cold and flu season is a pleasant addition to your winter health regimen.

2. Ginger root makes a spicy tea perfect for after meals. Use either tea bags or fresh ginger (place a nut-sized piece in a cup, fill with hot water, and steep for two or three minutes). Ginger is a powerful antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory benefits, meaning that its nutrients help calm the fire of inflammation that can occur when we eat heavily or are a little too merry with the libations. Ginger is often used for its anti-nausea and indigestion-calming tendencies.

3. Lavender is a beautiful herb well known for its calming effects, and its lovely, soothing scent can prepare you for sleep. The actions of lavender are—like most herbs—complex, and involve anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and nerve-calming actions. Lavender is thought to gently ease seasonal blues and anxiety.

4. Chamomile has a sweet, light, very distinct flavor. Its flowers can be made into a calming anti-inflammatory tea, also used as a digestive aid.

5. Cinnamon—a favorite holiday spice—has been gaining a reputation for its medicinal benefits. It is high in polyphenols, and some forms of cinnamon are rich in a compound that helps manage blood sugar, possibly by mimicking insulin.

Whether you choose tea or coffee—or some of both—may the preparation and the sipping combine to create a delicious practice of self-care.

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© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please email editor@kripalu.org.

Annie B. Kay, MS, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is an author, nutritionist, Kripalu faculty member, and important voice in whole-foods nutrition and yoga.

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