New Tea on the Block: Pu-erh

Pu-erh (Pronounced pew-er:) tea may be new to most North Americans, but it isn't actually "new." It's been grown and cured in the Yunnan province of China for over 2000 years and its distinguishing characteristic is, in fact, its age.

Xiaguan Te Ji (Special grade) raw tuo cha
Broad leaf tea leaves are fermented, pressed, and aged to make pu-erh tea (some versions are made without fermenting the tea first). All pu-erh tea used to be aged for decades, some are even aged as long as a century. Modern tea producers have found ways to speed up that process for most commercially available pu-erh tea.

Chinese medicine uses pu-erh tea to flush out toxins, treat dysentery, improve digestive function, facilitate weight loss, and improve blood circulation.

Modern scientific studies have found that pu-erh tea can lower blood pressure, reduce free radicals, and aid weight loss. It has also been shown to lower blood sugar levels and promote healthy bacterial flora in the intestines, thus, as traditional Chinese medicine proclaims, promoting healthy digestion. One Chinese study found that the fungi and bacteria that increase in pu-erh tea as it ages and give the tea its unique flavor are also those that develop polyphenols and cancer-fighting properties.

For as cure-all as this can start to sound, most striking are the studies that point to pu-erh tea's ability to lower cholesterol levels.

All tea – whether black, oolong, green, or pu-erh – contains antioxidants and polyphenols. Several studies have found that pu-erh tea is particularly effective at lowering bad cholesterol. A 2005 study at the Wun-Shan Branch Tea Research and Extension Station in Taipei, Taiwan looked at the cholesterol-lowering properties of all four types of tea and found that while they all decreased LDL-C (bad cholesterol), only pu-erh tea did not also lower HDL-C (good cholesterol) to some extent. When it comes to cholesterol, pu-erh tea takes the bad while leaving the good.

The same study found that pu-erh and oolong teas lowered triglycerides more than did black or green teas. All teas improved the activity of an important antioxidant enzyme.

An earlier French study found that subjects with high blood lipid levels experienced a 22% reduction in those levels when they were given three servings of pu-erh tea daily. The control group showed no change.

A similar study at Kunming Medical College in China found that subjects with hypertension or coronary heart disease (all of whom were admitted to the hospital for these conditions) who were given three servings of pu-erh tea daily showed a 64% reduction in blood lipid levels as compared to a 67% reduction in subjects who were given standard cholesterol-reducing drugs.

The Balanced Care Method™ recommends drinking several cups of tea daily because of the significant levels of antioxidants and flavonoids. Okinawan elders – the longest and healthiest lived population on earth – regularly drink large amounts of tea, keeping them hydrated and full of health-enhancing antioxidants and flavonoids.

Hydration is an important health benefit of tea. Sipping tea, including pu-erh tea, helps people stay hydrated. Unlike sodas and juices, tea provides water without empty calories or high levels of simple sugars. Dehydration in seniors can lead to symptoms that mimic serious conditions, even dementia. Symptoms of dehydration can include fatigue, headache, dry mouth, little or no urination, muscle weakness, dizziness, confusion, forgetfulness, rapid breathing, and even an increased heart rate.

Aim for a total of eight glasses of water or the equivalent every day. More may be necessary if taking medications that have diuretic or laxative effects. To avoid dehydration:
• Drink before you feel thirsty
• Have water or tea nearby for sipping throughout the day
• Drink water or tea before eating food at meals

Many American tea companies are starting to carry pu-erh teas in their lines. For the best quality, look for pu-erh teas from Yunnan province. Note that the older pu-erh teas will be more expensive.

Pu-erh teas are more forgiving when it comes to brewing than other types of tea. They are hard to over-brew. Brew pu-erh teas with boiling water and let steep about three minutes. Sweeten or add lemon to taste.

Source: CareNotes Newsletter (Volume 3, Number 3)

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