Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world after water. In Kenya, I am sure more people get their hydration from tea than from plain water. Such is the importance of tea in Kenyan homes.
Last week in the piece on alcohol, I listed caffeine alongside other illicit psychoactive drugs which elicited strong reactions. Caffeine jumpstarts many people's days. Some say it wakes them up, others claim it keeps them alert while more cite being made active and energised through the day.
Caffeine is found in varying amounts in tea, coffee, the coca cola soda, dark chocolate, energy drinks, and some painkillers.
Let's focus on where most of us get our caffeine - tea.
Caffeine is a stimulant that increases brain activity through the action of cortisol and adrenaline which are the fight or flight hormones. This is why you feel that boost and feel ready to start your day after that drink. However, caffeine also stimulates dopamine - the feel-good hormone, just as cocaine or heroin do but to a much smaller extent compared to the two.
These effects on these hormones are part of the reason why tea is so popular. It makes you awake and alert when you haven't had enough sleep, which is the case for many of us, and gives you a boost in mood with every cup. However, these mood-boosting effects associated with dopamine are detrimental in the long term.
Over time, you require more and more caffeine, which means more cups or stronger tea to achieve the same upshot in the mood. You also develop physiological dependence, where when you don't get a cup at the usual time, you begin to experience physical symptoms.
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If you really do love your tea, and now realise you have been experiencing the effects of overdrinking or dependence on the caffeine in tea, you should consider gradually replacing your tea with alternatives such as green tea or oolong tea. Just like black tea, these come from the Camellia Sinensis plant but are processed differently and therefore have fewer amounts of caffeine.
Alternatively, you can opt for decaffeinated tea or caffeine-free tea but even better are herbal teas. Herbal teas are derived from roots, flowers, herbs, fruits, etc., and include popular examples such as chamomile, ginger, hibiscus, lemongrass, and peppermint tea.
That said, the much-loved Kenyan tea is not all bad. It contains polyphenols that have antioxidant effects which improve gut metabolism, lower cholesterol, improve glucose control and contribute to improved heart function. So, if you must drink your tea and want to really reap maximum benefits, have it in moderation. Start your day by drinking the right tea, or your tea right.
The writer is a medical doctor and psychiatry resident