You want to be hipper and healthier? Drink tea. Green, black, oolong and white teas are loaded with polyphenols, plant-derived compounds that rev up the immune system and may protect against certain diseases, including arthritis.

“Tea drinking boosts T cells’ ability to react against bacterial and viral infections,” says Jack F. Bukowski, MD, PhD, a rheumatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. This action helps your body fight off colds and flu. “I suspect this is good for people with rheumatoid arthritis, who are taking immunosuppressive medications that make them more susceptible to infection,” he says.

Preliminary studies show that tea may have anti-inflammatory properties. In lab studies, Case Western Reserve University researchers in Cleveland showed EGCG, a substance in green tea may halt arthritis progression by blocking Interleukin-1, a pro-inflammatory cell, from damaging cartilage.

Spurred on by promising preliminary studies, researchers are also looking at tea’s ability to:

• Promote heart health. Studies show that tea can help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people with cardiovascular disease.

• Fight cancer. “Polyphenols will induce certain tumor cells toward apoptosis (programmed cell death),” explains Stephen D. Hsu, PhD, a researcher at Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta.

• Rejuvenate skin cells. Hsu says green tea seems to promote healthy skin cell growth, which could help wound healing and psoriasis.

Protect the brain. A United Kingdom lab study suggests black and green tea may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. A German lab study suggests green tea may inhibit the inflammation and neural damage associated with the progression of multiple sclerosis.

Tea Facts

Choosing a tea: Despite the differences in taste, green, black, oolong and white teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, a white-flowering shrub in the evergreen family. Processing the buds and leaves differently yields the different teas. Black tea, for instance, is fermented. Green and white teas seem to have the highest polyphenol levels, perhaps because they’re less processed. Herbal teas come from other plants with varying antioxidant levels. 

Brewing Tips: To get polyphenol-rich tea, steep your tea bag or loose tea in boiled water for 5 minutes. Opting for iced or decaf tea or using condiments like lemon or honey won’t nix tea’s health benefits.

One cup or two?: About two hours after your last sip of tea, your polyphenol blood levels drop, Hsu says. You'd have to drink seven or eight cups of tea over the day to keep your polyphenol levels consistently elevated.