Moreover, you’ve likely heard that green tea is one of the best drinks for longevity—but do you know why that is, exactly? While green tea boasts a seriously impressive nutrient profile, many of its greatest benefits can be chalked up to one potent and protective group of compounds: catechins.
What are catechins?
“Catechins are natural polyphenolic phytochemicals that exist in food and medicinal plants,” Shapiro begins. More precisely, she mentions that they’re classified as a flavanol, which is a type of flavonoid that naturally exists not only within green tea, but also certain fruits and other food sources (which we’ll cover shortly).
Moreover, as functional medicine expert Mark Hyman, MD, previously told Well+Good, catechins are “some of the most powerful disease-fighting phytonutrients found in the plant kingdom.” (Cue the mic drop.)
The health benefits of catechins
First and foremost, catechins are highly anti-inflammatory, a benefit which lends itself to a wide range of benefits for disease prevention, longevity, and more. “Catechins lessen excessive oxidative stress through direct or indirect antioxidant effects, promote activation of the antioxidative substances, and are cancer preventative,” Shapiro says.
Since long-term oxidative stress is linked to everything from fatigue and the natural aging process to more serious cases of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, catechins can help reduce the free radical damage and inflammation associated with such conditions. The anti-inflammatory powers of catechins also kick in to “regulate the infiltration and proliferation of immune related-cells,” Shapiro says, which can help to keep your immune defenses up and protect against certain types of infection.
Then, the catechin derivatives found in green tea—including epicatechin, epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, and especially epigallocatechin gallate—are known to exhibit powerful anticancer properties. As a March 2020 review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found, “green tea catechins are widely described to be efficient in the prevention of lung cancer, breast cancer, esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer and prostate cancer.” While the researchers note that green tea consumption certainly won’t replace conventional methods of cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, it is one valid dietary source we can consume to help support anticancer protocols.
Furthermore, catechins are particularly beneficial for those who struggle with gut imbalances and digestive distress, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). “Catechins stabilize the structure of the gastrointestinal microbiome by promoting the proliferation of beneficial intestinal bacteria and regulating the balance of intestinal flora,” Shapiro says. As we already know, a balanced gut leads to better digestion, stronger immunity, and less inflammation—so if your gut is crying out for more TLC, you’re likely to benefit from boosting your diet with rich sources of catechins (on top of the likes of fermented foods, probiotics, and other gut-friendly staples).
How to add more catechins to your diet
As we mentioned earlier, green tea is your best bet to fill up on catechins. With that said, Shapiro notes that the amount of catechins in green tea varies based on several factors, including the variety, method of cultivation and leaf processing, brewing time, and temperature. “While green tea has the highest amount of catechins, within this group, it seems that Japanese sencha has the highest amount,” says Shapiro. (Hot tip: Your local Trader Joe’s should have it in stock, so be sure to browse the tea aisle on your next haul.) Next, aim to steep your green tea in non-boiling water for up to two to three minutes. As for how much you’ll need to drink to maximize health benefits including diabetes prevention and heart health, she says that current research suggests opting for three to five cups per day—though, of course, even less frequent servings will be more beneficial than none at all.
In addition, other non-herbal teas—particularly those made from the Camellia sinensis plant—also contain catechins. For instance, black tea packs these longevity-boosting compounds (as do the likes of white tea and oolong tea). As a November 2017 study in the Journal of AOAC International found, “total phenolic compound (TPC) and antiradical scavenging activity were in a good agreement with catechins” across several varieties of black tea, though the amounts of different types of catechins varied. Moreover, researchers discovered that longer brewing time yielded higher concentrations of catechin, TPC, and antioxidant activity values—though the majority of phenolics were already extracted within two minutes of brewing—so again, aim for this brewing time at minimum.
To boost your diet beyond tea and up your intake of these anti-inflammatory, pro-longevity superheroes, Shapiro says that you can find them in a variety of other foods and beverages. “High concentrations of catechins can be found in red wine, broad beans, black grapes, apricots, almonds, dark chocolate (cacao), plums, and strawberries,” she shares, adding that a general serving size amounts to about 100 grams.