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The Tea Journey of Andrew Weil, M.D.
The acclaimed expert on natural healing tells the story of his lifelong love of tea – especially, the magic brew called matcha 07/27/2020 By Brad Lemley

The flavors of fish and green tea naturally complement each other. This is probably why a typical meal in Japan features both.

But what about health? In these pages we discuss the health benefits of fish regularly, so now let’s examine the many healthful aspects of the drink brewed from the unfermented leaves of the shrub Camellia sinensis.

When the subject of health-promoting drinks is raised, the classic recommendation is usually something like “don’t drink calories, especially sugary ones” but in the minds of many that leaves only water and black coffee. The first is rather unexciting. The last is problematic for many, leading to jitters and stomach distress.

So for Andrew Weil, M.D., a celebrated natural health advocate and a longtime loyal Vital Choice customer, the answer is usually green tea, either iced or hot. It is noncaloric, delicious, refreshing and rich in antioxidants.

But he has a special place in his heart – and teachings – for matcha, the bright-green elixir made of powdered whole tea leaves he first consumed more than 60 years ago.

If, in 2020, you drink green tea or matcha, Dr. Weil probably deserves some of the credit. He has promoted green tea consumption to Americans for health and pleasure in more than a dozen books, as well as on his website and numerous media appearances. 

He spoke with Brad Lemley.

What was your experience with tea as a child and young adult?

Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 50s, my impression was that hot tea was consumed exclusively by old or sick people. When anyone else drank tea, it was iced, and heavily sweetened. The only type I recall seeing was Lipton.

When did that change for you?

I graduated from high school in 1959, and then did something very unusual that changed the course of my life. As part of an experimental school called the International School of America, I traveled all the way around the world with a group of fellow students.

That experience changed me profoundly in many ways, but one of the most persistent came from visiting rural Japan, which was still recovering from World War II.

Rural Japan Family
In 1959 at age 17, Andrew Weil took this photo of an extended family in a fishing village outside of Tokyo

When in Japan I stayed with a family, and their neighbor was a practitioner of “tea ceremony.” This is a uniquely Japanese ritual, somewhere between an act of hospitality and a meditation session. It has a number of formalized steps. I remember being entranced by the bamboo tea whisk, which is known as a chasen, and the hooked bamboo scoop for ladling out the green powder, called a chashaku.

But I particularly remember the color of the matcha. It was the deepest, most beautiful green I had ever seen. I still love the color of matcha.

As she went through the steps of ladling the tea, whisking it into foam-topped drink and offering it to me, I am sure I failed to perform all of the appropriate ritual tasks expected of a guest. But she was very polite about it and didn’t mention anything, giving me leeway as a foreigner.

Many Americans today have heard of tea ceremony, but at the time it was virtually unknown in the West. It made a deep impression on me.

So did the flavor of matcha – deep, complex, with a subtle sweetness.

What happened when you got back to the states?

I continued to drink tea of various kinds, and always enjoyed it. Then and to this day, I don’t drink coffee. I don’t like how it makes me feel. As a physician, I found many of my patients had stress, or insomnia, or gastrointestinal disorders, had seen many doctors, and were on multiple medications. I suggested that they stop drinking coffee for at least two months and switch to tea instead. My files are full of accounts of people who achieved complete relief!

What are the health benefits of green tea?

Green tea and matcha contain antioxidants including polyphenols such as epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG. Matcha has somewhat more of this than does regular green tea.

Weil with Matcha
Dr. Weil begins each morning with hot matcha in a hand-thrown bowl called chawan

This substance can quench “free radicals” which are metabolic byproducts that are chemically unstable, can damage cells, and are a major cause of both aging and disease. This is why many studies have shown green tea is associated with lower blood pressure, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and death from cardiovascular disease. Matcha has also been shown to inhibit cancer stem cell propagation in tissue cultures. (Bonuccelli, G., et. al., 2018)

Aside from disease-fighting properties, green tea and matcha have a subtle energizing effect. Unlike coffee, which imparts a sort of aggressive energy, green tea has a substance called l-theanine that modulates the stimulation of tea’s caffeine. The result is a sort of calm focus that I enjoy very much.

What should one look for in green tea or matcha?

Green tea, like wine, has a terroir, which describes the flavor that comes directly from the minerals, climate and growing practices of the farm where the plants were grown. I am a partner in a company that sells high quality matcha grown outside of Kyoto, so naturally I recommend that.

But I will also say there is no reason to be intimidated by tea, or to feel one must spend a fortune to indulge. An unusual tea that I enjoy very much is lapsong souchong. It’s a Taiwanese tea that is smoked over burning pine. It has a complex, nuanced flavor. The delightful thing about tea is that it’s very unfussy, and it’s lots of fun to try many different types.

Sources:

Bonuccelli, G., Sotgia, F., & Lisanti, M. P. (2018). Matcha green tea (MGT) inhibits the propagation of cancer stem cells (CSCs), by targeting mitochondrial metabolism, glycolysis and multiple cell signalling pathways. Aging, 10(8), 1867-1883. doi:10.18632/aging.101483

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