Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, a Look at Tea and Stress

With coronavirus COVID-19 a global pandemic, medical and science personnel worldwide are in the forefront as we all await news about treatment, cure, vaccine, anything promising.

Many aspects of our lives are on hold as we worry about the health of those we love, and as we wonder how businesses will survive, how employees without income will survive, and how the vulnerable will survive. Sobering, troubling, monumental problems.

Here, I can offer only a bit of distraction for you, and maybe pay a little homage to all the researchers around the world who spend their lives trying to prevent, and then solve, such staggering problems. And in that research, including in virology, tea does play a role.

tea leaves
China Royal Jasmine Curls


It’s long been known—scientifically and anecdotally—that we seem to be more prone to illness when we’re psychologically stressed.

A 1991 study looked into the common cold caused by various viruses, including rhinovirus, coronavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus, and found the “consistency of the stress–illness relation . . . impressive” (Cohen 1991).

We’re apparently more susceptible to illness because our overall resistance is suppressed when we’re stressed or because stress lowers multiple immune processes (Cohen 1991). Either way, we end up with a virus-caused cold.

A 2004 review of some 300 articles describing the link between psychological stress and our immune system determined that “chronic stressors were associated with suppression of both cellular and humoral [immune response involving antibodies in body fluids] measures” (Segerstrom and Miller 2004)—which is bad for us!

Now I’m in no way making any health claims here, and I am in no way equating the common cold with the current novel virus, but those of us who love tea will say that drinking tea can be relaxing. And today especially, perhaps we all need a cup of warm tea, something to keep stress at bay if only momentarily.

In fact, simply holding any hot beverage seems to have an actual effect on us—we project the warmth of what we are holding to other people and situations, transferring physical sensations to the psychological.

The leaves open up as they brew

Drinking hot liquids, especially those with caffeine, impacts us on multiple levels.

Research has shown that consuming hot beverages—coffee, tea, or just water—makes us happier. Adding caffeine to that beverage lowers our anxiety, also makes us happier, and gives us more energy (Quinlan 1997). Caffeine works immediately, and even small doses can impact us.

If a beverage’s warm temperature and caffeine somehow improve our outlook, does that, perhaps, help us better manage life’s stresses, if only just a little?

Tea, a balm for body and soul

Tea is a bit more complicated than coffee or hot water, and scientists continue to tease out what does what. We know that the amino acid theanine increases alpha wave brain activity, which relaxes us, and that epigallocatechin gallate, tea’s predominate flavanol, sedates.

brewed tea

According to one double-blind study (Steptoe 2007), drinking tea for six weeks resulted in:

  • lowered levels of post-stress cortisol (the “stress hormone,” released whenever we experience fear or something stressful),
  • a personal feeling of being more relaxed, and
  • less platelet activation (which is good for cardiac health).

So although drinking tea does not reduce stress, it seems to help us to recover from stress.

Another study (Cross 2009) showed that when people drank tea after completing a stress-inducing activity, their anxiety went down—and, in fact, went lower than what their anxiety level was before the activity. (Conversely, when people drank water instead, their anxiety went up 25%.)

When the participants were asked about tea, they reported that tea relaxes them, confirming that psychological benefits accompany the physiological.

brewed lvs
After steeping once, the leaves haven’t fully opened so another infusion will be just as good

Also embedded in the psychological aspect is the cultural meaning. As Cross and Michaels (2009) put it:

The symbolic dimensions of tea materialise in our body, thus enhancing the chemical effects that tea components have on our health. The cultural meanings in which tea is anchored shape our experience of tea, evoke particular feelings, ways of relating to others and mental states and by doing so they come to constitute our physical experience. This means that the psychological affects the physiological, just as the physiological affect [sic] the psychological.

Drink more tea?

Tea clearly isn’t a panacea for the still-emerging world crisis that is upending our lives.

Still, a cup of hot, calming tea may help us cope psychologically, and maybe even physiologically. The ritual of simply making and drinking tea may be just enough to get us through the next few moments, and maybe even the moments after that.

teapot and tea

Next up: Amid This Pandemic, a Look at Tea and Its Effect on Viruses

China Royal Jasmine Curls available at TeaHaus.

–Cohen, S., et al., “Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold,” The New England Journal of Medicine 325:606–12. August 29, 1991.
–Cross, M. and R. Michaels. “The social psychological effects of tea consumption on stress.” 2009.
–Quinlan, P., et al. “Effects of hot tea, coffee and water ingestion on physiological responses and mood: The role of caffeine, water and beverage type,” Psychopharmacology 134:164–73. 1997.
–Segerstrom, S. C., and G. E. Miller, “Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry,” Psychological Bulletin 130(4):601–30. July 2004.
–Steptoe, A., et al. “The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: A randomised double-blind trial,” Psychopharmacology 190(1):81–89. 2007.

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