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Tea of Pot

Boz magazine, 49: 16, May 1998.

Brian J Ford

Old Tom staggered against the wall before he fell through his garden hedge and disappeared from view. My aunt turned to my mother and said, sniffily, ‘Drink. Too much drink will kill that man.’ Back home they put a tumbler of orange squash on the table in front of me. I didn’t touch it. Indeed I must have spent most of the weekend in a state of dire thirst, but I certainly was not going to drink anything, if that’s what it did to you. Not until talking about the incident on Monday evening, walking home from school, did one of my friends explain that ‘drink’ in that context meant ‘alcohol’. I resolved to become an abstainer - and I have abstained from using euphemisms from that day to this.

Everyone knows the after-effects of a heavy night out - the temples throbbing like a truck in reverse, the piercing headache which makes a dropped paper-clip sound like a girder falling in a skip full of buckets - though these may be nothing to do with alcohol. In their own way, tea and coffee can be just as bad. These potent concoctions are drunk in huge amounts without people stopping to consider what they actually contain. People check the packets in the kitchen, looking for e-numbers and additives, but give no thought for the complex ingredients we drink every day. There is a comforting belief that coffee contains caffeine, tea is a diuretic, and cocoa is the one which makes women feel happy. In fact, all three drinks contain a blend of the same drugs: caffeine, theobromine and theophylline. There is more theobromine in cocoa, which produces the mildly stimulating effects of chocolate, and there is certainly most caffeine in the average cup of coffee - but there caffeine in all these drinks, and it is always present in tea. The average cup of coffee can contain twice as much caffeine as a cup of tea, but caffeine is an active drug which needs careful handling. The immediate effect of caffeine is that of a stimulant: but it can cause people to become over-excited, and it has been said it can trigger mental instability. Caffeine also makes the blood-vessels in the brain contract, which is why it is sometimes used as a treatment for headache. If you become habituated to coffee, then suddenly withdrawing it can remove that biochemical effect. The blood-vessels in the brain expand unexpectedly, and the pressure can bring a back the headache.

There are also effects on children. Coca-cola began as an infusion of cola leaves and was once rich in cocaine (in those days habitués didn't snort a line, they simply ordered a coke from the neighbourhood drug-store, which really earned its name in those times). Although the cocaine component is no longer legal, there is plenty of caffeine in many cola concoctions and children are amongst those who can become habituated to its effects. If so, remember the knock-on effect of a sudden withdrawal of caffeine - the headaches can be a major problem. Coming off caffeine should be a slow process. ‘Cold pigeon’, perhaps. Some people say that tea gives them indigestion. That’s because of its tannin content. If you are intolerant, then giving it up is the only answer. The value of tea as a diuretic infusion is slight, though the theophylline present in all these drinks gave rise to an important drug for treating asthmatics. Theophylline expands the air-ways in the lungs, and (although the effects are not marked) this all adds to the sense of well-being which people report.

I am sure more should be known about the problems of over-indulgence, because a lot of people suffer problems without knowing why. But none of this is meant to stop people enjoying a favourite habit. It’s the feeling of mild stimulation which commends all these drinks to us, and has done for centuries. There is also the ritual of serving the drink - boiling the water and brewing the infusion signifies a break from routine, and the offer of a cup of tea (or coffee) is a long-standing hospitable gesture to a guest.

We are still discovering hidden benefits from these traditional drinks, some of which I have reported here in the past. Tea-bags are being used to help treat cold-sores, for instance, and in Japan they claim that three cups a day help protect against fatty plaques in the walls of blood-vessels. Beneficial effects have been reported in red wine as well, so medical opinion currently suggests that all these drinks can help maintain health. There was a time when hospital patients were given a bottle of stout each day under the National Health Service. That stopped many years ago, though I gather they still do provide tea. Savour it, and treat it with care. As soon as the system realises there are medicaments in the brew they will slap a prescription charge on it, mark my words.

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