From its humble origins as a medicinal beverage in China, tea quickly became the world’s most popular beverage (aside from water). Six billion cups are now consumed every day.

Recently, green tea has returned to its medicinal origins as scientists explore whether it can reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s, as well as reducing sun damage and skin inflammation.

Green Tea in History

Green tea originated in China where anthropologists suspect that prehistoric humans began chewing camellia sinensis leaves in the Yuman province of China, eventually adding it to boiled water. The first teas were green teas—that is, teas made from the leaves of the camellia plant with minimal processing.

Tea spread to Japan during the Heian period (794­-1185 AD), when Buddhist monks visited monasteries in China to study, adopting their tea customs, and returning home with seeds and plants.

The first shipment of tea to the west arrived in the Netherlands in 1610, and the Dutch became fervent devotees, spreading their love of brewed leaves to the rest of Europe as well as their colonies in the Americas.

Fermenting the leaves resulted in black tea, which allowed it to be shipped across oceans without spoiling as its popularity grew throughout the world.

Green Tea for General Health

Green tea has been used for millennia by medical practitioners in the East as a treatment for a variety of conditions. Modern scientific research shows that green tea has many promising health benefits, although more conclusive research is needed to establish the benefits and risks unambiguously.

Here are some of green tea’s potential benefits:

  • Green tea might help prevent cancer. More than 50 studies have been published examining green tea and cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute, and while findings haven’t been consistent—possibly due to variations in the type of tea studied and dosage, and other variables­­—some of them linked drinking tea with reduced risk of colon, breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, and lung cancer.
  • Green tea may help prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries. Population studies have found that three cups of tea a day can reduce the risk of heart attack by up to 11 percent, although in May 2006 the FDA rejected the request of tea makers to label tea as reducing the risk of heart disease.
  • Green tea lowers cholesterol. Men who drink green tea have lower total cholesterol than those who do not, and green tea can also raise levels of HDL—good cholesterol—in people and animals, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
  • Other benefits. Research suggests that green tea may help prevent the development of Type 1 diabetes, liver disease, Parkinson’s, osteoporosis and cavities, and may help regulate weight, treat genital warts, and reduce arthritis. In fact, studies suggest that green tea drinkers are at less risk of dying from any cause, though it’s not clear whether this quality is attributable to the tea itself.
  • Consult your medical professional. The antioxidants in green tea can block the action of a number of medical treatments, including chemotherapy, blood thinners, beta blockers, and other drugs. Be sure to speak with your doctor about what is right for you.

Green Tea for the Skin

Green tea’s potential secret superpowers stem from a group of substances called polyphenols. Green tea’s particular polypohenols belong to the family of catechins, potent antioxidants that are also the source of its bitterness. Scientific studies recognize the potential of catechins to reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and sun damage, although more research is needed.

Green tea’s high rate of catechins, in particular a catechin called EGCG, is regarded as the likely cause of these potential benefits. Studies suggest that green tea polyphenols—and in particular EGCG—reduces inflammation caused by exposure to UVB rays, oxidative stress, and immunosuppression, which are biomarkers linked to several skin disorders. The polyphenols in green tea may also help prevent sun damage, including photoaging.

At least one study found these effects to be more pronounced in older people, as opposed to younger people, suggesting that EGCG could be a powerful anti­-aging compound. However, additional high­ quality studies and clinical trials are necessary to back up these claims, according to the National Institutes of Health.

As science continues to resolve what makes green tea so beneficial for humans, one thing has already been proven beyond a doubt: The popularity of this beloved plant will continue to soar not only as a beverage, but also as a dietary supplement, beauty aid and health tonic.