Tea for Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Can It Help?

Mint tea
Helen Rushbrook/Stocksy United

Would it help to drink tea for fibromyalgia (FMS) or chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS)? It might.

Tea is one of the most popular drinks in the world, but it's way down on the list in the U.S., coming in behind coffee and soda. In the past few years, however, studies suggesting health benefits of tea have certainly raised its profile and popularity here.

So is it all hype, or is there something to it?

According to research, it looks like tea has several things to offer, both for the public in general and for those of us with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. Much of the research is in its early stages and some results are contradictory, but a picture is emerging.

Tea contains two things that appear to offer health benefits: polyphenols and theanine. While tea hasn't been studied specifically for FMS and ME/CFS, we have research suggesting that these two ingredients may hold some promise as treatments.

Polyphenols for FMS & ME/CFS

Polyphenols have gotten the lion's share of the attention when it comes to tea's recent publicity. Research shows they may:

  • offer protection from coronary heart disease
  • protect against stroke
  • improve blood vessel dilation
  • protect against numerous types of cancer
  • help regulate blood sugar

Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant. Antioxidants are probably something you know are supposed to be good for you but don't really understand.

The science behind them is complicated and has to do with molecules called free radicals.

For those who aren't really into the science, the simplest way to understand this is that we all have free radicals in our body. They're natural. But if you get too many, research suggests they can make you sick.

Antioxidants have what those cells need to be healthy again.

Now let's break down the word "antioxidant":

  • anti=against
  • oxidant=something that causes oxidation, which is a breakdown of chemicals due to exposure to oxygen (rust is one example of oxidation)

An emerging line of research has to do with the role of oxidation in FMS, ME/CFS, and some other related illnesses. Specifically, it's the build up of nitric oxide, which leads to oxidative stress. The scientists behind this theory believe that too much nitric oxide in the body starts a chain reaction that both triggers and sustains these conditions.

The solution? According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, polyphenols from tea (as well as cocoa, berries, and walnuts) may help reduce oxidative stress.

Additionally, a study published by the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research in 2016 suggested that polyphenol-rich foods may reduce pain and improve quality of life in women with FMS.

Theanine for FMS & ME/CFS

Theanine, also called L-theanine, is an antioxidant as well. It's only found naturally in tea and a specific type of rare mushroom, but a synthetic form is available as a dietary supplement.

Theanine has been fairly well researched and is believed to:

Things You Need to Know

There's more to tea than pinky up or pinky down. To get the full health benefits from drinking tea, you have to know a few things about it.

  1. Theanine and polyphenols are only in green, black, oolong and white teas, which all come from the Camellia sinensis tree. Herbal "teas," rooibos, and matcha don't have true tea leaves in them and thus don't contain these ingredients. (They may have their own health benefits, though.)
  2. Decaffeinated tea also comes from the Camellia sinensis tree, then the leaves have gone through a chemical process that strips out the caffeine. Be sure the package says "decaffeinated," not "caffeine free," or you may be getting herbal tea.
  3. The strength of the tea is important. Studies that did look at steep time suggested it took at least three to five minutes for the tea to reach the necessary strength to provide a health benefit.
  4. Depending on the illness studied, participants needed to drink between two and six cups per day to get enough polyphenols.
  5. Green and oolong teas contain more polyphenols than black tea.
  6. Decaf teas do keep their theanine content through the decaffeination process, but we don't yet know if they retain polyphenols.
  7. Bottled teas can contain a lot of sugar or artificial sweeteners along with other things you may not want in your diet, especially in high amounts. Be sure to check the ingredients list.
  8. Tea Tree Oil, also called melaleuca, does not come from the Camellia sinensis tree. While it may offer some health benefits, it doesn't contain theanine or tea polyphenols.

Potential Downside of Tea Drinking

Tea is generally thought of as a healthy beverage, especially if it's unsweetened. However, nothing is without possible risks.

The biggest problem with tea may be that it contains caffeine in roughly the same amount as coffee (although amounts vary greatly based on several factors.) For people who don't tolerate caffeine well, this is a big problem. Even decaf teas may contain trace amounts of caffeine.

Some doctors believe that any stimulant is bad for people with ME/CFS, so be sure to watch for any negative side effects that could be from tea and talk about it with your doctor (as you should with anything medicinal, even when it's natural.)

Also, tea contains a high amounts of natural substances called oxylates, which may contribute to the formation of a certain type of kidney stone. If you're prone to oxylate kidney stones, be sure to discuss this aspect of tea with your doctor before you start drinking it regularly.

Sources:

Butacnum A, Chongsuwat R, Bumrungpert A. Black tea consumption improves postprandial glycemic control in normal and pre-diabetic subjects: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition. 2017 Jan;26(1):59-64.

Costa de Miranda R, Paiva ES, Suter Correia Cadena SM, Brandt AP, Vilela RM. Polyphenol-rich foods alleviate pain and ameliorate quality of life in fibromyalgic women. International journal of vitamin and nutrition research. 2016 Nov 21:1-10. [Epub ahead of print]

Gonzalez-Sarrias A, Nunez-Sanchez MA, Tomas-Barberan FA, Espin JC. Neuroprotective effects of bioavailable pholyphenol-derived metabolites against oxidative stress-induced cyctotoxicity in human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry. 2017 Feb 1;65(4):752-758.

Liao ZL, Zeng BH, Wang W, et al. Impact of the consumption of tea polyphenols on early atherosclerotic lesion formation and intestinal bifidobacteria in high-fat-fed apoE-/- mice. Frontiers in nutrition. 2016 Dec 21;3:42.

Liu SM, Ou SY, Huang HH. Gree tea polyphenols induce cell death in breast cancer MCF-7 cells through induction of cell cycle arrest and mitochondrial-mediated apoptosis. Journal of Zhejiang University, Science B. 2017 Feb.;18(2):89-98.

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