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How to use tea to biohack your mood, stress, and productivity
Ancient beverages such as tea and chamomile can heighten your modern-day performance.
- Tea was cultivated in China nearly 5,000 years ago.
- Its molecular makeup makes it the perfect biohack for regulating mood, alertness, and concentration throughout the day.
- Tea may not be a panacea, but studies suggest promising long-term health benefits.
Chinese sage-king Shennong discovered tea when the leaves of a Camellia sinensis shrub drifted into his cauldron of boiling water. An agriculturalist and medicinal pioneer, Shennong decided to test the fortuitous brew and relished its uplifting properties. In other botanical tests, Shennong would be poisoned more than 70 times. Each time, he cured himself with tea.
That's one version of the story anyway.
While Shennong is a mythical figure, tea does originate from China, where it was cultivated nearly 5,000 years ago as a vegetable. Over time it made the shift from food staple to a beverage that closely resembles what we call matcha. Today, only water is a more widely consumed beverage.
Another debunked aspect of the legend is tea's elixir-like effects. Full disclosure: Tea is not a catch-all antidote. It does, however, come with a bevy of nutrients and chemical byproducts that make people feel good when drinking it. Add to that tea's pleasantly earthy taste and lush aromatics, and you can see why tea's popularity spread across time and culture.
Our ancestors may not have called tea a biohack, but they knew it could improve your day to make you more attentive, more motivated, and just plain feel better.
Tea, the other morning pick-me-up
Yerba mate tea served in a gourd, the traditional way to drink the beverage in South America.
Americans quaff a lot of coffee. A lot. And we don't even crack the top ten. While coffee comes with its own health benefits—a subject for another discussion—most people enjoy a morning cup as warm pick-me-up.
Coffee has its drawbacks though. An 8 oz. cup contains anywhere from 100–165 mg of caffeine. This means you max out your daily caffeine recommended intake in two to four cups—not great if you desire several caffeine fixes throughout your day. It's also rather acidic, rating below a 7 on the pH scale. While not as bad as soda's, coffee's acidity can upset people's stomachs and eats away at tooth enamel.
For people looking to move away from coffee, or simply drink less, tea offers a viable, caffeine-fueled alternative. One potential substitute is yerba mate.
Yes, we're cheating a bit here. Yerba mate isn't technically tea, because it doesn't come from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is made from the dried leaves of Ilex paraguariensis, a South American holly tree. It is a tea beverage, though, as the English word has expanded to include most any drink that infuses leaves, fruits, and flowers into hot water.
Mate contains more caffeine than either green or black tea but sports less than coffee (85 mg/8 oz. cup). Its strong, bitter flavor offers that robustness that people enjoy about coffee but with far less acidity. One study found that yerba mate's pH values stayed in the neutral range (6.75–7.89), so it plays well with teeth.
If mate isn't to your taste, consider matcha tea instead. It has more caffeine than steeped green tea but less than coffee (70 mg per 8 oz. cup). Matcha is also richly aromatic with an umami flavor that makes for a hearty morning sip.
Overcoming the afternoon slump
A woman harvests tea at a Malabar tea plantation.
Caffeine fiends may scoff at replacing their morning buzz with tea's more moderate energy boost. Yet, tea's lower caffeine and lack of sugar make it the superior way to power through the afternoon slump.
"If you look at the supermarkets today, it really feels like there's a caffeine arms race. More is better is the ideology, but that's not the case when it comes to caffeine. It's about the right amount and the right type," Grant Taylor Williams, co-founder of Tempo, said during an interview.
Tempo is a tea company that designs its drinks to include a "micro-dose" of natural caffeine. After researching the scientific literature, Grant and his co-founders decided that the best tool for overcoming the 2 p.m. doldrums was a microdose of caffeine (45 mg).
Of particular inspiration to them was a study published in SLEEP. This double-blind, placebo-control study found that low doses of caffeine throughout the day increased performance under conditions of extended wakefulness.
"What we learned, beyond that research paper and some of the other stuff we're read, is that it's not just the caffeine component and not just the fact that it's natural. It's all these other pieces of the puzzle that fit together to really create a healthy drink for you," Williams said.
Mood, stress, and hydration
Dr. Austin Gallagher, biologist and Tempo co-founder, pointed out that the flavanols and polyphenols found in green and black tea have been shown to aid mood and lower stress. Tea leaves also contain the amino acid L-theanine, he noted. L-theanine modulates the absorption of caffeine, preventing that quick spike of energy to stretch out the boost more evenly. It also stimulates feel-good neurotransmitters like GABA and serotonin, which work to improve mood, alertness, and sleep.
Tea, like coffee, is a diuretic so it increases the production and passing of urine. However, according to Ali Webster, PhD and associate director of nutrition communications at International Food Information Council Foundation, tea is overall hydrating.
"The hydrating aspects of tea and coffee outweigh the minor increase in fluid offloading, so these drinks have a net positive effect on hydration," she told Business Insider.
This combination of a lack of sugar, natural caffeine, and hydration makes tea an excellent way to power through to 5 o'clock and increase your daily productivity.
Gallagher added: "Today, everybody's looking to optimize their performance. What's the trendy new good, drink, pill? What is it that I can have every day that is going to make me faster, give me more time and make me better at my job? What we found at Tempo is the solution to that doesn't need to be complex. [Tea] really is a biohack [and] it's been underneath our noses for thousands of years."
Cozy chamomile tea
Chamomile tea served with a chamomile flower.
In the evening, your goal should be to relax for a restful night's sleep. What you eat and drink before bedtime has a significant impact on whether your brain works with or against you. Alcohol has long been considered the standard nightcap, but research has shown that booze leeches restfulness and even our dreams. Chamomile tea, on the other hand, can offer a much more salutary evening.
Like yerba mate, chamomile isn't a tea in the word's original sense. It's derived from the dried petals of a European flower—hence its distinctive floral aroma and sweet taste. Like tea, though, chamomile has a long and rich history. For centuries Europeans have utilized it as a tonic and antiseptic for a range of ailments.
A 2010 review looked at the research on chamomile's folk uses. The researchers postulated that chamomile's sedative properties may result from the flavonoid apigenin, which can bind to receptors in the brain. But despite promise in preclinical models, they decided further research was needed.
Since then, other studies have found a stronger link between chamomile and good night's rest. A 2017 study found that chamomile improves sleep quality in the elderly, a group prevalent with sleep insomnia. And a 2016 study saw a similar effect in postpartum women.
While more conclusive research is needed, if nothing else, chamomile's lack of caffeine and soothing flavor offer a pleasant way to simply chill alongside a good book.
Tea's long-term biohacks
Tea tray with two cups of matcha tea served during a tea ceremony in Japan.
Tea may not cure poisons, but scientific evidence suggests it bestows several long-term health benefits. Many observational studies have found a correlation between drinking tea and a reduced risk of various types of cancer. Tea's flavonoids have been linked to anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory effects. And a meta-analysis cited increasing support that tea protects against cardiovascular disease.
"Tea consumption, especially green tea, may not be the magic bullet, but it can be incorporated in an overall healthy diet with whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables, and less red and processed meat," wrote Qi Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Though, he adds, sugar in your tea will likely negate these benefits.
We still have much to learn about this ancient tonic, but scientific inquiry has rediscovered what the Chinese found out thousands of years ago. Tea can help you navigate your day more efficiently. If tea proves to have even more salubrious effects, then bonus!
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.