Better Off Well


Green Tea and Plant Iron: Why I Had Sore Shoulders

It was last summer and I'd just finished reading my third consecutive text on cancer prevention. Setting the book aside, I stood up to make my third cup of green tea for the day. Not only was I reminded through all this reading how important the polyphenols in tea were to cancer prevention, I learned that Japanese green tea was especially high in these compounds so I'd dropped a 20 bill to pay for this box. It was an investment in my health, so I was happy to make the trade-off. While green tea was never high on my list of favorites, I grew to savor the taste, even enjoy it. Green tea became a regular part of my routine, drinking it throughout the day, often as a follow-up to meals. Gung ho, anyone?

green tea

Fast forward to a month or so later. Like everyone else, I feel tension in my shoulders at times. That tends to be where many of us carry the stress in our lives. But the tension I was feeling wasn't going away this time, no matter what I did. It was painful.

My yogi friend felt the tension and asked what was going on. Nothing more than usual.

Weird. It was weird.

So I did what I always do when something strange is going on with my body. I researched.

What did I learn?

My unusual shoulder tension was caused by low iron.

Why did I have low iron?

Because of the copious amount of green tea I was drinking.

Turns out the high polyphenol count in green tea that is responsible for cancer prevention is also an inhibitor of non-heme iron.

That means somebody like me, who eats mostly plants all the time and so only gets iron from plants (non-heme versus the heme type found in animal products), is going to have a harder time absorbing iron from her food if she's drinking green tea all day. My suspicions were confirmed when I stopped drinking the green tea. The pain in my shoulders went away.

They were confirmed further with a blood test. Low iron and ferritin.

Do I still drink tea? Not like I used to. I haven't touched green tea again, though I'm sure it's fine to drink now and then. I never felt the tension when I was drinking it occasionally. Black (which is fermented green tea) and peppermint teas are also high in polyphenols; chamomile has moderate amounts.

I'm not writing this to freak anyone out about tea. There are still many benefits to tea and it makes the perfect addition to a rainy day. I just don't drink it anymore with or soon after meals, and I switch up with warm lemon water.

If you are eating a plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet, or if your body has a hard time absorbing iron, it's good to be aware of beverages with high polyphenols. Pay attention to how your body feels whenever you introduce new foods or new routines, and have a complete metabolic profile done if energy levels dip.