Herbal Teas : Health Benefits Beyond the Tea Leaves
Most of us have heard about the health benefits of various teas made with leaves from the tea plant; white, black, green and oolong teas, for instance. They contain high levels of polyphenols, and can have dramatic effects on our health. However, there are other teas that can be just as beneficial, and offer more than just a change of taste. Understanding the types of herbal teas, what they can do for you, and how they can benefit your body is an important part of ensuring a good quality of life.
The Difference between Tea and Herbal Teas
Before we dive too far into the topic, let’s discuss the difference between teas made with tea leaves, and herbal teas.
What is tea? Technically, the term “tea” can be applied to just about any beverage made by steeping plant leaves or flowers in it. However, with the rising global popularity of teas made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis (the tea bush), a distinction can be made that differs from what has been true historically. Rather than calling them by the moniker “teas”, beverages created with herbs, fruits and other plant parts (other than Camellia sinensis) can be called:
- Herbal infusions
All of these terms describe what is essentially a tea made not with tea leaves, but with herbs, and sometimes with berries or fruit. Note that some of these words, such as infusion and decoction, actually describe the preparation process AND work as the name of the beverage (an infusion of wormwood, or a decoction of chamomile, for instance).
There are actually quite a few differences between herbal teas and “real” teas. For instance, all tea types (white, black, green, etc.) use the leaves of the same plant. The only difference is the processing method utilized. However, herbal teas can include any number of herbs and herb combinations. Some of the most popular include:
- St. John’s Wort
- Golden Seal
- Saw Palmetto
- Licorice Root
- Alfalfa Leaf
Herbal Tea Brewing Methods
As mentioned, some of the names applied to herbal teas, such as tisane and decoction, are actually the names of the preparation method. Understanding these can help ensure that you’re making smart decisions when it comes to the teas you consume.
Tisane: A tisane is nothing more than an infusion of plant parts in water, usually hot water. Steeping a bag of chamomile in hot water to make tea is actually the creation of a tisane.
Infusion: Infusion is a word used to describe adding any dry material to water to extract its essence. Basically, you’re infusing water with the essence of the herb.
Decoction: A decoction differs from the above methods only in the type of material being used. Rather than leaves or flowers, a decoction relies on the roots or stems of a plant. They’re still steeped in water. However, the mixture is usually brought to a boil, and then allowed to simmer for a period to extract the vital nutrients.
Benefits of Herbal Teas
There are many different benefits associated with the various herbal teas used around the world. These range from herb-specific action, such as immune system boosting from Echinacea, to the fact that herbal teas contain no caffeine, unlike beverages made with tea leaves. With that being said, most herbal teas were created and continue to be brewed because they offer improvements – better health, improved mental clarity and focus, stress reduction, and the like.
Most of the benefits of herbals come to us from folklore – herbal concoctions have been used since time out of mind to achieve everything from reducing the duration of a cold to helping with anxiety and even eliminating physical pain. In addition, many scientific studies have been performed, most of which supported the use of herbals for achieving health improvements and better health outcomes for humans. With that being said, few of these studies have used control groups, meaning that most result in anecdotal, rather than conclusive, evidence.
A few notable exceptions exist, though. The USDA funded research by a group of Boston, MA, scientists, who looked into the benefits traditionally associated with three popular herbals, as well as going farther, to determine if there were additional benefits to these herbal teas that folk medicine would not identify. These are peppermint tea, chamomile tea, and hibiscus tea. These findings were published in the March 2011 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, but have been summarized below.
- Peppermint Tea: The researchers found that peppermint tea was good for the nerves, and provided a mild analgesic effect on the nervous system. It also showed antimicrobial and antiviral benefits, and performed well against cancer tumors. It offered antiallergenic properties, and contained strong antioxidants, as well.
- Chamomile Tea: Chamomile tea proved to be just as relaxing and de-stressing as folklore claims. However, the researchers found that it also had moderate antioxidant activity, and worked as an antimicrobial, as well. One interesting fact is that they also discovered significant antiplatelet-clumping activity, as well as anti-inflammatory action. Chamomile also lowered “bad” cholesterol.
- Hibiscus Tea: One of the most important findings regarding hibiscus tea was the fact that patients involved in a study who consumed three cups of hibiscus tea daily showed a 7.2-point drop in their systolic blood pressure over the course of six weeks. By the end of the trial, they had reduced their systolic blood pressure by 13.2 points.
Other Teas and Their Benefits
The three herbal teas discussed above are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are many other types of herbal teas used today around the world.
Echinacea: Echinacea tea has long been associated with improved immune system operation. While scientific research is inconclusive about how it works to fight the common cold, there are few that deny it can help to shorten the duration of minor illnesses, particularly when coupled with vitamin C and other supports.
Hyssop: Hyssop is used to support the immune system and to fight the common cold, too. It can work as an expectorant, clearing congestion, and it is used as a gargle to help soothe sore throats.
Lavender: Primarily used as sleep aid. It is also an incredibly popular essential oil used for relaxation and stress relief.
Rooibos: An herb from South Africa, rooibos is fermented prior to being used to create an herbal tea. It has been shown to offer cancer-fighting capabilities, and has undergone some medical studies that support this.
Alfalfa: This tea is rich in antioxidants, and is used to help fight heart disease. It is also traditionally associated with cancer fighting capabilities, although there have been no actual scientific studies to prove this.
Ginger: Ginger has traditionally been used in whole or tea form to combat nausea and morning sickness. It is also used to improve appetite, and has shown antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, as well.
Dandelion: The common dandelion, so maligned as a weed, has actually been both a source of food for humans for thousands of years, and has been an important ingredient in herbal teas. It offers liver protection, and builds iron levels, while supplying important potassium and vitamin A. There is some evidence that dandelion tea can also be useful in weight loss efforts.
Licorice: Licorice root has been indicated as an important herbal treatment for stomach ulcers, and has even been used to help relieve menstrual cramps. Its analgesic properties also help treat arthritis pain, and it may have some anticancer capabilities, as well.
Ginseng: Ginseng has been used for thousands of years, both as an ingredient in herbal teas, and as a supplement. It supports the immune system and helps to reduce illnesses, particularly those associated with the chest, and it aids in digestion and eases constipation.
Not All Herbal Teas Are Created Equal
While most herbal teas are safe, and offer health benefits, some can be dangerous, particularly if overused. For instance, senna, aloe and buckthorn can all be used as laxatives, and can cause serious dehydration if not used correctly. In fact, the FDA has actually warned against using them at all.
The FDA also has concerns about supplements that use chaparral (liver failure, kidney failure and hepatitis), comfrey (a traditional medicinal herb that can cause liver damage), willow bark (an analgesic, but can cause kidney damage), germander (causes liver disease), lobelia (heart disease, and toxic buildup) and ephedra (heart damage).
When it’s all said and done, herbal teas have been and will remain some of our most important tools for improving our health and alleviating pain and discomfort. The types touched on above are just a fraction of the options available – there are literally over 100 potential individual teas, not to mention herbal tea blends and combinations. Whether you’re suffering from hay fever, a headache, want to relax and sleep better, or detox your body, there’s an herbal tea that can help.