Sunday, February 11, 2007

Apple #223: Health Benefits of Herbal Tea

I've been drinking a lot of herbal tea lately. I can't have caffeine anymore, for one thing, and for another, my nose and throat feel somewhat arid these winter days, especially right after I wake up. The steaminess of the tea seems to soothe my nose and throat, and the warmth of the tea travels into me and warms me from the inside out.

(Photo from Stock.xchng)

I also like a lot of the flavors of various herbal teas. Right now, my favorites are a combination of peppermint & spearmint with a little cinnamon thrown in, another variety that includes a little snappiness of ginger, and yet another richer tea that has a vanilla flavor going on.

Drinking all this tea has me wondering, can herbal tea somehow contribute to the health of my heart, perhaps? Are there some secret health benefits to these various grocery-store-available herbal teas?

I should say up front that I'm not interested in things like drinking echinacea tea to improve immunity, or drinking raspberry leaf tea to counteract PMS. I'm more interested in a general health benefit. Black tea, for example, is supposed to have anti-oxidant and therefore some anti-cancer and anti-stroke properties. So does herbal tea have any similar kind of general benefit?

  • First of all, I learned that herbal tea is not, in fact, tea. Black tea and green tea and even red tea all come from the same evergreen tea plant called Camellia sinensis.

The leaves of this one plant, Camellia sinensis, can be processed in different ways to make black, green, red, or even white teas.
(Photo from the Tea Museum)

  • The leaves from this plant contain polyphenols, which are chemicals that, when consumed, protect our tissues against damaging things called free radicals. They can also deactivate other substances that trigger the growth of cancer cells. Polyphenols are the magic things in tea that give it those extra health benefits.
  • Herbal teas are not made from the Camellia sinensis leaves. Herbal teas are usually infusions of other types of herbs and flowers and spices -- but not the tea leaf. Therefore herbal teas are technically not "teas," but are in fact "tisanes."
  • Since herbal teas -- excuse me, tisanes -- are not made from the same plant as black or green teas, they do not necessarily confer the same benefits.
  • I looked for more information about what herbal teas -- dang it, tisanes -- can do for you, but I'm getting the impression that herbal teas -- tisanes -- seem to be regarded by the medical research community as the realm of crackpots or something because they don't seem to have done the same kind of research into herbal health benefits as they have for black teas. That's just my impression, though, and it's possible that lots of highfalutin' research has actually been conducted that I don't know about.
  • However, one study conducted by the American Chemical Society found that people who drank five cups of chamomile tea each day increased their levels of hippurate. The "parent," so to speak, of hippurate is phenolics -- the same group of good-for-you chemicals that you get from drinking black or green or red tea. So it looks like chamomile tea might, in fact, provide you with some of the same benefits as black or green tea.

Chamomile flowers, frequently dried and used to make tisanes, are members of the daisy family. So if you're allergic to daisies, don't drink chamomile tea.
(Photo from Plantlife)

  • Phenolics also help increase antibacterial resistance, so people who drink chamomile tea could see an increased resistance to colds and infections.
  • Another study also found that chamomile tea has "mild antioxidant and antimicrobial activities," meaning, again, that chamomile tea could be moderately useful in fighting colds and infections.
  • This other study also found that, in animals, chamomile tea helped lower cholesterol and protect against inflammation, which can contribute to anything from headaches to arteriosclerosis. They caution that these benefits have been studied only in animals and that similar studies on humans are "limited."
  • Other stuff in the chamomile tea acts as a nerve and muscle relaxant, which may help soothe muscle spasms -- often those associated with menstrual cramps -- and which may be why hot herbal tea acts as a mild sedative.
  • Too bad I don't like the flavor of chamomile tea. And some people are allergic to chamomile.
  • But researchers seem to have picked chamomile because of its popularity. They've already discovered the polyphenols in wine, and they know that those chemicals are present in lots of plant foods. So I'm willing to bet that if these benefits are true for chamomile tea, the same or similar benefits are probably also true of other herbal teas -- tisanes.
  • Medical researchers, here's another thing for you to get to work quantifying for us.

Gloria Tsang, Health Benefits of Tea, April 2006
Cynthia Brook, Medical College of Wisconsin, Studies Suggest Health Benefits of Tea, March 30, 2000
MedicineNet, Definition of Polyphenol
Michael Bernstein, American Chemical Society, "Chamomile tea: New evidence supports health benefits," January 4, 2005
Diane McKay and Jeffrey Blumberg, "A Review of the Bioactivity and Potential Health Benefits of Chamomile Tea," Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, July 1, 2006
Acu-Cell Nutrition, Bioflavonoids

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