Now that the temperatures are falling and we’re all spending more time indoors, there’s almost nothing better than a cup of freshly brewed hot tea. And, aside from the warm and cozy feeling holding a steaming cup evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many real and herbal teas are packed with powerful antioxidants and other natural substances that are highly beneficial for our health.
The difference between “real” and herbal tea
“Real” tea originated in China where it has been cultivated for centuries for its medicinal properties. Made from the leaves and buds of a single plant called Camellia sinensis, it can take the form of black, green, oolong or white tea; the distinguishing factor being the way in which it is processed. Green tea, for example, is made from unwilted leaves that have not been fermented, while black tea is produced from leaves that are wilted, rolled, fermented and fully oxidized.
Tea leaves contain thousands of naturally-occurring chemical compounds, including polyphenols, alkaloids (like caffeine), amino acids, minerals, proteins and fluoride. Polyphenols, which make up the largest group of plant chemicals, are produced by the tea plant as a defense against insects and other pathogens. In humans, polyphenols act as antioxidants, protecting cells from free radicals that can damage the body. Many studies have shown that polyphenols found in black and green tea especially can reduce the risk of a variety of illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Herbal tea, by contrast, is made from any variety of dried leaves, seeds, roots and flowers of a specific herb or combination of herbs. Like traditional tea, herbal tea can contain antioxidants and other chemical compounds (present in the original plant) that are beneficial to human health. An advantage to herbal tea is that it is typically caffeine free, which means you can drink it all day without getting the jitters. The effects of herbal tea can differ from person to person, though, so it’s important to read the ingredients carefully in case of allergy to the particular herb or similar plants.
Whichever kind of tea you choose to brew, make sure to steep the the leaves long enough to maximize the benefits; a recommended 5 to 10 minutes. Covering the teapot with a lid or placing a saucer over a single mug helps keep the volatile oils in the tea instead of allowing them to escape into the atmosphere.
Here are eight medicinal teas with a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and helping to prevent disease. All you need to add is boiling water.
The most popular tea among Americans, black tea also contains the most caffeine. This is due to its extended period of fermentation during processing. Theophylline, an alkaloid that is present in black and green tea, has been shown to have many beneficial physiological effects on human health including increasing blood flow in the capillaries and helping to maintain a healthy blood pressure. According to one UCLA study, drinking at least three cups of black tea a day may significantly reduce your risk of stroke.
Theophylline also relaxes muscles in the airway, making breathing easier.
Pu-erh tea is a type of black tea that has been fermented and aged through a special process. Darker than what most of us in the West know as black tea, it is made from an unfermented, broad-leaf variety of the Camellia sinensis bush found in the southern Chinese provinces and India. Like a fine wine, pu-erh tea gets better with age, and some teas are known to be more than 50 years old. (Compare that to the shelf life of green tea, which is about one year.)
A secondary oxidation and fermentation process gives this medicinal tea a unique flavor and texture. Pu-erh tea has been shown to lower cholesterol levels, boost blood flow and improve overall circulation. A study published in the journal “Experimental Gerontology” in 2009 found that rats saw a profound reduction in LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and an increase in “good” HDL cholesterol after consuming pu-erh tea.
Studies have shown that the high antioxidant and nutrient content of green tea can have powerful effects on the body, including reducing the risk of heart disease by lowering total and LDL cholesterol. Green tea has also been shown to boost the metabolic rate and lower blood sugar.
Some research indicates that catechins found in green tea can kill bacteria and fight viruses like influenza. And, the slightly-bitter tasting brew has a high fluoride content, which can help prevent tooth decay.
This classic mint tea with antispasmodic properties is great for those suffering from certain kinds of gastrointestinal (GI tract) problems. Peppermint has been shown to calm and relax the muscles of the stomach, providing soothing relief from pain caused by bloating, gas and diarrhea. Menthol (the main constituent of peppermint) is also effective as a decongestant, thinning mucus to break up coughs and providing soothing relief to sore throats.
Do not take peppermint tea if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), since peppermint’ can relax the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus, allowing stomach acids to flow back up into the esophagus.
Another powerful medicinal tea for the treatment of gastrointestinal problems, ginger gets the digestive juices flowing, providing relief from nausea and occasional indigestion. Its warming, spicy flavor helps to promote healthy digestion, enabling the body to better absorb nutrients.
Made from the deep magenta-colored leaves of the hibiscus flower, hibiscus tea is high in vitamin C and organic acids; great for strengthening the immune system. Some researchers believe that chemical compounds found in hibiscus tea may lower blood pressure as effectively as some standard blood-pressure medications by opening the arteries and slowing the release of hormones that restrict blood vessels.
Hibiscus’ diuretic properties also can help treat fluid retention, stomach irritation inflammation and other types of circulation disorders in the body.
Lemon Balm Tea
A perennial herb belonging to the mint family, lemon balm has served for generations as a medicinal tea to treat indigestion, sleep disorders, anxiety and wounds. The slightly lemon-scented herb is a common additive to peppermint tea.
Lemon balm contains naturally occurring chemical compounds that have a mild sedative or calming effect on the body. In addition to helping to reduce anxiety, induce sleep and improve mood, the herb has been shown to improve mental performance in some limited studies. The tea can also be applied to the skin to soothe and treat certain skin problems.
Used for centuries for its medicinal properties, chamomile is a flowering herb in the daisy family. Its primary constituent is bisabolol, a colorless, viscous oil which has been shown to have a number of anti-irritant and inflammatory effects. Chamomile can be used topically or orally to treat upset stomach and abdominal cramping. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it great for relieving irritation from chest colds and other skin conditions. And, it is has also been shown to help with insomnia and other sleep disorders.
A note of caution for ragweed sufferers: the pollen in chamomile is similar and may produce an allergic reaction.
A member of the legume family, rooibos (red bush) has been used for generations to make herbal tea in Southern Africa, where it is also referred to as bush tea. Its reddish, needle like leaves are packed with polyphenols, great for improving health and boosting immunity.
Relatively unknown in the U.S., rooibos tea’s many health benefits come from its high antioxidant content that some say is even higher than that of green tea. Two powerful flavonoids that may lower cortisol levels make rooibos great at reducing stress, relieving headache and promoting restful sleep. It also can ease stomach cramping. In Africa, it is sometimes used as a substitute for milk with colicky babies.
If you’re interested in trying rooibos, check out Teavana’s interesting blends.