Drink To Your Health With These 10 Medicinal Teas

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Now that temperatures are dropping and we’re spending more time indoors, almost nothing beats a cup of hot tea. And aside from the warm and cozy feeling a steaming mug evokes, tea has never looked better. That’s because many ‘true’ and herbal teas contain powerful antioxidants and other substances that are great for human health. So before opening the medicine cabinet, why not explore the benefits of medicinal tea?

TRUE TEA COMES FROM CAMELLIA SINENSIS

It may surprise you to learn that ‘true’ tea comes from the leaves and buds of a single shrub called Camellia sinensis. This one plant produces all six types of tea – black, green, yellow, oolong, white and pu-erh. The difference between each is the degree to which their leaves are processed. 

Green tea, for instance, is made from Camellia sinensis’ unwilted and unfermented leaves. Black tea, on the other hand, is produced from leaves that are wilted and fully fermented. And white tea is made from the shrub’s youngest leaves and buds that are hardly processed at all.

Tea farm in Asia. Photo: News of Asia/Shutterstock.com

Tea farm in Asia

These days, herbal teas tend to get all the attention when it comes to medicinal teas. Yet, ‘true’ teas contain thousands of naturally-occurring chemical compounds that can offer a variety of health benefits. Of all of these compounds, the largest group is made up of polyphenols.

In nature, polyphenols defend Camellia sinensis against insects and other pathogens. And in the human world, they offer protection against illnesses as well. 

camellia sinensis

Camellia sinensis

In fact, a growing body of research indicates that these micronutrients not only act as antioxidants, but also protect cells from free radicals that can damage the body. Studies show that polyphenols found in black and green tea, in particular, can improve human resistance to a variety of degenerative illnesses, including cancer and cardiovascular disease.

HERBAL TEA IS MADE FROM HERBS, NOT TEA

Herbal tea, on the other hand, does not come from Camellia sinensis. Rather, it is made from the dried leaves, seeds, roots or flowers of many different edible plants, or herbs. Popular herbal teas include chamomile, peppermint, ginger, hibiscus and rooibus, to name just a few.

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Chamomile flowers

Like true teas, herbal teas contain antioxidants and other chemical compounds that are beneficial to human health. However, the effects of each can differ from person to person. For this reason, it’s important to read the ingredients carefully in case of allergy to the particular herb or similar plants.

Herbal tea made from fireweed

Herbal tea made from fireweed plant

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 or placing a saucer over a mug helps keep the volatile oils in the tea and prevents them from escaping into the atmosphere.

TOP MEDICINAL TEAS (TRUE AND HERBAL)

Here are eight medicinal teas with a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and helping to prevent disease. All you need to to do is add boiling water.

1. BLACK TEA

The most popular tea among Americans, black tea also contains the most caffeine. This is due to its extended period of fermentation during processing.

Both black and green tea contain an alkaloid called theophylline, which has been shown to increase blood flow and also help maintain a healthy blood pressure. And according to one UCLA study, drinking at least three cups of black tea a day may significantly reduce your risk of stroke.

2. PU-ERH TEA 

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 a larger-leaved variety of Camellia sinensis. Pu-erh is post-fermented, meaning it goes through the fermentation process after its leaves have been dried and rolled. This allows them to age like fine wines, with some teas known to last more than 50 years. (Compare that to the shelf life of green tea, which is about one year.)

pureh tea

Moreover, this post-fermentation process gives pu-erh a unique flavor and texture. Not only has this medicinal tea been shown to lower cholesterol levels, but it also may 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.

3. GREEN TEA 

Since it is made from the unfermented leaves of Camellia sinensis, green tea reportedly has one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants.

In fact, studies show 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 cholesterol. Green tea has likewise been shown to boost metabolic rate and lower blood sugar.

green tea

Some research indicates that catechins found in green tea can also kill bacteria and fight viruses like influenza. And, the slightly-bitter tasting brew has a high fluoride content, which may help prevent tooth decay.

4. PEPPERMINT TEA

This classic mint tea with antispasmodic properties is great for those suffering from certain kinds of gastrointestinal problems. That’s because 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 soothing sore throats.

peppermint tea

Peppermint tea with peppermint plant

That being said, do not drink peppermint tea if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Peppermint relaxes the sphincter. This in turn may allow stomach acids to flow back up into the esophagus.

5. GINGER TEA

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.

ginger tea

Ginger tea

6. HIBISCUS TEA

Made from the leaves of the hibiscus flower, hibiscus tea is high in vitamin C and organic acids, which are great immune system builders. Some researchers believe that chemical compounds found in the magenta-colored tea may also lower blood pressure as effectively as some standard blood-pressure medications.

hibiscus tea

Hibiscus tea

Hibiscus’ diuretic properties can also help treat fluid retention, stomach irritation and other circulation disorders in the body.

7. LEMON BALM TEA

A perennial herb belonging to the mint family, lemon balm has served for generations to treat indigestion, sleep disorders, anxiety and wounds. The slightly lemon-scented herb is also a common additive to peppermint tea.

lemon balm 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. 

8. CHAMOMILE TEA

Used for centuries for its medicinal properties, chamomile is a flowering herb in the daisy family. Its primary constituent is bisabolol. This colorless, viscous oil contains anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory and microbial properties. 

chamomile tea

Chamomile can be used topically or orally to treat upset stomach and abdominal cramping. And its anti-inflammatory properties make it great at relieving irritation from chest colds and other skin conditions.  

A note of caution for ragweed sufferers: the pollen in chamomile is similar and may produce an allergic reaction.

9. ROOIBOS TEA

A member of the legume family, rooibos has been used for generations in southern Africa where it is also referred to as bush tea. Its reddish, needle like leaves contain polyphenols, which as I mentioned above, are great for improving health and boosting immunity.

rooibos tea

Relatively unknown in the U.S., rooibos tea’s many health benefits come from its high antioxidant content that some say is even greater than that of green tea. It contains two powerful flavonoids that may lower cortisol levels while reducing stress and promoting healthy sleep. In Africa, rooibos is used to treat stomach cramping and sometimes serves as a substitute for milk with colicky babies.

10. SAGE TEA

Sage tea comes from the leaves of the sage plant, Salvia officinalis. In addition to its culinary properties, it has high concentrations of vitamins A, C, B and E. For this reason, it often serves to relieve such common ailments as sore throat, cough, colds and digestive problems. 

sage tea

But perhaps the best known use for sage tea is to relieve menopause symptoms. Studies have shown that women who drink this medicinal tea on a regular basis show a definitive drop in hot flashes. A word of caution, however. Sage contains a volatile chemical compound called thujone that can be harmful to human health if consumed in large quantities. 

Looking for more ways to stay warm and healthy this winter? Check out Traditional Chinese Medicine’s top recommendations for warming foods

 

Meet Stevia Rebaudiana: The Plant Behind the Hype

stevia rebaudiana

Stevia rebaudiana, the plant behind the popular sweetener

Last week, I was vacationing in Canada when an interesting commercial popped up on the television. It was an ad for the sweetener, stevia, and it featured enthusiastic users growing plants at home. Needless to say, it caught my attention. I had heard that stevia extract came from a ‘natural’ source. But I’d never stopped to consider what that meant from a gardening perspective.

I decided to dig deeper. Continue reading

Garden Visit: The U.S. National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

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The National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

A stroll through the secluded campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland is an otherworldly experience. First, there’s the security, then there are the imposing, mainly windowless limestone buildings towering hundreds of feet in the air. I stopped by NIH late last week to visit a little known but remarkable garden. Located directly across the parking lot from the world’s largest biomedical library, it is known as the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden.

ABOUT THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF MEDICINE HERB GARDEN

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) Herb Garden was established in 1976 as part of NIH’s Bicentennial celebration. Initially composed of low borders of boxwood, lavender and thyme, the garden has since grown to include over 100 flowering herbs. Meticulously arranged in symmetrical beds, the plants bear silent witness to the healing power of nature and the integral role it has played in the development of modern medicine over time.

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View of the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden

THE TOTUM POLE

The first thing you notice upon entering the space is a large Indian totem pole located at the far end of the garden. A part of the NLM’s new Native Voices exhibit, it was carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation from western red cedar found in Washington State. The totem, which symbolizes and promotes good health and healing, is the main focal point of the garden. Its colors also have deep meaning.

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Totem pole is focal point at the NIH Herb Garden

STORY-TELLING BENCHES

Flanking the totem pole are two ‘story-telling’ benches, also carved from western red cedar. The bench on the right side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Bear and the Steelhead, which teaches respect for nature and the natural cycles of life.

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NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Bear and the Steelhead’

The bench on the left side of the totem depicts the Salish traditional story of the Raven and the Sun. The story tells of how at great pain, the Raven delivered the sun, moon, stars and fire to humanity and how we humans should treasure them as essential to our survival.

NLM bench 'The Raven and the Sun'

NLM Native American sculpture ‘The Raven and the Sun’

CULPEPER’S WORLD-FAMOUS HERBAL GUIDE TO RADIANT HEALTH 

Among the nearly 20 million books and other forms of medical information on its library shelves, the National Library of Medicine considers Culpepers’s Complete Herbal  to be a primary source for information on herbs and herbal medicine. Written over 350 years ago by Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54), the guide contains a wealth of pharmaceutical and herbal knowledge. It also includes a listing of herbs and their properties, many of which can be found in the garden.

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Culpeper’s master work, The Complete Herbal

Culpeper was a 17th century physician and herbalist who spent much of his life outdoors gathering and cataloguing medicinal herbs. Although he studied medicine at Cambridge, he abandoned a traditional practice in order to provide low-cost health services to the poor.  He believed that no man should have to ‘starve’ to pay a physician.

Mikania micrantha growing wild in the forest 

Culpeper saw plenty of suffering around him. So, he sourced his medicines from the surrounding countryside, which enabled him to offer the bulk of his services for free.

He wrote,

This not being pleasing, and less profitable to me, I consulted with my two brothers, Dr. Reason and Dr. Experience, and took a voyage to visit my mother Nature, by whose advice, together with the help of Dr. Diligence, I at last obtained my desire; and, being warned by Mr. Honesty, a stranger in our days, to publish it to the world, I have done it.”

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Considered a radical in his time, Culpeper’s  herbal medicine practice and writings on the subject proved to be a thorn in the side of his fellow physicians. Moreover, Culpeper believed that expensive fees and the use of Latin by doctors kept power and freedom from the general public.  He shocked the establishment by publishing the Complete Herbal and other works in vernacular English so that everyone could read them.

Today, it is widely believed that Culpeper’s systemization of the use of herbals was a key development in the evolution of modern pharmaceuticals.

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Up close in the NLM Herb Garden with Verbena bonariensis in the background

A sample of some of Culpeper’s cures using various plants and flowers can be found on the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden website. I caution you, however, from attempting any of the remedies at home since they have not been officially proven to work. Following are just a few plants whose healing properties caught my eye.

PLANTS THAT HEAL 

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)  USES:  Diaphoretic, immunostimulant and tonic.

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Boneset

Cinquefoil (Potentilla reptans)   USES: To reduce inflammation and treat sore mouths and ulcers. It also can be applied to painful joints.

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Cinquefoil

Goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis)   USES: Mild diuretic and treatment for urinary tract inflammation and kidney stones.

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Goldenrod

African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x O. basilicum ‘Dark Opal’)  USES: Reduces fever and treats skin infections.

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African Blue Basil

Comfrey, Knitbone (Symphytum Officionale)  USES:  A healing plant for broken bones, wounds and ulcers.

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Comfrey, also known as Knitbone

Here was a surprise. Although I am aware that Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, can be somewhat toxic, I didn’t know it can also kill rats.

Lenten Rose

Finally, I certainly didn’t know that Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) can be used topically for wounds, cuts and abrasions and is also good for allergic mucus problems including hay fever. I may try it out!

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Yarrow

These are just a very few of the many interesting and beautiful flowering herbs to be found at the National Library of Medicine Herb Garden. The garden is maintained by the Montgomery County Master Gardeners and the Potomac Chapter of the Herb Society of America. For more information on the garden and how to get there, click here for the website.

 

 

Capsicum Named 2016 Herb of the Year

pepper cover

It may be time to get out the dictionary to see what designates an herb. The International Herb Association (IHA) has chosen the pepper family known as capsicum as 2016’s Herb of the Year. The prize, which is awarded annually as a part of National Herb Week, shines a spotlight on this often misunderstood fruit; declaring it outstanding for its virtually unlimited culinary, medicinal and decorative uses.

What is capsicum exactly?

Capsicum, also known as peppers, is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family (which includes tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants.) Native to South America, its many species have been cultivated and traded for more than 6,000 years. According to experts at the Chile Pepper Institute, there are literally thousands of varieties, ranging from fiery hot to mild tasting, with new ones constantly being discovered. And among the known varieties, the fruits go by different names, depending on the type and location in which they are grown.

red green and yellow peppersThe mild tasting bell pepper is sometimes referred to as ‘Stoplight Pepper’

Sound confusing? Capsicum terminology can get rather complicated, since pepper, chili, aji, paprika and capsicum are all used interchangeably to describe the same genus. Add to that the fact that frequent cross-pollination among domesticated species has produced even more variations and classification becomes next to impossible. Despite the huge range of varieties, however, experts now widely agree that the genus capsicum consists of 5 domesticated species:

 

Capsicum annuumThe most common and extensively grown of the five domesticated capsicums, C. annuum includes the bell pepper, jalapeño, pimiento, piquin and cayenne among others.

 

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Jalapeño pepper

Capsicum baccatum: Ají amarillo, also called amarillo chili and ají escabeche.

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Aji Amarillo pepper

Capsicum chinense: Includes some of the world’s hottest peppers like the habanero, scotch bonnet and red savina. Pods and plant types vary within the species.

habanero

Habanero peppers

Capsicum frutescens: This shrubby cultivar that includes the tabasco is often considered part of the species Capsicum annuum. Fruits typically grow erect and are very small, maturing from yellow to bright red. Large clusters of berries make this a popular ornamental plant.

tabasco

Ornamental peppers

Capsicum pubescens: The least common of the five, a cultivar distinguished by its apple-like shape and black seeds. It includes the varieties rocoto and the Mexican manzano.

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Peruvian rocoto pepper

A part of cooking for thousands of years

Although chili peppers had been a part of the human diet across the Americas for centuries, they were virtually unheard of in the rest of the world. That is, until Christopher Columbus brought the unusual species back from the New World. At the time, the fruit of a plant native to India, called Piper nigrum, (commonly known as peppercorn) was the key ingredient used to flavor foods in countries like Europe.

peppercornsPeppercorn, Piper nigrum

In the beginning, Europeans weren’t so enamored with capsicum. But eventually, as traders began carrying the berry to places in West Africa, India and Asia, the pungent fruit quickly caught on. In the end, capsicum’s discovery would end up revolutionizing cooking the world over as it became an integral ingredient in Chinese, Indian, Thai, European and American cooking and medicine, all of which now lay claim to the spice as their own.

 

Anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties

The same chemical that produces a pepper’s fiery sensation in the mouth is loaded with medicinal properties. This is due to a phytonutrient called capsaicin, a chemical that gives hot peppers their ‘heat.’ In the wild, capsaicin protects the fruits from being eaten by insects and other mammals. In modern medicine, the pepper compound has been successfully used to dramatically reduce the sensation of pain.

capsaicin

The amount of capsaicin in any one fruit is highly variable depending on genetics and environment. (All chili peppers have some degree of the chemical, though, with the notable exception of bell peppers, which have practically none.) Habanero peppers are among the most capsaicin-rich chilies that are commonly available. A 2006 study published in the “Journal of Environmental Science and Health” found that the species habanero (a part of C. chinense) had higher concentrations of capsaicin than any other species in the capsicum genus.

habanero mix

Habanero mix

When a capsaicin cream or ointment is applied to the skin, it has anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Capsaicin medications have been shown to successfully relieve pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and shingles. In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a medicated skin patch made from capsaicin for treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). According to spokesmen, the pure, concentrated, capsaicin-containing prescription drug was the first to undergo FDA review

“This new product can provide effective pain relief for patients who suffer from PHN,” said Bob Rappaport, M.D., director of the Division of Anesthesia, Analgesia and Rheumatology Products in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

And just last year, the capsaicin patch was approved for use in the Europe Union for the additional indication of the treatment of adult diabetes patients with peripheral neuropathic pain.

Other studies have shown that pepper fruits can be used to make medicine for problems relating to digestion including upset stomach, intestinal gas and cramps as well as conditions such as poor circulation. Capsaicin has also been used to relieve toothaches and seasickness and a form of the phytonutrient is currently being studied as a remedy for migraine pain.

 

World’s hottest chili pepper identified

Recently, the world’s hottest chili pepper was identified. Known as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the golf-ball sized fruit was named the spiciest pepper on the planet. On the Scoville Heat Scale (which measures the pungency, or heat factor, of peppers), the Trinidad Moruga scored about 240 times hotter than the jalapeño, with a Scoville heat unit value of 1.2 million. (The average jalapeño ranks at about 5,000 units.)

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Moruga Scorpion pepper

Pure capsaicin, by the way, has a heat unit value ranging between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 Scoville Units.

For more information on capsicum and where many of the known varieties rank on the Heat Scale, check out Uncle Steve’s Hot Stuff.

 

How To Grow Herbs Indoors

Everyone loves the taste of herbs harvested fresh from the garden. And winter doesn’t have to spell the end of that enjoyment. Just a handful of pots indoors can supply bundles of savory herbs throughout all the seasons. All you need are some culinary herbs, a sunny window and a little TLC in the form of good soil, judicious watering and a regular supply of food. Continue reading