Herbal tea is trending in the world hot beverages—its good for you, caffeine-free, and it aligns with popular culture’s growing interest in a healthy lifestyle. Amusingly enough, however, “herbal tea” is actually a misnomer; unbeknownst to many, true tea (black, green, white, yellow, oolong, etc.) is defined as a beverage prepared by pouring boiling water over the cured leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. As herbal “tea” is, by definition, made by combining boiling water with herbs (or any plant other than Camellia sinensis), it does not actually qualify as tea. It is technically an infusion. Definitions aside, however, herbal tea is an excellent and highly popular drink, and well worth exploring.
Popular Herbal Teas
A primary reason for many herbal teas’ rise in popularity is their medicinal benefits. Chamomile is one of the most popular choices for its relief of stomach pains, irritable bowel syndrome, and sleeplessness. Rooibos (also known as “Red Bush”) offers a host of health benefits, mainly due to containing many of the same antioxidant properties as green tea (but with none of the caffeine). Ginger is renowned for its ability to ease digestive problems such as nausea; fennel can increase a breastfeeding mothers’ supply of milk; catnip relieves stress, skin irritation, headaches and menstrual cramping, and can function as an anti-inflammatory; nettle can prevent kidney stones, ease muscle pain, lower blood cholesterol and act as a natural allergy killer and oral hygiene booster; the well-known (and well-marketed) Echinacea may help enhance the immune system; and ginseng, can boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels and can even treat male sexual dysfunction. Herbal tea is essentially nothing more or less than plants steeped in water; thus, given that plants have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, most if not all of the healthy properties of plants are available to herbal tea drinkers.
Interestingly, just as certain plants can have adverse side effects on the human body, certain herbal teas should be avoided or consumed in moderation. The herb star anise contains sikimitoxin, which can lead to a host of medical conditions including seizures, vomiting, jitteriness and rapid eye movement; comfrey contains alkaloids that can cause liver damage over time; and pregnant women should avoid nettle tea, which has been shown to help contribute to miscarriage and early labor. A final reason to “know your herbal teas” is simple confusion over plants: the aforementioned comfrey, while not advised, is certainly not fatal; however, it is easily mistaken for the potentially deadly foxglove, which can poison.
It’s clear that herbal tea can offer healthy advantages. But what gives it an edge over a few different vitamins per day? As herbalist Marianne Beacon points out, there’s the hydration factor—health authorities contend that adults should consume at least a half gallon of water a day—and the added benefits of aromatherapy. (To take full advantage of the latter, always be sure to steep herbal tea in a covered vessel, which helps contain the essential oils, the real source of the tea’s medicinal value).
Apart from this, there’s the social opportunities a cup of tea offers. After all, no one makes plans to visit and share a tiny cup of vitamins!