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Tap into health benefits of herbs with steeped tea

by Doris Penner

            Tea has been the drink of choice around the world for centuries. Historians agree that its origins lie in China at the dawning of one of the oldest civilizations, and from there it spread throughout the rest of Asia, then into Europe and North America. No two regions prepare the drink in the same way—sometimes sweetened condensed milk is added as in Thailand, while in India tea is both sweet and fragrant with spices. In Tibet, the drink always comes with yak butter and salt while in Pakistan, tea is brewed with milk, pistachios and spices. In eastern countries tea has a certain mystique—thought of as the key to happiness and wisdom—which makes it part of religious ceremonies and celebratory occasions. In addition, tea has been used not only as a ceremonial libation, but also as a medicinal drink believed to impart many health benefits. Is this, in fact, the case? Does tea contain substances that may help cure ailments, stave off cardiovascular disease or strengthen the immune system?

            There are essentially two broad categories of tea: the first is based on leaves from Camellia sinesis or tea plant, a shrub native to India and China and includes black, green, white and oolong tea. The second category is drink steeped from leaves, seeds or roots of herbs and flowers which we loosely call herbal teas (although purists do not agree with this designation). Many people enjoy tea simply as a beverage with a vast range of flavours to choose from and a pleasant change from coffee. In recent years it has become evident that black and green teas contain unique antioxidants called flavonoids which may help mitigate damage by free radicals that can contribute to cancer, heart disease and clogged arteries. And while black teas contain caffeine, in small amounts as in tea, it acts as a stimulant.

Nutrients we ingest

            What about herbal teas? We know that many of the nutrients we ingest in a wholesome balanced diet come from plants—either leaves (spinach for example), roots (carrots or potatoes) or seeds (from the sunflower). Thus it makes sense that herbs might also have substances that would directly aid in keeping us healthy. The best way to extract nutrients or tap into the healthy properties of herbs is by brewing them into a tea—that is pouring boiling water on fresh or dried leaves (or sometimes flower petals, chopped root or seeds) and allowing it to steep for 10 minutes. Technically this is called a tisane or an infusion.

            There are those who say that the ritual brewing of herb tea and smelling the fragrant steam as you sip it is in itself a soothing experience. It is helpful to know that an herbal tea should be fairly potent so do not rush the steeping time. Cover the pot or mug to prevent essential oils from escaping.

            In general, herbal teas have lower concentrations of antioxidants than do black, green, white and oolong teas. However, they contain other nutrients which vary widely from plant to plant. It should be noted that there has been limited research on herbal teas and its health benefits, so while some claims have been verified by controlled studies, others come from testimonials. However, for the most part herbal teas that one would find pleasant to the taste are safe to drink so a little experimentation will do no harm and perhaps assist in mitigating some health condition.

            Since there are dozens of herbs that have been cited as containing healing properties, let me draw out a few that have proven themselves. Chamomile tea, made from the flower heads of the plant is touted as a mild sedative and thus helpful for insomnia. It is also recommended for treating coughs and bronchitis, and aids indigestion. The purple echinacea flowers and leaves make a tea that is said to be good for the common cold, appearing to have properties that bolster the immune system.

Lemon balm

            There are certain teas such as lemon balm and lemon verbena—both plants easy to grow in Manitoba—that not only have a very pleasant lemon flavour (and as such make a wonderful iced tea) but also contain substances that seem to relieve anxiety and stress. Thus it stands to reason, the tea aids sleep, and is even thought to prevent nightmares when consumed just before bedtime.

            Peppermint tea is commonly ingested simply for enjoyment, but it is recommended for relief of abdominal gas and bloating. Because of the “menthol factor” it appears to have diaphoretic or pore-opening properties to help the respiratory system.

            Other herbs to consider for teas are rosehip which is very high in vitamin C, thus boosting the immune system, cinnamon (using either the sticks or ground form) which contribute antioxidants and relieve stomach discomfort and bloating, and ginger (using the sliced root or powdered form) which aids digestion, and curbs nausea and motion sickness. Herbs you might also like to check into as rooibos, hibiscus, dandelion, blackberry leaf, cloves, borage, catnip and fennel.

            Often a variety of dried herbs are blended to make a tea so check labels when purchasing in stores. Many herbs can successfully be grown in prairie gardens for cooking and teas and may be used either fresh or dried. When brewing tea, use about one tablespoon dried herb or two tablespoons fresh chopped herb to one cup of water.