Herbal Teas: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Herbal teas (tisanes – if we want to be technical) have been beloved and steeped for a long, long time. From the calming chamomile before bedtime to ginger root to soothe an upset stomach, there are many fantastic and wonderful plants that can be steeped and enjoyed. Steeping and drinking an herbal tisane isn’t without its worries – especially if you are pregnant, take any medications, or have any health issues.

While many herbs are safe – if you can properly identify the plant – there are some ones that should be avoided, under certain conditions. A lot of people will argue that herbs are natural and therefore safe – but the plague are natural too, but nobody is lining up to lick a Petri dish colonized with it. There’s a bit of good with the bad, after all!

There’s no way that I can go through each and every single herbal ingredient there is – there’s just too many! So here are some of the highlights of ingredients that you may find in some of your favourite herbal tisanes:

Ginger root is one of those herbal ingredients that I love. It has a great warming sensation when you consume it (in either tisane or food), with some great spicy notes. Ginger root traditionally helps a lot with digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. It can also interact with anticoagulants, some antibiotics, and cardiac medications.

The most popular one to avoid is St. John’s wort. While it’s considered a medicinal herb that may have some anti-depressant properties, St. John’s wort is also highly interactive with many medications that include, but not limited to, cancer medications, contraceptives, antivirals, and anticoagulants. There’s a very long list of medications that it can interact with, so really it’s just best to avoid St. John’s wort completely if you take any sort of medication.

Another digestion aid, hawthorn, is popular in traditional Chinese medicine and indigenous medicine (although, they do use different species of hawthorn). Hawthorn is actually an ingredient in a popular Chinese snack (haw flakes), but hawthorn consumption has been known to interact with digoxin (a cardiac medication), and can also cause hypotension (low blood pressure) and cardiac arrhythmia (where your heart is either beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly). It’s an ingredient I’d definitely have a chat with your health care professionals about, especially if you have any heart or blood pressure issues.

Valerian root is used as a sleeping aide – it is frequently an ingredient in sleepy time teas. But valerian should be avoided if you have any liver issues, or with alcohol and some prescription medications (best check with your friendly neighbourhood pharmacist!).

For those who love licorice root, you know that it’s found in a variety of candies – and can be delicious, I personally don’t think that licorice root tastes like the candy at all. Licorice is one to avoid in pregnancy, and it can actually cause hypertension (high blood pressure) as well as hypokalemia (low potassium) and edema (water retention). Which, if you’ve ever been pregnant, you already know you’re going to have some water retention, so why would you want to exacerbate it?

When in doubt about an herbal ingredient in your tisanes, I would recommend following up with your physician or pharmacist – especially if you are pregnant, taking any medications (prescription or otherwise), taking supplements, or have any health concerns.

Single Estate vs. Blended Teas

Single estate or single origin teas are, for lack of way of saying it, simply teas that are produced from a single tea farm. This generally applies to traditional or straight teas that are grown and processed by a tea farmer. Some tea companies may mention that their products come from a specific farm, city, or region and some even include the name of the tea farmer and some history of the farm itself – like how long its been in business for, how many generations of tea farmers have worked the land, etc.

Blended teas are not just teas that consist of a variety of ingredients – like my tea stash staple, Earl Grey. Earl Grey typically consists of black tea and bergamot oil. On occasion, an Earl Grey blend might also include lavender, vanilla, or cornflower petals. But for a blend like Earl Grey – and honestly, most other tea blends, the ingredients will originate from a variety of locations are were brought together by the tea producer. A blended tea can also be a typical grocery store brand that’s prepackaged into tea bags. That classic Orange Pekoe might be a black tea, and you’ll get a country of origin on the packaging, but you don’t really know where it came from – and the tea itself might be sourced from many different farms.

Are there pros to buying a single origin or single estate tea versus a blend?

For starters, you’re able to trace back where the tea came from if the tea company provides you with this information. You might be able to find out that the tea comes from a farm that is fair-trade, has initiative on the local level to provide good wages to the people who work the farms, and you might find out that the farm is certified organic. You might also find out none of these things beyond the fact that the tea comes from a specific city/region or farm. Single estate teas are often more expensive, and it’s not hard to see why. You get more information, and with that added transparency is the fact that there may be more labour involved with your tea. Think blooming teas, dragon pearls, and other hand-rolled teas that you might have in your stash.

Blends are often cheaper because they compile teas from a variety of areas to produce the product. Either mixing together black teas from a variety of farms, or ingredients that may be cheaper than the tea leaves itself – which results in a bulked up tea blend that is cheaper to produce, and potentially heavier in weight. Not that there is anything wrong with drinking a nice blend, but those dried fruit pieces are just so heavy!

That said, the curious thing about single origin teas is that variation in weather and soil quality may produce a very different tasting tea year after year. While you might get a delicate, sweet green tea one spring, the spring harvest the following year might end up being a bit more astringent with umami notes. With a tea blend, there’s potential for more consistency in flavouring because you’re bringing together tea from a variety of regions so the subtle changes in a single tea farm’s product isn’t as obvious as when you’re drinking a tea produced from a single location. Being able to provide consumers with a consistent tasting product is one of the reasons why so many people regularly pick up a box of Red Rose at the grocery store – myself included. The flavour tastes the same now as it did when I was a younger child and that’s one of the reasons why I still buy it – childhood nostalgia is a very powerful motivator! But the changes from season to season, year to year, for a single estate tea is also one of the reasons why I will be curious and interested in trying a first flush and a second flush Darjeeling tea – because the flavours will be just that different.

So what does this all boil down to? Drink your tea, and enjoy it!

If price and consistency year after year is a concern, blends are certainly an excellent option. If you’re able to afford single origin, you’ll get to experience the nuances in the change in the flavours from each harvest, which can make for a fantastic cup of tea. Just keep in mind, that not all single origin teas are from fair trade locations or organic – you’ll have to do some research on your own or contact the tea company for information on what you might wan to know.

Health Benefits of Tea

I was a mess last week with being sick.

I had a fever, runny nose, cough, sore throat and was terribly lethargic to the point where the only thing I did in the first 24 hours after getting home after my fifth 12 hour shift in a row was sleep. I woke up briefly from time to time only to sleep again. I didn’t eat anything for over 24 hours, and I barely drank anything because I was so fatigued. I did, however, manage to drink water and tea. The combination of Tylenol Cold & Sinus, my fever finally breaking at 5am, and tea were the hallmarks of an extended long weekend – along with binge watching Netflix’s You (which I highly recommend watching while slightly delirious with a fever because it makes all of Dan Humphrey’s Joe’s stalker antics hilarious instead of creepy).

Obviously I’m feeling a little bit better now as I’m able to put together sentences coherently.

The thing that I did think about when I was awake and taking in a psychological thriller is that I haven’t written about the health benefits of tea here. Now, I know we all know that tea tastes great. Of course it does, because why would we continue to grow it, produce it, lovingly store it, and drink tea if it didn’t taste great. I think I can safely say we would all drink something else if tea was disgusting (which is it not).

Tea, green tea in particular, contains polyphenols. Polyphenols are antioxidants, which helps to neutralize oxidants (high levels of oxidants in the blood are generally considered bad, they can cause blood vessel damage and contribute to cardiovascular disease). You’ve probably heard about antioxidants in the media in the last few years in reference to “superfoods” – blueberries, acai berries, and dark chocolate are all high in antioxidants, although I don’t know anyone but me who refers to chocolate as a superfood. Polyphenols can also help with regulating blood sugar, so if you’re someone who is predisposed to developing diabetes this can be a good thing.¹

Drinking tea has also been associated with decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease – heart disease and stroke in particular, and also by improving blood cholesterol levels.¹ I think a lot of it also has to do with the fact that tea drinkers often try to have a healthier lifestyle – either by eating well or exercising. People who drink tea are often more hydrated than those who drink coffee because tea generally contains left caffeine in comparison.² For those who do not know, caffeine is a diuretic which means that it will make you lose water – but taking in more water and less caffeine as it is in tea vs. coffee means that tea drinkers are more hydrated. This also result in better weight management because you’re taking in a drink that is high in water, lower in caffeine, and with no calories (unless you’re having a tea latte).

So while you may not get that jolt of caffeine in the morning like a cup of joe might do for you, tea can be a healthy drink choice. Whatever tea you’re looking to drink – the healthiest choice is a straight tea with no added sugars. Keep it calorie free, keep yourself hydrated while lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke. But at the same time, life is all about moderation – it isn’t to say that I’m not going to have a London Fog from time to time (because that would be a lie, I love London Fogs), but it isn’t an every day sort of drink because it’s an indulgence (and a tasty one at that!).

¹ https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/tea-a-cup-of-good-health
² https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/nbu.12150