Herbal infusions, often called tisanes or herbal teas, despite the fact that they do not have any actual leaves from the tea bush (Camellia sinensis), are caffeine free alternatives to tea or coffee for a hot drink. Rooibos and Mate are two examples of tisanes but herbal infusions can also cover a wide range of other beverages. They usually contain fruits, flowers, leaves and roots from various plants and are often drunk for their health benefits as well as for the flavour. Most are high in Vitamin C and some have very particular active ingredients with very specific effects.
Types of Herbal Tea
Herbal teas come in many different blends or as individual ingredients which can be blended together as desired. Due to the many different possible blends it is better to describe the separate ingredients and look for the actions of each ingredient when dealing with a blend. If using herbal infusions to treat a specific medical condition make sure you consult your doctor or a professional herbalist first. The information here is intended only as a guide.
Apples are relatively low in vitamin C but are a rich source of other antioxidants with a high fibre content. These may help with regulate bowel movements and so aid with weight loss and cholesterol control. It is often combined with chamomile and cinnamon to enhance these effects.
Beetroot is occasionally added to herbal teas to provide a rich purple colour but also has many health benefits. It is rich in betaine which is important for cardiovascular health, lowering blood pressure and increasing vasodilation. It is also thought to protect against liver disease and helps increase stomach acidity with people with abnormally low levels.
Chamomile is a common name for several daisy like plants. Its name means “ground apple” due to the apple like aroma it has. It is commonly used as a relaxant and sleep aid and to calm the stomach and bowels due to the presence of an anxiolitic flavinoid called chrysin. The most common variety is German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) but sometimes Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is available whose properties focus more on the digestive system and less on general relaxation. The chamomile flower is culturally significant to many nations being the national flower of Russia and is used in the royal gardens of Buckingham Palace in England instead of grass.
Cherries are used in herbal tisanes for their deep red colouring and rich flavour. This red colour comes from anthocyanins that are potent antioxidants that have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation. They have also been connected to reduced fat uptake and lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels which indicate they may prevent heart disease and diabetes.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) or cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticum) bark is often used as a spice to add to other teas such as chamomile or apple. Like chamomile it aids digestion and these two may be combined together to enhance the effect of both. It also helps to regulate sugar levels in the blood and may help to fight the common cold.
The dried peel from various citrus fruits such as orange and lemon are often used in herbal teas for their high vitamin C content and sharp flavours.
Echinacea refers to any of 9 species of purple coneflower from the daisy family. The most common form of echinacea used in herbal teas is Echinacea purpurea which is renowned for its use in aiding the body’s immune system to fight off infections. A related species, Echinacea angustifolia, has been used for centuries by native Americans to treat specific symptoms of the common cold such as coughs, sore throats, headaches and as an analgesic, and became popular as a herbal supplement in the 1930s in both Europe and America. In order to be effective it should be taken at the first sign of a cold and taken again every two to four hours until the cold symptoms have disappeared.
The berries of Sambucus nigra are often used to make teas and cordials. The juice has been found to have a positive effect on relieving flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough and aching limbs. The flowers are often made into teas, cordials and wines too. Traditionally these flowers have been used for the same purpose as the berries.
Foeniculum vulgare is an aromatic, flavourful herb that has been used extensively in cooking, medicine and as a drinks flavouring, most notably in ansinthe. The bruised seeds can be steeped in boiling water to make a tea that is used as a carmative, to prevent flatulence, and has a long history in India and ancient Rome to improve eyesight.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a tuber with a warm spicy taste that has been used as a flavouring and medicine for many centuries across Asia. Its main actions are to calm the digestive tract and is especially good for an upset stomach. It can also be used for treating the common cold and is often combined with citrus fruits such as orange or lemon for their high vitamin C content and sharp flavours which complement each other well. It may have blood thinning properties too but is known to interact with the anticoagulant warfarin, so should not be used if on this medication.
Panax Ginseng root has a long history in Asia to improve vitality, being used in traditional medicine to strengthen the body, increase longevity and combat male sexual dysfunction. Some of these properties have been supported by modern research which has shown it to have anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant properties that may improve quality and length of life, as well as ginsenoside compounds that have shown improvement in libido and copulatory performance of laboratory animals. While it was once a highly prized herb that only the wealthiest sections of society could afford, today it is farmed and commonly available in teas or energy drinks available from Asia but can also be bought in raw root form.
Hibiscus tea is an infusion made from the Hibiscus sabdariffa calyces and drunk hot and cold all around the world. It is sometimes called roselle, flor de Jamaica in Latin America, karkadé in Egypt and Sudan, bissap in West Africa, sorrel in Jamaica or red sorrel in the wider Caribbean. It is generally drunk for its sharp berry like flavour but is also used as a mild medicine for its properties of lowering blood pressure.
Cyclopia is called honeybush because the flowers smell of honey. It grows in a few small areas of South Africa and is used as sweeter variety of rooibos. There are around 24 species in the wild and up to 5 are in widespread commercial use, known by the location where they grow, such as ‘mountain tea’, ‘coastal tea’, ‘marshland tea’ or ‘valley tea’. Some can be cultivated but others have resisted all methods of domestication and must still be harvested from the wild.
The kiwi fruit is an edible berry of the woody vine Actinidia deliciosa that is extremely high in vitamin C and potassium. The skin is also a good source of flavinoid antioxidants and the seeds contain on average 62% alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. This makes it a highly nutritious fruit with a sharp taste that can be blended with other fruits in a tea. It is also reported to have blood thinning properties which will help prevent clotting and maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon) is a citrus flavoured grass that is often used in cooking. It is also known to have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties that have earned it another nickname of fever grass. People in Asia frequently drink this as a tea to aid digestion by killing any infectious microbes in the stomach and it has an extensive history in Ayurvedic medicine for relieving cough and nasal congestion. Brazilian folk medicine also prescribes lemongrass tea for anxiety and its oil is often used in relaxing perfumes and scents.
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a sweet anise flavoured root that is often added to teas to sweeten a bitter selection of herbs. For this reason Chinese liquorice (Glycurrhiza uralensis) has been used in many Chinese herbal formulas to harmonize the other ingredients while having its own action of relieving spasmodic cough and helping to expectorate phlegm in the chest. It is also an effective remedy for mouth and stomach ulcers and spasmodic conditions of the bowels.
Calendula officinalis is an annual plant that has considerable anti-inflammatory properties. In a tisane it can help with any kind of inflammation of the upper digestive tract such as mouth or stomach ulcers and also used as a wash for all kinds of skin conditions. This is due to it having anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties in addition to anti-inflammatory properties, helping to kill any infection as well as sooth the skin.
Althaea officinalis is a perennial herb native to Africa that has medicinal properties in its roots, leaves and flowers. The root has soothing properties on the intestinal tract and can be used for a variety of inflammatory conditions such as ulcers and sore throats. The leaf has expectorant properties and is indicated for bronchitis and respiratory catarrh, especially when associated with digestive weakness.
Mint is a highly aromatic refreshing herb that is used all over the world for its taste and various medicinal properties. It can be used to alleviate stomach and chest pains, as a mild decongestant for blocked nose and to soothe the throat. The most common species for tea are the strong flavoured peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and the milder spearmint (Mentha spicata).
The common stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) has been used in folk remedies since at least the 10th century. The poison in the nettles that produces rashes when brushed against the skin has many medicinal properties when used in the right way. In infusions it has anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties and is commonly used against hayfever, arthritis, eczema, asthma and urinary tract problems. Fresh nettle may be used to stop bleeding due to its high vitamin K content but is almost absent in dry nettle which may then be used as a blood thinning agent.
The peach is a fruit from the rose family of plants. The flesh can be dried and added to tea as a sweet flavouring whose delicacy can blend well with the lightness of green or white tea. They have been known in China since the 10th century BCE and have a traditional association as symbols of long life and are often seen being eaten by the immortals in Taoist mythology.
Pineapple is added to herbal infusions as a sweetner and is a good source of manganese and vitamin C. It is also believed to digestion through the action of bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme that helps break down proteins and reduce inflammation.
Plums are often added as flavouring to herbal tea and also have considerable antioxidants. Medicinally they are also known for their mild laxative effect due to the compounds sorbitol and isatin that they contain. This means they can be used to help regulate the digestive system too.
Raspberry (Rubus idaeus) fruits and leaves have been used in herbal infusions for their sweet flavour, high nutrient content and medicinal properties. The fruits contain significant amounts of polyphenol antioxidants linked to prevention of several human diseases and are near the top of all fruits for antioxidant strength. They are also a rich source of vitamin C, manganese and dietary fibre. There is evidence to suggest that regular consumption of raspberries can prevent against inflammation, pain, cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, allergies and age related cognitive and eyesight decline. The leaves have an astringent property aiding in soothing inflammation and preventing water loss in the intestine. They can be used to treat diarrhoea and irritated skin or used as a mouth wash against mouth and throat irritations. Raspberry is often mixed with echinacea in tisanes to create a powerful cold prevention remedy.
Rose hips are the pomaceious fruit of the rose plant. They have a particularly high vitamin C content, around 1700-2000mg per 100g when dried, which is one of the richest plant sources, and a very good remedy for colds and influenza, a preventative of heart disease and with possible benefits for rheumatoid arthritis. They are often blended together with hibiscus to complement each others flavour.
Rose petals are often added to herbal tisanes or to some tea blends to add aroma.
Carthamus tinctorius is a thistle like annual herb with yellow flowers that can be added to teas for colour and health benefits. In Chinese medicine it is one of the main 50 fundamental herbs and used for stimulating the circulatory system, moving stagnant blood in cases of angina and menstrual irregularities and relieving abdominal pain.
Sunflower petals are often added to herbal teas to add colour and as a delicate flavouring.
St. John’s Wort
Hypericum Perforatum, also known as St. John’s Wort, Tipton’s Weed, Chase-devil and Klamath weed, is a flowering perennial herb indigenous to Europe commonly known for its antidepressant qualities. It has been shown to have some considerable effectiveness in treating several kinds depression, including major depression, dysthymia (a less severe, chronic mood disorder resulting in mild depression over many years) and premenstrual syndrome but has also been found to adverse reactions to several drugs, including prescription antidepressants such as MAOIs and SSRIs, as well as several popular street drugs, with possible life-threatening results. Therefore it is very important that if you are taking prescription medication, especially prescription antidepressants and intend you use St. John’s Wort, that you consult your doctor first. It is also known to inhibit the effectiveness of several other drugs including the oral contraceptive so should not be taken while on these without your doctor’s approval.
Strawberry fruits are often added to tea for their red colour and sweet flavour. They are very high in vitamin C and flavinoids as well as many other vitamins and minerals.
Valeriana officinalis has been used as a remedy for insomnia since ancient Greece. Its sedative properties were first described by Hippocrates and later Galen prescribed it to aid difficult sleep. Its active ingredient is thought to be valeric acid that is suspected to act on the neurotransmitter GABA, in a way that benzodiazepines such as Valium are known to act but its exact mechanisms are unknown. It is often extracted into an oil and sold in caspules as herbal remedies for anxiety and insomnia but the dried root can be prepared as a tea. If making a tea, boiling water should not be used as this may destroy or evaporate some of the lighter oils. It may also have some calming effect on headaches, convulsive disorders and mood stabilization although constant chronic use may result in sedation and mild depression. It also has an attractive quality on cats similar to catnip and can be used to scent cat toys.
Vanilla is an aromatic sweet flavoured flowering orchid from Mexico often used in cooking and aromatherapy where its complex floral scent is used to relieve stress. In ancient Mexico it was used for ritual offerings, as an aphrodisiac and a cure for fevers but is most often used today to sweeten food without extra sugar.
Verbana officinalis is a flowering plant with a long history in folk herbalism. In ancient Egypt it was known as “tears of Isis” and later in Rome as “Juno’s tears”. Christian folklore claimed that vervain was used to staunch the wounds from Jesus’ crucifixion and it became known as a amulet to ward off vampires when mixed in a tea or an oil or used in many magical charms and potions. In modern herbalism it is known to relax the nervous system and provide a mild sedative effect. It is often used to balance the mood from either depression, anxiety or mania.
Most herbs can be infused into boiling water in exactly the same way as tea, steeped in water just off the boil for around 3 to 5 minutes. Some herbs may have active ingredients that are destroyed by high temperatures or which are best extracted if boiled in a pan for longer, so if using a tisane as a herbal remedy the packaging should be referred to for correct instructions and dosage.