Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Taking Control of Your Health, Naturally! Herbal Teas 101

... Jobs are being lost, homes foreclosed, health insurance prices skyrocketing… What's a person to do when they can't afford a trip to the doctor?? My family's answer has been alternative medicine – specifically, diet and herbs. Herbal medicine can be very complex, but it doesn't have to be – just a simple cup of tea can be the answer to many ailments!

Most of us, in this day and age, have at least a passing familiarity with herbal teas. Peppermint, chamomile, those nice fruity teas they have at any restaurant… But that's just the tip of the iceberg! Herbs have been used for millennia to support health and treat a variety of ailments, from headaches to cancer – and everything in between. Although most herbs are completely safe for everyday use, some do interact with prescription drugs or are contraindicated in certain conditions – so ask your physician or herbalist if you are unsure.

The preparation of herbal teas is slightly different than, say, Lipton black tea bags. The active properties in herbs, including the volatile essential oils (responsible for most of the flavor) require a certain temperature and steeping time to properly extract. For nearly all herbs, you must use fresh boiling water, and steeping times for different herb types are as follows:

Aerial parts (leaves, slender stems and flowers) – Steep 1 ½ tsp to 1 Tbsp per 8 oz water for 5 – 15 minutes. The longer you steep, the more medicinally potent the brew will be – but some herbs get bitter with long steeping times! For a stronger-tasting tea, use more herbs rather than a longer steeping time.

Roots & Woody Stems – Steep 1 ½ tsp to 1 Tbsp per 8 oz water for 15 minutes or more. If you can crush or chop the plant parts beforehand, so much the better – more active ingredients will be released into the tea. If you are trying to achieve a particularly potent tea (especially for medicinal use), you might want to make a decoction – place the herbs and water on the stove, bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Black Teas – this can vary according to type, but the general rule is 3-5 minutes for best flavor. Long steeping times encourage bitterness, as more of the tannins are released. All the caffeine is extracted within the first minute, so it's only flavor after that. Steep to your liking. Admittedly, I prefer mine steeped for at least 5 minutes, with milk and sugar added!

Green and White Teas – again, there is a little leeway here, but generally 1-2 minutes is plenty for these more delicately-flavored teas. They can become bitter quite easily, but are delightful when not oversteeped!

With blended teas, the standard rule is to steep according to the shortest steeping time. With a blend of herbs that includes leaves, flowers and roots, for example, ideal steeping time would be 5-15 minutes. You can also go the labor-intensive route and put the woody or root herbs in water, bring it to a boil, then add aerial parts and steep (off the heat) for an additional 5-15 minutes (generally only possible if you're blending your own teas).

Medicinal teas are best drunk in small cups throughout the day. You can make it by the quart jar and store in the fridge for up to 3 days. Some health conditions require many months of daily tea. A little honey (preferably local and raw) or stevia can help to enhance flavor in good teas, and mask it in the bitter ones!

Some of the easier-to-find and more palatable herbs for medicinal teas include:
  • Peppermint – good for nausea, digestion problems, and headaches. Combine with Fennel seeds and Ginger for an excellent before- or after-dinner tea.
  • Lemon Balm (aka Melissa) – a delightful herb that aids with depression and anxiety. Soothing for over-stressed and sensitive nervous systems. Also helps with allergies.
  • Chamomile – Very relaxing; often used to calm overactive children and help one sleep. For children, combine with Catnip (add milk and honey if desired) for a bedtime tea; for grownups, I recommend blending with any combination of other "sedative" herbs – Skullcap, Passion Flower, Sweet Woodruff, or Catnip. If you can't stand the taste but like the effects, try mixing in some fruit - raspberries, oranges or mangoes would be good choices. Mint will also help the flavor.
  • Thyme – Useful for headaches, irritating coughs, and especially good for viral infections. Blend with Yarrow for a cold or sinus infection, Mullein for bronchitis, and always blend with Echinacea or Astragalus if you can (immune boosters).
  • Red Raspberry Leaf – A superb women's herb. Drink regularly to help tone and strengthen the uterus; will help keep cramps at bay and cycles regular. A must when pregnant.
There are literally thousands of herbs, in gazillions of combinations, and everyone has their own "recipe" for the same ailment. The beauty of herbs is that you can experiment to your heart's content, and find exactly the right combination of plants for you! While consulting an herbalist is certainly a good option (if you can find one and can afford it), there is a lot of information out there – books, the internet, TV shows, you name it. Be wise, and check your sources – a couple I recommend are:

TV – "Grow Your Own Drugs" (available from BBC and on YouTube)

Books – anything by Rosemary Gladstar, Andrew Weil, and Dr. Christopher (as well as MANY others)

Websites –

… Happy hunting, and enjoy your tea! J

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