Nothing warms the body and soul like holding a steaming cup of herbal tea and inhaling its aroma as you sip. Herbal teas comfort us on cold winter days, coax us out of midafternoon lethargy, and calm us down at bedtime.
Herbal teas contain important health benefits, as the table on in the images gallery shows. But for me, the health benefits of herbal teas go beyond nutritional calculations. Health-food stores offer a wide array of forms in which to take medicinal herbs, including capsules, tablets, and tinctures, but teas offer something more. Preparing and drinking teas affords us the opportunity to take time out from hectic days, to slow down and spend a bit of time on ourselves. Rather than swallowing a couple of capsules with a gulp of water as we run out the door, the time spent drinking herbal tea—even ten minutes before heading off to work—can be used to think about the tea’s value, as in, “I’m nourishing my nervous system,” or, “I’m strengthening my immune system.”
The ritual of taking care of oneself can be enriching. Further, when we drink herbal tea, the brain, via the nose and tongue, receives sensory messages that we identify as aroma and flavor. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, aromas and flavors are believed to have a direct effect on the body: The sweet aroma and flavor of fennel care for the stomach and spleen, for example, whereas the pungent aroma and flavor of gingerroot help improve lung capacity and health of the large intestine. Viewed in this way, when we sip an herbal tea, we receive immediate benefits.
Tea bags provide convenience for a fast-paced lifestyle. In order for the herbs to be bagged, they must be ground using a very fine cut. But this process can allow flavorful and therapeutic essential oils to evaporate more quickly than if the herbs were left in a more whole form. And, when herbs sit for months before being bagged or being made into tea, the chance for these oils to escape increases.
To avoid losing the essential oils, you may wish to make your teas with unprocessed herbs available in bulk at natural food stores. Bulk herbs often are less expensive than commercial tea bags, not to mention that you will have a wide variety of flavors to choose from to concoct your own preferred blend. If you’re lucky, you may have fresh herbs growing in your garden, and they are wonderful to use in making an herb tea. They can be dried for year-round use.
Store dried herbs in airtight glass containers and label them. Dark containers are preferable and should be kept away from sunlight. Letting your herb collections sit in a sunny area risks losing their flavor and therapeutic properties to heat and ultraviolet rays. Herbs also shouldn’t be stored above the stove, where they may be continuously subjected to heat. Rather, keep herbs in a cupboard that isn’t overly warm and, because nature will provide more herbs next year, purchase no more than you will likely use within a few months.
When making tea, always start with fresh, cold water, and use noncorrodible cookware, such as glass, cast iron, stainless steel, or unchipped enamel. For each cup, use about one heaping teaspoon of dried herbs or three heaping teaspoons of fresh herbs. Place the herbs in a tea ball or bag and drop into the cup. Pour boiling water over the herbs and let steep for ten minutes (read further for specific tea-preparation methods). Tea can be enhanced with a touch of honey or a squeeze of fresh lemon.
Muslin tea bags and a variety of tea balls are available in health- and natural food stores. The herbs can later be composted or tossed into your peppermint or other herb patch. Strain the leftover tea into a clean glass container and refrigerate. Herbal tea generally keeps for several days. When you’re ready for a warm cup of tea, heat the amount you need. Or, sip it cold, with or without ice, and a fresh sprig of mint.
Just how good for you is a simple cup of herb tea? Very, we found, when we asked Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member James Duke. He has analyzed the nutrient content of a number of single-herb teas, based on a teaspoon of dried herb in a cup of boiled water. Is the chart in the image gallery for the breakdown.
Familiarity with a variety of tea-preparation methods will help you obtain the most value from your herbs and serve your specific needs. Here is a list of tea-making methods to assist you.
Infusions, also known as tisanes: This is the ideal method to use when your tea material consists of herb leaves, flowers, and seeds, which have delicate essential oils that would be diminished if they were boiled. Simply boil a cup of water and remove it from the heat. Add to the water one heaping teaspoon of dried or three heaping teaspoons of fresh herbs; cover, and let the brew steep for ten to twenty minutes. Strain the herbs off the tea before serving.
Decoction: This is the preferred method for herb roots and barks, which are harder, woodier, and require more energy to extract their precious qualities. Simmer one heaping tablespoon of fresh or two heaping teaspoons of dried herb in three cups of water in a covered saucepan for about twenty minutes, then strain into a cup.
Overnight method: This is an excellent process for extracting the maximum amount of medicinal potential from an herb. It takes time but is well worth the effort. This method is more appropriate when the goal is to obtain medicinal value from your herb tea. Add about two ounces of herb root or bark or one ounce of flower or leaf to the bottom of a clean glass canning jar. Cover with boiled water and put the lid on. Let sit overnight. (If you don’t have time for this, let the herbs steep for at least half an hour for seeds, two hours for flowers, and four hours for leaves—but steep overnight when using roots and barks.) When you’re ready to take a cup, strain out the herbs, reheat the liquid (or take at room temperature, if you prefer), then enjoy the nutrient-rich brew. This method is not suggested for either licorice root or valerian root, because they can take on an overwhelmingly medicinal taste, or for slippery elm bark, which will become too slimy to bear consuming.
Teapot method: When you need tea enough for a few people (or for yourself when you feel like indulging in more than a cup), it’s time to bring out the teapot. First, make sure that its lid can be secured and won’t fall off as you pour the tea. It also should have an air hole so that tea will pour smoothly through the spout. Teapots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and can delight even the most whimsical of tastes. Fill a china or porcelain pot with hot water and let it stand for a minute to warm the pot. Pour off the water, add one heaping teaspoon of dried or three heaping teaspoons of fresh herbs per cup of water, plus one extra teaspoon “for the pot,” and fill the pot with boiled water. Cover and let the herbs and water steep for ten minutes. To serve the tea, simply hold a strainer over each cup as you pour.
Tea for a crowd: If you would like to make enough tea to serve a large group, you may want to purchase a stainless steel coffee urn that is reserved just for herbal tea, (otherwise, a coffee flavor will permeate your brew). Fill the urn with the required amount of water, place the herbs (measured according to the teapot instructions above) in the basket, plug in the urn, and perk. This is a very convenient way to serve herbal tea. It lets people pour the amount they want, when they want it, and is a popular item when served at workshops and winter gatherings. For serving, I prefer washable teacups or hot/cold paper cups; waxed paper cups may melt.
Mixing materials: What if you wanted to make a tea of, say, peppermint leaf and cinnamon bark? Herb leaves and flowers typically require that you use different preparation methods than you would use for roots and barks. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid combining the different types of plant materials in a tea. Simply simmer the roots and/or barks first, according to the instructions for preparing a decoction given above. Remove the herbs from the heat after twenty minutes, then add one heaping teaspoon of dried leaves and flowers for each cup of water used. Cover and steep this mixture for ten minutes. Watch the clock, because you’ll want to avoid oversteeping your herbs; some flavors can intensify and become rather unpleasant if oversteeped.
As you try your hand at making your own teas and tea blends, you might want to keep a record of your likes and dislikes. It is also important to become informed about herbs. Some herbs may be harmful to you, depending upon your condition, or if you choose without solid knowledge. It could be disastrous, for example, to be enchanted by the name of the herb cascara sagrada and so choose it to make a tea; cascara is a laxative and making yourself a tea using this herb could upset your day.
I’ve kept track of my favorite herbs to use in teas. Here are some that you may wish to try.
Aniseed (Pimpinella anisum) has a flavor similar to licoric. Anise aids digestion and freshens breath.
Cardamom pods (Elettaria cardamomum) have a pungent-sweet quality. Cardamom is a digestive tonic with mildly energizing and aphrodisiac properties.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) has a pleasantly bitter flavor with an aroma reminiscent of apples. Chamomile relaxes the nerves and calms the stomach.
Roasted dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) can help those giving up coffee, because it has a rich, warm earthy flavor with an intensity similar to coffee.
Elderflower (Sambucus nigra, S. canadensis) makes a delightful decongestant when brewed in a tea and is beneficial when you feel a cold coming on.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) has been used for centuries to soothe gas and stomach distress; some also consider it a pleasant stimulant.
Hibiscus flowers (Hibiscus spp.) are tart and refreshing. Hibiscus is rich in vitamin C and mildly antibacterial.
Lemon balm leaf (Melissa officinalis) imparts a lemonade flavor, so it can lift the spirits on gray winter days. Lemon balm has some antiviral properties.
Raspberry leaf (Rubus spp.) has a flavor similar to black tea. Raspberry leaf is very rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron, and is considered by many herbalists to be a supreme tonic herb for women’s health concerns, including menstrual cramps and symptoms associated with menopause.
Rose hips (Rosa spp.), with their tart taste and antiseptic properties, are a natural source of vitamin C and bio-flavonoids.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has a peppy, fresh flavor, and can be a gentle stimulant. It makes a good pick-me-up tea for a midafternoon break. Peppermint also helps soothe upset stomach, gas, and colic, and contains antiviral properties.
What you should know
Danette R. Miller, Ph.D.
Bad water can sabotage the good effects of herb tea, but let’s face it—the risk of dangerous microbes and the long-term hazards of heavy metals and other harmful chemicals are lurking in many public water supplies around the country. Here are some things you can do to ensure that you get the most from your herbal teas:
• Take comfort in the fact that boiling water reduces health risks from water contaminated by animal or human waste, and from pesticides, fertilizers, and other organic chemicals. However, a ten-minute boil is required to remove most hazardous microbes, and boiling water won’t reduce the health risks of contaminants such as lead.
• Have your water tested to determine whether you should be concerned. Information on testing laboratories can be obtained from your county and/or state health department or from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Be sure that the laboratory is approved by your state or by the EPA to ensure accurate results.
• Use bottled water (but read the label to be sure that it hasn’t been taken straight from community supplies). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water produced by companies shipping across state lines. Otherwise, the water product falls under state guidelines.
• Invest in a water filter. “Activated carbon filtration” systems can remove organic chemicals, such as chlorine, and some pesticides. Others can clean your water of lead and other metals. More expensive systems, such as reverse osmosis and water softening units, can remove more metals, including arsenic, and nitrates. Make sure any system you buy says it’s “NSF Certified.” NSF stands for the National Sanitation Foundation International, an independent testing laboratory that certifies the safety and effectiveness of water treatment systems.
Danette R. Miller is a Colorado State University toxicologist and freelance writer in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Brigitte Mars is an herbalist, tea formulator, and nutrition consultant in Boulder, Colorado.
• Safe Drinking Water Hotline, EPA Office of Water at (800) 426-4791.
• National Resources Defense Council, 40 W. 20th St., New York, NY 10011; (212) 727-4400. Copies of the report, Think Before You Drink, are available for $8.95, which includes shipping.
• FDA Center for Food Safety, (800) 332-4010. Center workers will answer questions about bottled water regulations.
• NSF International, 3475 Plymouth Rd., P.O. Box 130140, Ann Arbor, MI 48113; (800) 673-6275.
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