Herbal teas steeped in ancient medical know-how

September 13, 2010 06:09 pm | Updated 06:09 pm IST - Berlin

Women labourers pluck tea leaves at a garden in Dibrugarh, Assam. File photo

Women labourers pluck tea leaves at a garden in Dibrugarh, Assam. File photo

Herbal teas are a popular means of quick relief from a head cold, cough and stomach ache.

They are more than merely a home remedy for minor seasonal ailments, though. In naturopathy and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), herbal infusions have long been recognized as effective in treating a wide variety of complaints.

Herbal medicine, also known as phytotherapy, is one of the oldest branches of medicine, the German Naturopathy Association (BDN) reports. Medicinal herbs were used to treat illnesses in antiquity, and herbal medicine is an important element of traditional Chinese medicine.

“In China, where it originated, it makes up about 70 per cent of all TCM applications,” the BDN said.

Medical writings from as early as the 5th century BC describe steeping medicinal herbs in water or wine, said Johannes Gottfried Mayer, a member of the Monastery Medicine Research Group, a joint project of Wuerzburg University’s Institute for the History of Medicine and Abtei, a health products brand of GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare.

After steeping, the entire substance - including the plant paste - was swallowed.

“Before the Christian era, boiling in water or wine appears to have been customary, after which the decoction was strained and the remaining liquid drunk,” Mayer remarked. He said wine was preferred in the Middle Ages - probably for hygienic reasons, since clean water was often hard to come by.

“It also makes good pharmacological sense because many ingredients dissolve better in alcohol than in water - for example, essential oils,” Mr. Mayer said, adding that herbal tea has only been used as a medication and drink in its present form for the last 200 years.

In modern-day Germany, herbal teas are found mainly in household medicine cabinets, noted Bernhard Uehleke, research coordinator for the department of natural medicine at Charite University Hospital in Berlin.

Doctors who practice conventional medicine seldom prescribe them, one reason probably being that public health insurance companies do not cover the cost. Extracts tend to be prescribed instead, he said.

Herbal teas are much more important in natural medicine.

Naturopaths often prescribe Chinese teas as well as preparations of European herbs, said BDN member Claus Ruediger Goebel. They are not only used to alleviate minor seasonal ailments. Mr. Goebel said there were special tea recipes with Chinese herbs that help prevent gastritis, for instance.

People should not try to concoct their own brews. “You can make a lot of errors with teas,” Mr. Goebel warned.

Mr. Uehleke agreed that teas’ potential effects should not be underestimated. Many of their water-soluble ingredients can reach dosages as high as those in other medications, he said.

The standard herbal teas found in medicine cabinets are perfectly safe, though. Mr. Uehleke said he was a big fan of these teas because they were inexpensive and a natural alternative to conventional medications.

People can prepare these medicinal teas themselves. The ingredients, usually dried flowers or seeds, are available in health food shops, drugstores and chemist’s shops. There, constant quality is guaranteed, in contrast to their counterparts sold in supermarkets.

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