Using Tea As Medicine

This article first appeared in and is written by Amy Jirsa

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an ancient, ancient art and science. I’ll admit here that it is not one in which I am well versed. However, I will say that I have witnessed more ‘miracles’ occur in those using the TCM system of healing than in any other.

Anyway, the other day I went to a wonderful Taoist Tea Ceremony and listened to a three hour lecture about tea, its history, and its role in healing. As an herbalist (of the Western tradition), I recommend tea to my clients all the time; however, what I hadn’t thought about before was how often people drink herbal ‘tea’ for leisure, not realizing that these teas are potent medicine. Without knowing what you’re drinking, you could be making yourself ill or making an existing condition worse.

Now most of us know that green tea is good for us—it helps reduce inflammation, is a potent antioxidant, and may help with weight loss and general feel-goodness. But did you know that black tea (the Chinese variety, not the English), oolong, and a marvelous tea called pu’er are also potent medicines? Neither did I.

So let’s look at a few common teas (and a few uncommon ones as well). If any of these are your go-to beverages of choice, just make sure that whatever you’re drinking is helping, rather than harming you. Remember: all herbs are medicine, whether they’re in the form of ‘tea’ (actually, the correct term when talking about herbs is ‘infusion’ or ‘tisane’), tincture, or capsule.

Herbal Favorites:

Who doesn’t love a good cup of mint or chamomile tea? But did you know that peppermint is a strong intestinal medicine (maybe too strong for some—especially children), but spearmint is much gentler and is a tonic for the stomach, specifically, rather than the entire system?

While peppermint is a good tonic for long-term digestive complaints, it’s better to have spearmint after a meal because it stimulates digestive enzymes and helps digest protein in a way that peppermint doesn’t. Further, if you are a ‘hot’ person (prone to anger, sweating, high blood pressure), peppermint can heat you up even more; spearmint, on the other hand, is quite cooling and calming.

Next to black tea, chamomile is the most popular tea in the world. Most everyone knows that chamomile is a calming herb, suitable for cranky children (and cranky adults), but chamomile is also cooling and drying. If you are already chilled or suffer from a dry condition, chamomile can aggravate your complaints. Further, as a member of the ragweed family, people can occasionally have allergic reactions to the chamomile flower.

So, as you can see, herbs are medicine, whether they’re served after dinner or dispensed by an herbal practitioner. Be sure to educate yourself, never taking for granted the appropriateness of what you’re sipping.

Chinese Teas:

Okay—on to the fun new stuff. So here’s what I’ve learned, and this is essential to all of the Chinese teas (and perhaps to herbal ones, as well—I haven’t tried it yet): they must be rinsed prior to brewing. What does rinsing do? It takes most of the caffeine away, rinses off any dust or debris the leaves may have accumulated, and also ‘wakes’ the leaves up, creating space between them and allowing for a better brew.

How to rinse the tea? Simply infuse the leaves by pouring hot water over them, swirl the pot once or twice, then pour the water off. Then use fresh, hot water to infuse your tea. If you’re using really good tea leaves, you can usually use the same leaves for three or four brews (just make sure these are all in the same day; don’t go putting your leaves in the fridge to use tomorrow).

Green Tea:

So, most of us know about the medicinal benefits of green tea: it’s an antioxidant, lowers cholesterol and raises HDL (that’s the good cholesterol), and raises metabolism. But green tea can also reduce fatty deposits in the liver, can boost immune function, and kill bacteria living in the mouth (hello, date night?).

To use: rinse your tea, then brew in a preheated pot with water that has boiled, but then cooled 3-5 minutes. Using good leaves? You only have to brew green tea for 30-60 seconds to get all the health benefits. Brew up to three minutes. Drink green tea in the morning only—it’s too stimulating for later in the day (and avoid putting milk in it—just drink it straight; if you only brew for a minute or so, the tea won’t be bitter and won’t need any palatable additives).

Oolong Tea:

There are several kinds of oolong teas. Oolong is a type of tea that has been dried in the sun and then oxidized (or fermented). Benefits include: weight loss, aging prevention (due to antioxidants), lower blood pressure, prevention of tooth decay (antibacterial), stress relief, and liver detox (which, in turn, helps treat skin problems such as acne and eczema), and lower blood sugar levels.

To use: rinse tea and then brew with boiling water, anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. You can brew good leaves several times over. Drink oolong about 20 minutes after lunch for maximum digestion and fat burning tea-awesomeness (and again—no milk).

Pu’er Tea:

Pu’er Tea (named for the town in the Yunnan Province) is basically (very basically) a green tea which has been aged in a dark location for years, leaving it oxidized and fermented. Pu’er tea has all the benefits of green and oolong teas, but has also been shown to have a preventative and positive effect on fighting cancer.

To use: rinse and brew like oolong tea. You can drink pu’er tea at night, as it can help prepare the body for sleep. Try it before 8pm (unless you’re like me and that’s your bedtime…then try it at 6:00).


Now for the disclaimer: aside from the usual ‘consult your doctor’ and ‘for your information only’ business, note that I am not a TCM practitioner. There is tons of fascinating info on tea out there (and even more fascinating experts). If this stuff fascinates you, I urge you to go out and do some digging. Just make sure you stop for a tea break.

Amy Jirsa is a master herbalist, yoga teacher, forager, and wild-crafting writer from Maine.

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