How some common culinary herbs can make delicious hot drinks and support our health and wellbeing.
This year I have planned and put my herb growing desire into action. For years I had really only grown thyme and mint. One for the family favourite Bolognese and one to steep in hot water. But more recently with learning the incredible health properties of these plants through my nutrition work, I have realised I'm not only missing out on wonderful growing opportunities that support the garden's eco system, but also of the vast array of delicious and nutritious "teas" I could be enjoying.
I put "tea" in inverted commas because the true tea we know to drink, comes from the Camellia sinensis plant which is grown in tropical and subtropical locations. The steeping of herbs, flowers and other edible plants in water results in a tisane, which have been known for centuries to offer many different health benefits and played a central role in many ceremonial rituals. So for the purpose of this blog post I will refer to teas, and infusions interchangeably.
And so with the idea of wanting to grow and enjoy drinking more herbal tea infusions I've started small by planting builders bricks with mint, lemon balm, lemon thyme and sage as well marjoram and rosemary. In hind sight I should have kept some more bricks (from our new wall being built) to plant French tarragon, chives, clary sage, parsley and chamomile, but these last few have been spread around the garden particularly chamomile and parsley as we use so much of them. In this post I'll focus on those herbs we can use mainly for tisanes and will cover other culinary herbs for use in cooking and adding raw to salads in another post.
Some Evidence Informed Health Benefits
Fruits, vegetables and edible culinary herbs contain polyphenols which are compounds that plants generally make to defend themselves against ultraviolet radiation and pathogens. Polyphenols (of which there are 1000's identified) are also super beneficial to human health with potent antioxidant properties that protect our cells from damage. It is now well established that enjoying a wide variety of plant foods over the long-term, is health protective. Flavanoids are a member of the polyphenol family that give plants, flowers and herb leaves their colour pigments. When we steep the leaves and stalks from herbs in hot water, 75% of the plant's phenolic compounds are extracted into the water for us to sip and enjoy the many benefits.
Mint is probably one of the most well known culinary herbs, particularly for the making of herbal teas. In a review paper in Phytotherapy Research from Tufts University the many health benefits of peppermint tea are discussed including its potent anti-oxidant properties being almost in line with Black and Green-tea and even higher than Rooibos tea. Peppermint tea was also found to have anti-allergenic and anti-inflammatory effects. Although its difficult to ascertain the actual content of the the active compounds in peppermint leaf tea, studies do allude to its gastro-supportive properties supporting functional dyspepsia (indigestion) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This is purported to be due to peppermint's anti-spasmodic effects in the GI tract.
Although for those who are vegetarian or vegan, there is some evidence showing a reduced absorption of non-haem iron (found in beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables) whilst drinking peppermint tea- so if you drink peppermint tea regularly and don't eat meat, best left to drink outside of meal times (the same goes for black tea without added milk).
I generally enjoy peppermint tea either first thing in the morning, or in the afternoon mixed with chamomile. To get a good brew, simply pinch off the top few leaves with the stalk and scrunch it up to release the oils into the water.
Also known as Melissa Officiancalis botanically belongs to the mint family and is native to Europe and Asia. Lemon Balm is very popular in the fragrance industry (hello gorgeous homemade bath salts!) and also for flavouring ice-creams, fruit salads, cakes, custards and confectionary etc. Throughout the ages it has been documented as "causing the heart and mind to be merry" and "mental strengthening and reduces melancholia" (3). Although human trials are limited, lemon balm is known to support anxiety due to its calmative properties which in mice studies are reflected in a reduction of stress cortisol levels and simultaneous increase in the calming neurotransmitter GABA. It is super easy to grow and best in pots, as (like mint) it is pretty invasive and unless you have plenty of space, grows very big.
With its high vitamin C and B1 content, good levels of minerals and rich in polyphenols, Lemon Balm makes a deliciously fragrant and health supportive tea infusion. It pairs really well with mint and chamomile.
When it comes to plants and seeds I've been known to try growing them any which way- including from a tea bag(!) Yes I confess I tried growing chamomile from a tea bag (thankyou Google), not surprisingly to any avail. So I ordered German Chamomile seeds to sow in Spring to prick out into small pots for planting out in May.
Chamomile is one of the oldest documented medicinal herbs with its specific and potent anti-inflammatory properties, which I'm hoping will aid in supporting my eczema-prone skin. Without even drinking it, chamomile tea can be used as a mouth wash or gargle to soothe sore throats and gums due to its anti-bacterial properties. Chamomile tea also soothes mucous membranes to support gastrointestinal discomfort including stomach upset, nausea, colic and heart burn with evidence alluding to its inhibitory effects on Helicobacter Pylori growth (6). H Pylori is a bacteria that grows in the stomach which at high levels is associated with stomach ulcers.
Chamomile tea is probably best known for its calming and sedative properties to support nervous disorders, anxiety and for improved sleep. Although not documented as such, my thinking behind this is how chamomile's anti-inflammatory properties may help support the production of melatonin from its precursor tryptophan. Remember, stimulants at night (screens, caffeine, stress) maintains an elevated cortisol level that will disrupt the production of our sleepy hormone melatonin. So consider leaving the blue lights (screens) for day-time and enjoy the perfect cuppa an hour or so before bedtime to wind down with a book or your journal.
All in all, I'm excited about the healthy chamomile plant growth in my garden raised beds and borders with many grateful pollinators enjoying them too. I use fresh chamomile flowers for tea in summer and as German Chamomile is an annual, i have been picking as many open flower heads as I can to dry for use during the winter months. You can either dry them on a clean tea cloth out of direct sunlight or if you have a dehydrator use it on no higher than 30C until you can see the flowers have completely dried. In our kitchen this takes 12-18hrs on this low setting after which you can store it in a clean, dry air tight jar.
I enjoy the soothing chamomile tea on its own, added to peppermint or lemon balm leaves, or as a sweeter infusion with raw Irish honey for when any sore throats or head-colds beckon.
Fennel arrived in my garden by accident. I think a seed blew in the wind, landed in the front raised bed and grew like a tree and self seeding ever since.
I first started drinking fennel tea when my first child was born- the midwives would encourage a few cups during the day to aid in the production of breast milk (known as a galactagogue). Fennel is also digestive tonic to soothe upset stomachs which is believed to help breastfed colicky babies. For making tea you can use either the leaves (fennel fronds) or steep the seeds in hot water. It tastes very like liquorice with a sweet earthy tone. From my reading, fennel is possibly the most widely applicable herb for human, animal and environmental health. Some of the reported health applications used world-wide include irritable colon, gastritis, mouth ulcers, laxative, to support fever and as a calmative to name but a few. If you are interested in the health science of fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) I recommend you read this paper. As with many of the culinary herbs, fennel is rich in flavanoids such as quercetin that offer antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties. Tea infusions made from steeping the seeds are particularly high in these phenolic compounds. I particularly enjoy fennel tea after a meal either on its own or steeped with peppermint.
Not Forgetting the Process
For me its not just the drinking of a delicious hot drink to soothe a dodgy tummy, calm an over wrought nervous system or help me drift off to sleep- its the whole process of knowing the intention of having grown the herbs, harvesting them and making the brew. I have this little herb steeper I bought in Holland a few summers ago and it fits perfectly in my favourite mug. When the herbs have steeped in hot water for 4-5 minutes or so, it never fails to amaze me the colour of the infusion and that's how I know its a good brew.
I hope you can enjoy the many benefits of growing some herbs either in pots on the windowsill or if you have some outdoor growing space. Culinary herbs offer so much for both your garden and kitchen- and simply with a mug and hot water you can make yourself any soothing herbal tea infusion to sip and enjoy the many benefits.
As with all my nutrition support and information I always feel compelled to educate clients on the context of incorporating any food into their dietary intake. As much as we know that drinking herbal teas have been shown to support health in a manner of ways, it entirely depends on what other aspects of your life affect the status of your health. Solely drinking the odd cup of herbal tea may not reduce for example arthritic pains or heal a stomach ulcer, especially if other contributors are not addressed or even able to be addressed. The role of any nutrition support is to exactly that, to the support the body's unique biology to work as best it can. Nutrition science and therapeutics is complex and multi faceted, and so as much as I value the role which our food choices have on aspects of our health, it is never a fix, never a treatment and certainly never a cure.
Note on Safety
Although all the culinary herbs mentioned here are denoted generally safe to drink as a herbal tea infusion, if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, are on medication or have underlying medical conditions, please consult with your doctor before incorporating herbal teas.
(1): Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease.Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009;2(5):270-278.
(2): McKay, D & Blumberg, JB. A Review of the bioactivity and potential health benefits of peppermint tea (Mentha piperita L). Phytotherapy Research · August 2006
(3) :Waheed, K (et al) Medicinal Plants of South Asia; Novel sources for drug discovery. 2020, Pages 465-478
(4): Alijaniha, F et al (2015). Heart palpitation relief with Melissa officinalis leaf extract: double blind, randomized, placebo controlled trial of efficacy and safety. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 164, 378e384.
(5): Yoo, D.Y.,et al (2011). Effects of Melissa officinalis L.(lemon balm) extract on neurogenesis associated with serum corticosterone and GABA in the mouse dentate gyrus. Neurochemical Research 36.
(6): Srivastava JK, Shankar E, Gupta S. Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future.Mol Med Rep. 2010;3(6):895-901. doi:10.3892/mmr.2010.377
(7) : Srivastava JK, Pandey M, Gupta S. Chamomile, a novel and selective COX-2 inhibitor with anti-inflammatory activity.Life Sci. 2009;85(19-20):663-669. doi:10.1016/j.lfs.2009.09.007
(8): Badgujar SB, Patel VV, Bandivdekar AH. Foeniculum vulgare Mill: a review of its botany, phytochemistry, pharmacology, contemporary application, and toxicology.Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:842674. doi:10.1155/2014/842674