"THE HEART OF THE MATTER"
a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA)


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Week: 586.6 

Guest: Dr. Varro Tyler, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pharmacognosy, Purdue University 

Topic: Herbal teas 

Host/Producer: Steve Girard 

NEMA: Most of us have like a cup of coffee once in a while...we usually use it as a tool, a pick-me-up...to get us started in the morning, or to perk up an afternoon lull. Well, put teas on the list of purposeful, beneficial drinks. I have gotten into chamomile tea...my brother is into drinking ‘green tea’...and there are many types of brewed drinks that are purported to have a number of positive benefits. We’ve invited Dr. Varro Tyler, Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Pharmacognosy at Purdue University, to help us sort out what teas can really do to keep us healthy....  

TYLER: Well, green tea has become extremely popular for it’s healthful properties of late, because it has so called antioxidant properties. There are a number of compounds in the tea leaf, the green tea leaf, that scavenge free radicals and prevent oxidative damage to cells in the body, and so tea has become very popular...we’re talking about the same kind of action here that one might expect from vitamin C, or from carotenoids...the vitamin A precursors, or even vitamin E. So all of those compounds and green tea, very, very effective in providing healthful properties due to their antioxidant properties.  

NEMA: Where does chamomile tea come from, and what does it do for us?  

TYLER: Chamomile is the tea prepared from the head, the flower, of a little daisy like plant that has been popular in Europe for generations, and it has been rather carefully investigated over there. Incidentally, they say about a million cups of chamomile tea are drunk worldwide on a daily basis, so it’s pretty widely used everywhere. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic activities, due to a volatile oil, and some flavenoids, and some other compounds contained in the plant. And what this means is that if you have an upset stomach or your intestines are cramping up a little bit, this can be relieved rather readily by a good cup of strong chamomile tea. I have to point out that you have to make a strong tea because the volatile oil, which is one of the active principals, isn’t very water soluble, so let the tea steep for 15 minutes in a covered vessel, so that the oil doesn’t evaporate, and you’re going to get a very beneficial effect from it.  

NEMA: Please tell me what the volatile oil does in the teas....  

TYLER: A volatile oil is simply one that tends to evaporate, rather than a fixed oil, or a fatty oil, which is quite different chemically...and which does not evaporate. So, the volatile oil contains...we don’t want to go into the chemistry, I’m sure...but it contains a mixture...it’s blue in color, very interesting product...contains products known as camazuline and a number of products that have this anti-inflammatory activity.  

NEMA: After those two teas, green and chamomile...what do you find people are most interested in?  

TYLER: Well, I would ...lots of people have trouble sleeping, and I would rate Valerian tea as a useful sleep aid. Personally, I value it much more than I do some of the more modern things, because it’s been used for at least two thousand years without any reported problems associated with it. I would recommend valerian tea as a minor tranquilizer or sleep aid much more readily than I would recommend melatonin, for example ... which is a very potent compound that has been on the market only a year or so, and we really know little about it’s long term toxicity. The only problem with valerian tea is that it smells bad. Valerian has the odor reminiscent of an old locker room where the door has been closed for a period of time, and lots of people don’t like to take it in tea form for that reason...because it is odoriferous. But if you sweeten it up a little bit with honey, then most people don’t have any problem drinking it. And it is a very effective tranquilizer and sleep aid.  

NEMA: Why does it work so well?  

TYLER: I’m delighted that you asked that question...because it shows a lack of suitable human priorities, in my opinion. We’ve used valerian for about two thousand years as a sleep aid, and we still don’t know the nature of the active principals responsible for its sedative properties. That’s a really sad commentary on human priorities. There have been a number of investigations of valerian, and they’ve all come up with zero...in terms of an active principal. I rather suspect that it’s a mixture of activities, once again the volatile oil certainly, probably contributes to that, and other compounds in it, but I have to confess that, as of this moment, if we were to say what is the active principal of valerian, I would have to say, "I don’t know". When perhaps we should comment on why there is so little research on these natural products. It’s basically due to a financial situation, as many things are, where these old products can’t be patented. And therefore, there is no incentive for an individual or a company to invest millions of dollars in the research to determine the nature of the active principals, because they couldn’t get a market exclusive on it, and they couldn’t recover their research costs. Now, in Europe, where the laws are a little more lenient, shall I say, and these things can be approved more readily as drugs. In this country, you know they’re sold as dietary supplements, not as drugs. Quite a bit of research is being done...but in the United States, there’s practically none, because of the laws and regulations that make it unprofitable to do so.  

NEMA: What other teas can people gain benefit from?  

TYLER: Well, I think a very effective one as a digestive aid is peppermint tea. Peppermint is contained in practically every antacid and stomach medicine sold over the counter, and you can get the same benefit from it by simply making a nice, strong cup of peppermint tea. There are also teas that are good for their so called ‘carminitive effect’. Carminitive means helping to expel gas, and relieving discomfort....things like fennel seed, for example, or anise seed, those teas are widely used for their carminitive effect....helping to expel gas.  

NEMA: Are there teas that help suppress the appetite?  

TYLER: There are some that are sold for that purpose, but none of them is safe to consume on a long term basis. Some of the weight loss teas involve a stimulant-laxative, such as senna. And if you take that, you’re going to lose apparent weight, because you’re going to become dehydrated...but if you take senna tea on a daily basis, which no one should really do, then the problem becomes one of a loss of potassium, and you can get cardiac irregularities and might even result in death in the worst case. The other tea that has...and other forms of the product that has received much publicity is ephedra, sometimes known as ma huang. That’s the Chinese name for it....it contains a stimulant, a central nervous system stimulant alkaloid known as ephedrine. And they combine that product with caffeine, in some of these weight loss products, and there have been, from such products, not just the teas, but the dosage forms...there have been some 800 adverse reaction reports to the FDA on this product because if you have high blood pressure, thyroid conditions, diabetes and so on...this can cause very serious health problems for you. So, what I’m saying is, in terms of teas, for weight loss...there aren’t any that are both safe and effective.  

NEMA: Tell us how we can learn more about teas and other forms of Pharmacognosy...your area....drugs taken from plants, animals and microorganisms.... 

TYLER: Well, actually, most of the information on these products is contained in various books and advertising literature, and so on. The secret of it all is to try to sift the grain from the chaff, because there is so much hyperbole concerning these products, and so many claims made for them, that it’s sometimes very difficult to know what is really true. That’s why I wrote a couple of books. One is called The Honest Herbal, it’s now in it’s third edition...another book called Herbs of Choice, that helps to steer the interested individual though this minefield or swamp of information, trying to give them accurate details regarding these products.  

NEMA: Dr. Varro Tyler of Purdue University. His books are available both in bookstores and through Hayworth Press at 1-800-3-Hayworth. Some of Dr. Tyler’s info I’d like to pass along now include a warning about which herbs you may be referred to that may be dangerous. They include chaparral, germander and comfrey...all are under investigation by the FDA for possible liver damage. Among the herbs and flowers shown effective in tea form....feverfew, which seems to prevent and reduce the severity of migraine headaches...ginger, a treatment for nausea and motion sickness...super bitter hops...for improved sleep, so add some sweetener...chicory root which aids in digestion, but avoid if you have gallstones...and catnip, which may aid both sleep and digestion. And if you are unsure how to make these teas: just boil your water, add a couple of teaspoons of the herbs of flowers, cover and steep up to 15 minutes for maximum effect. Remember, the active ingredients in these teas are partially contained in the volatile oils, so make sure to cover the pot to avoid evaporation. One more note: It’s always best to buy your herbs each week, it’s not known how long the active substances last in stored tea ingredients.  

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NEMA: Thanks for joining us for today’s program. If you have any comments or suggestions, contact this station. Or visit our home page at: www.nemahealth.org/

...for a look at transcripts of this or past programs, or to find out more about the National Emergency Medicine Association. I’m Steve Girard at The Heart of the Matter.