Tea: An infusion of health?

This week, the prison service revealed it is using herbal teas to help calm prisoners. Terry Kirby looks at the ability of mint, chamomile and other herbs to change our lives when added to a cup of hot water
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The Independent Online

For many of us, a refreshing cup of camomile or peppermint tea is simply a pleasing and relaxing alternative to caffeine-laced tea or coffee. But now it has emerged that the age-old benefits ascribed to these herbal infusions may have wider applications than previously appreciated - such as calming down prisoners in the highly stressful environment of British prisons.

For many of us, a refreshing cup of camomile or peppermint tea is simply a pleasing and relaxing alternative to caffeine-laced tea or coffee. But now it has emerged that the age-old benefits ascribed to these herbal infusions may have wider applications than previously appreciated - such as calming down prisoners in the highly stressful environment of British prisons.

Several prisons, it emerged yesterday, are now buying large quantities of herbal tea blends after inmates said they promoted relaxation and a good night's sleep. The practice is now likely to be extended - favoured by the authorities because it reduces dependence on prescription drugs.

Inmates at Wandsworth prison in London first began asking the prison pharmacy for herbal teas several years ago. Since then, it was disclosed yesterday, inmates at High Down in Surrey, Lewes in Sussex and Downview women's prison, also in Surrey, have followed suit.

A prison service spokeswomen said they were proving "very popular" and that at Downview they had almost replaced sedatives as a way of helping the women sleep. "They are proving a good alternative to sedatives and prescription drugs which can become addictive.''

Of course, the idea of using herbs and plants to heal ills is as old as mankind itself. And from there it was a small step to putting the plants that had long been used to treat ailments into boiling water to better extract their natural oils and essences.

According to legend, in around 2700BC, the Emperor Shen Nung, a scholar and herbalist, was sitting under a bush called Camellia sinensis when a few stray leaves drifted into the hot water he was sipping; he rather liked the taste. The subsequent dominance for many centuries of the leaves of Camellia sinensis - that is, the tea plant - joined by coffee and cacao beans, has tended to obscure the far older and more complex infusions that come from mixing boiling water with various plants like camomile, hawthorn and fennel.

These other "teas" were not seen simply as refreshing drinks, but as cures for everything from menstrual pains to migraine. They were dispensed by herbalists and apothecaries, whether in ancient China or medieval Europe. But with the advent of industrialised western civilisation and modern methods of healthcare, such ancient traditions have been sidelined or largely dismissed as the preserve of the eccentric or the quack.

It is only with the resurgence of interest in alternative and complementary medicine - coupled with an awareness of the dangers of too much caffeine and tannin - that herbal infusions have gained in popularity again, taking up increasing space in supermarkets and health food shops. In mainland, Europe, where tea drinking was never as widespread as in Britain, infusions of plants, or tisanes, have always been popular.

The two most popularly requested teas by prisoners, apparently, are Valerian Plus and Tranquillity, both of which are provided by Dr Stuart's Botanical Teas, one of many companies which market herbal teas, whether in single varieties - such as peppermint or camomile, which are made from the flowers of the plant and well known as a remedy for sleeplessness - and in blends. Tranquillity, which contains lime flowers, hawthorn berries, yarrow and fennel, is also sold as a relaxant.

Other blends on the market include Parsley and Cornsilk, which contains dandelion leaf and uva ursi leaf and is recommended for helping with urinary problems, and Breathe and Clear, which contains mullein flower, mint leaf, liquorice root, plantain leaf, eucalyptus leaf peppermint and mandarin essential oils and is designed to help relieve congestion.

Both of these are sold by Herbs, Hands and Healing, based in Suffolk. Most of the company's herbs are grown locally, while more exotic ones are imported from Europe or, like the uva ursi leaf ( Arctostaphylos uva ursi, or bearberry) from North America.

Jill Davies, a director of the company, is the author of several books on herbs and sits on the Government advisory committee on herbal medicine. She said: "Interest in herbal teas is growing all the time and our turnover is increasing by about 30 per cent a year. People like them because they are seen as a good alternative to tea and coffee, they are beneficial and slightly medicinal.''

Although the conventional medical establishment has always been a little wary of herbal medicines, Mrs Davies said she had never experienced any resistance to herbal teas: "I think they are generally seen as a benign, although it is a different matter with tinctures and oils, which are stronger.''

But she added: "It is important to remember, though, that some herbs can be quite strong and they will have an effect on you - whether it is to sedate you or hype you up a bit.''

New EU-wide legislation designed to ensure that greater public interest in herbal remedies is matched by controls on their import and sale will come into effect by 2011; this is different to the regulations governing over-the-counter sales of vitamins, which is becoming active this year and has attracted protests.

Most herbalists, said Mrs Davies, are said to be in favour of the new legislation because it means that there will be a licensing system to keep out the dodgy practitioners and to try to make sure imported herbs have not, for instance, been sprayed with dioxins. And crucially, for the first time, herbal remedies will be classed as medicines. As far as herbal teas are concerned, this is likely to mean that lighter, simpler teas such as peppermint or camomile, will remain classed as foods, but more exotic blends may need to be licensed in order that their contents are properly certified; their over-the-counter sale is likely to be unaffected.

Advocates of herbal remedies also stress that many of today's orthodox medicines have their roots in natural treatments: some heart drugs, for instances, are derived from digitalin, a chemical found in the foxglove plant, Digitalis purpurea.

Ned Reiter, president of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, said: "The use of plants to treat conditions has been confirmed by medical research. And we know that there are properties in valerian root which have a mildly sedative affect. So it makes sense for them to be used in this way in prisons.''

The active ingredients

Chamomile (flowers)

Anti-inflammatory, diuretic. Has a long history of use for stress and anxiety, indigestion, and insomnia. Can be used as a nerve tonic.

Cornsilk (stamens)

Diuretic. Recommended for bed-wetting, carpal tunnel syndrome, edema, obesity, premenstrual syndrome, and prostate disorders.

Cinnamon (bark)

Recommended for diarrhoea, nausea, circulation, digestion, fat metabolism, digestive problems, diabetes, weight loss, yeast infection, uterine haemorrhaging, fungal infections. Use sparingly during pregnancy.

Parsley (berries, roots, stems)

Recommended for fluid retention, gas, halitosis, high blood pressure, indigestion, kidney disease, obesity, prostate disorders, expelling worms, relieving gas, stimulating digestive system, freshening breath.

Hops (berries, flowers, leaves)

Helpful for stress-related conditions, such as insomnia and shock. Also said to aid relaxation.

Licorice (roots)

Regarded as a cure-all. Recommended for allergic disorders, asthma, chronic fatigue, depression, hypoglycemia, inflammatory bowel disorders, muscular spasms, promoting adrenal gland function. Stimulates the production of interferon.

Mullein (leaves)

Laxative, painkiller and sleep aid. Recommended for asthma, bronchitis, difficulty in breathing, earache, hay fever, swollen glands. Used in kidney formulas to soothe inflammation. Gets rid of warts.

Echinacea (leaves, roots)

Anti-inflammatory and antiviral. Useful for colds, flu, and other infectious illnesses. Helpful for snakebite.

Sage (leaves

Recommended for central nervous system, digestion, reducing sweating and salivation, hot flashes, estrogen deficiency, mouth and throat problems (tonsillitis). Decreases milk production in nursing mothers

Ginger (root)

Antioxidant, antimicrobial, but recommended particularly as a remedy for nausea, such as morning sickness or motion sickness.

Dandelion (leaves, roots)

Well-known as a diuretic, but also recommended for abscesses, anaemia, boils, breast tumors, cirrhosis of the liver, fluid retention, hepatitis, jaundice and rheumatism.

Peppermint (flowers, leaves)

Recommended for chills, colic, diarrhoea, headache, heart trouble, indigestion, nausea, poor appetite, rheumatism, spasms.

Raspberry (bark, leaves, roots)

Particularly recommended for female disorders such as menstrual and uterine cramps and heavy menstrual bleeding.

Valerian (roots)

Sedative. Recommended for anxiety, fatigue, high blood pressure, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, menstrual cramps, muscle cramps, nervousness.

Red Clover (flowers)

Antibiotic. Recommended for immune system, inflamed lung and bowel disorders, kidney, liver, and skin disorders.

Hawthorn (berries, flowers, leaves)

Recommended for anemia, and cardiovascular and circulatory disorders.

Fennel (berries, roots, stems)

Appetite suppressant and eyewash. Recommended after chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments.

Ginseng (root)

Recommended for adrenal and reproductive glands, immune function, lungs, appetite stimulation, bronchitis, circulation, diabetes, infertility, lack of energy, stress, cocaine withdrawal, protection against the effects of radiation exposure, overall body strengthening.