Different leaves, roots, flowers, and even mushrooms have been traditionally brewed as tea to aid every conceivable bodily function, from digestion to sleep to immunity. Yet despite centuries of accumulated wisdom and observations supporting these practices, advances in modern medicine and pharmaceuticals make it easy to dismiss herbal tea as some mystical witch’s brew, rather than a useful dietary supplement or treatment addendum.
So, what’s the tea? Can these natural ingredients really improve our health, or is it just a bunch of hocus pocus?
The reality is herbal ingredients don’t hold a candle to pharmaceuticals, but perhaps not for the reason you may think. Modern therapeutics need to meet high standards for safety and effectiveness before they can be widely used in humans. As a result, these formulations have undergone extensive in vitro “test tube” research, in vivo animal research, and human clinical trials. Researchers have a full scope of a drug’s mechanism of action and have clearly demonstrated the drug can treat disease or improve symptoms in human studies.
In contrast, herbal ingredients have been safely used in traditional and folk medicine for thousands of years, so they have never been subjected to the same burden of proof. Very few herbals have been studied in well-designed clinical trials, let alone laboratory or animal studies. The healthy skepticism surrounding the medicinal value of herbals speaks more to a lack of research, rather than a known lack of effectiveness.
So despite centuries of anecdotal evidence from groups of people across the world, the medical community in many cases just does not have the data to recommend herbals in good conscience. But they are slowly filling in the gaps.
At Hale, we’re particularly interested in the potential for herbal teas to support and protect our respiratory health, and we’ve done our research. Without further ado, here are 10 of our favorite ingredients for a delicious and medicinal herbal tea to boost your breath:
Existing naturally as a leafy plant, and not a chocolate-covered patty, peppermint contains rosmarinic acid, a compound with documented antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. In laboratory studies, peppermint extract has displayed its antiviral potential against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a highly contagious respiratory infection in newborns. In humans, rosmarinic acid has even been shown to alleviate symptoms of seasonal allergies, such as runny nose, itchy eyes, and asthma, compared to a placebo.
The stuff that makes yellow curry yellow and golden milk golden, turmeric is a natural anti-inflammatory thanks to a compound called curcumin. Studies have suggested curcumin may be more effective in relieving inflammation than ibuprofen or aspirin. It may also work as a bronchodilator, relieving airway constriction. In one study, adults with asthma who took curcumin daily as a supplement to standard asthma treatments had less airway obstruction than those who used asthma treatments alone. Finally, turmeric is an expectorant, meaning it breaks down mucus so it can be more easily hacked up. This is particularly helpful for pneumonia and COPD sufferers, where phlegm builds in the lungs and airways and causes coughing and difficulty breathing.
Red Reishi Mushroom
Hailed as the “mushroom of immortality,” Reishi has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years and has been observed to aid virtually the entire spectrum of bodily functions. One possible explanation: the mushroom's extensive immune-modulating properties, meaning it can boost or suppress the body's immune functions as necessary. Studies have shown reishi can activate white blood cells to fight disease, while it can also limit the body’s response to allergens to more appropriate levels, diminishing seasonal allergies.
In addition to being a natural sweetener, licorice was a go-to medicinal root for many of history’s iconic leaders, including King Tut and Julius Caesar. Napoleon Bonaparte was said to consume it so regularly his teeth turned black. Licorice triggers the production of fresh, healthy mucus to coat the airways and keep things running smoothly. It is loaded with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents including glycyrrhizin, which has been shown in mice to effectively treat allergic asthma by relieving airway constriction and diminish fluid buildup in injured lungs. This molecule has also shown an ability to inhibit the replication of SARS-CoV, the severe acute respiratory syndrome-associated coronavirus, and of respiratory syncytial virus.
Sadly, those soft sugar pillows floating in your hot chocolate are not the secret to respiratory health. Marshmallow is also the name for a plant - who knew - often used as a remedy for coughs and colds. It seems to work by loosening mucus and inhibiting bacteria. Another study notes marshmallow root can relieve pain, a potential benefit for a sore throat or chest pain from a long-standing cough.
On the surface, stinging nettle - whose leaves cause burning and itching sensations as well as redness and swelling - would seem like the kind of plant humans may just want to avoid. All the same, evidence of its therapeutic use dates back to Ancient Egypt and Rome. Laboratory research demonstrates that stinging nettle extracts can block histamine receptors and prevent immune cells from releasing chemicals that trigger seasonal allergy symptoms. It has also shown great potential as an antiviral, in one laboratory study effectively inhibiting the replication SARS-CoV.
Named after culinary queen Nigella Lawson (nope, definitely the other way around), nigella seeds have been used for centuries as a natural remedy for bronchitis. Studies have concluded that nigella may be considered effective for allergies and obstructive lung diseases. On a molecular level, the seeds can suppress compounds that cause inflammation, activate antioxidant enzymes and cells critical to the body’s immune response, and relax smooth muscle in the trachea to aid breathing and soothe coughs.
Lemongrass is used as a natural remedy to heal wounds and help prevent infection. Researchers have found that lemongrass essential oil was effective against a variety of drug-resistant bacteria, including those that cause pneumonia. Studies have also demonstrated lemongrass's ability to suppress the growth and reproduction of lung cancer cells, both on its own and in tandem with chemotherapy drugs.
Not an herb, but caffeine merits inclusion here, as it’s found in a number of teas, including black and green teas. Preparations of yerba mate and guayusa (pictured) can even hold their own against coffee beans in caffeination and deliver incredible health benefits. Caffeine may help relax smooth muscles and act as a bronchodilator, helping open airways. This may be explained by caffeine’s similarity to theophylline, an old-school asthma medication.
Also definitely not an herb, but certainly a key feature of tea, steam is known to soothe the respiratory system and relieve nasal congestion. Studies have also shown inhaling steam with chamomile extract - i.e. the steam from a steeped chamomile tea - is helpful in managing common cold symptoms. Steeped herbs will release their essential oils, which contain active compounds with documented antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting properties. So by drinking herbal tea and inhaling its steam, you’re both ingesting and inhaling compounds thought to support the respiratory system.
What's Hale got to do with it?
All of the above ingredients appear in Hale's breathing-oriented herbal teas! Our looseleaf blends are made with organic herbal ingredients only and are perfectly balanced for flavor and medicinal value.
VitaliTea is packed with guayusa and yerba mate for the perfect replacement (or addition) to your morning cup of coffee. Silky and clean with a sweet finish, these naturally caffeinated leaves are high in antioxidants but low in acidity and bitterness. They are even said to provide the energizing lift and mental stimulation of coffee without the jitters or inevitable crash. And thanks to our breath-boosting house blend, VitaliTea is a fantastic way to get you up and at 'em while supporting your respiratory system for the day ahead.
With calming and familiar flavors of chamomile and lemon, TranquiliTea combines all the benefits of the sleepytime tea you love with our herbal breathing blend. Deep and clear breathing overnight can help relax our minds and sustain a restful, restorative sleep. But too often our breathing is obstructed and labored, which is disruptive to the body’s efforts to repair itself. TranquiliTea blends herbal ingredients thought to help you fall asleep with those traditionally used to support the respiratory system to keep you asleep. Combined, these herbs, mushrooms, flowers, and roots aim to improve both your breathing and sleep quality to make the next day happier, healthier, and more productive.
Why not try them all? Jumpstart your morning with VitaliTea, a caffeinated blend featuring yerba mate and guayusa for a jitter-free energy boost. Break midday for some ClariTea and ward off congestion and inflammation. Relax before bed with TranquiliTea while supporting your breathing overnight for a restful and restorative sleep.
So if you’re suffering from a cold, experiencing mild asthma symptoms, or have noticed a bit of sensitivity or tightness in your chest from allergies or air pollution, consult your physician, and consider trying two or three cups of tea throughout the day and see if it helps. At the very least, staying hydrated certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to staying healthy or fighting off illness. But medical research is gradually establishing that there’s far more value to herbal tea than the water it's made with.