“In the context of harmful effects of caffeine and alcohol, and the admonition to drink plenty of water, I wonder if herb tea is innocent or not. Sleep has always been a crisis for me, and I don’t take enough time for beer, so I do drink a lot of herb tea.” – Al
Al, your inquiry is common – is herbal tea a beverage that benefits us as well as water, or is it as harmful as caffeine and alcohol, and is herbal tea be an aid in inducing sleep?
There isn’t a simple answer.
While an alcoholic drink in the evening can help some people relax, a recent study conducted at the London Sleep Center found that alcohol disrupts REM sleep. The effects that it has on our system come in two phases and are intensified during certain periods of the body’s daily cycle. While at first alcohol has a sedating effect, it causes restlessness later and decreases our ability to spend appropriate amounts of time in REM sleep, which is the most restorative phase of sleep. And while alcohol isn’t the best aid for sleep, tea is controversial, as well.
True tea comes from the tea tree plant, camellia sinesis, which contains caffeine. True teas include black, green, white, red, and oolong teas. Herbal teas are not actually considered a tea, but instead are referred to as tisane, which is an infusion of non-tea tree leaves, seeds, berries, fruits, and roots. If taken from a non-camellia sinesis plant, then they’re caffeine free. It becomes confusing when true teas are infused with ingredients often found in herbal teas, such as mint, hibiscus, ginger, chamomile, and citrus.
All teas that come from the camellia sinesis are caffeinated, whereas not all herbal teas are caffeine-free. It’s important to read the label if you’re sensitive to caffeine, and distinguish the ingredients as being a true tea, an infused true tea (both caffeinated), or made purely of herbal ingredients (caffeine free). There are some true teas that have been decaffeinated, but they still contain traces of caffeine like decaffeinated coffee.
The University of Utah reports that an eight-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains between 80 and 135 milligrams of caffeine, whereas an eight-ounce serving of black tea contains between 40 and 60 milligrams, and the same amount of green tea yields 15 milligrams.
Al, I encourage you to consider your beverages throughout the day. If you drink an abundance of herbal infused true tea, then you have more caffeine in your system than your body can process before bedtime. Water, water infused with fruits (a squeeze of lemon or orange, or a splash of cranberry or cherry concentrate), or pure herbal teas will keep you adequately hydrated throughout the day, without impeding sleep.
As for your inquiry into the innocence of tea, there are conflicting results about the health benefits of both true and herbal teas. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has published over 80 studies in the past five years on the evidence of teas’ health benefits. And while there’s evidence that some teas have made a noticeable difference in areas of cancer research, detoxification studies, heart health, and being a sleep aid, the results are so inconclusive that the Food and Drug Administration continues to restrict tea companies from making specific or ambiguous health claims on their packaging.
What has been identified in true teas and some ingredients found in herbal infusion teas are the antioxidant properties. While true teas are higher in antioxidant benefits than herbal infusion teas, studies have found that herbal teas with oregano, guava, and lemon myrtle show antioxidant levels similar to black tea.
Conclusive in other studies is that true teas contain fluoride. Tealeaves sold in bricks use mature tea tree leaves, which have higher levels of fluoride; high fluoride levels increase the risk of osteofluorosis (changes in the bone) and skeletal fractures. True tealeaves also contain aluminum, but levels have been measured to be safe for human consumption by the FDA. Oxolate, which increases the occurrence of kidney stones, is too found in tea tree leaves, but also in such small amounts that it’s deemed harmless by the FDA and the British Dietetic Association.
It’s difficult to identify specific harmful elements in herbal infusion tea – not because they don’t exist (they do), but because herbal teas contain so many parts of a plant, or plants, that there isn’t a common amount of elements to pinpoint. However, like any crop, the ingredients that make up an herbal tea can be contaminated and contain neurotoxicant chemicals and heavy metals from pesticides.
While chamomile tea has been studied for its ability to make us sleep better, and there are thousands of testimonials all over the Internet on websites relating the attributes of chamomile and a good night’s sleep, it hasn’t yet been proven in scientific laboratories to play any role in actually making us sleepy. Ancient medicine from China states that drinking warm liquids is calming to our nervous system. And while herbal tea itself may not actually induce drowsiness, the ritual in making tea is what may be calming because the process is similar to guided meditation. If we think that tea is relaxing, then it is relaxing. And that might be all that you need for a better night’s rest.