How safe are herbal teas?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2012

Our familiar teas have been made from the tree Camellia sinensis for about 3,000 years. Infusions, drinks made from the leaves, flowers, bark or fruit of other plants are a lot older and come in an enormous variety but how safe are the ones that are available to us today?

Traditional teas are not only safe but they have a growing list of health benefits. They are chock-full of antioxidants, chemicals that block the activity of free radicals that are formed by exposure to radiation, pollution and even our normal digestive and disease-fighting activities.

Green tea is one of the most popular these days as medical research has given some support to the centuries-old anecdotal reports of its health benefits. However, the antiaging, anticancer and other advantages of green tea are based mainly on population studies and research limited to animals and to cells grown in test tubes. There has been little long-term reliable investigation in humans.

If you'd like a refreshing, safe, caffeine-free beverage try the teas that are made from a variety of fruit flavors, mostly berries. Some contain chamomile, an herb that has a long but benign history, even though its many health benefits are largely anecdotal, with little or no scientific verification. We enjoy fruit teas mostly for their flavor or for the refreshing zing of peppermint, clove or ginger.

Considering their widespread use, herbal teas are only occasionally linked to illness. Sometimes toxicity occurs, mainly involving the liver, when persons ingest very large amounts. Even green tea has been linked to liver toxicity with the ingestion of several cups a day for long periods of time. Be sure to purchase teas or any herbal products from reliable, well-known sources. Contamination with lead or toxic plant products has occurred occasionally.

Some patients are reluctant to let their physicians know that they are taking herbal preparations, including herbal teas but that can lead to serious problems. Certain ingredients may interfere with prescription drugs or might even cause illness. Patients with underlying illnesses, especially liver disease, are particularly susceptible to the alkaloids contained in many plants that are used to manufacture teas. The unique biology of growing children and pregnant women makes them especially susceptible to ingredients that are otherwise innocuous.

There is no downside to teas, classic, fruit-based or herbal when the source is reliable and the amount, a cup or two per day, is reasonable.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.