For centuries, the people of the southernmost region of Africa have sipped a distinct red colored herbal tea and sworn by its soothing and healing properties. Now science is playing catch up with this indigenous health remedy, proving what people of this region have always known to be true.
Rooibos tea (pronuncian: roy-boss), also known by its direct English translation, “red bush tea” was originally used by the indigenous Khoisan of South Africa. They bruised the needle-like leaves of the low-lying Aspalanthus linearis shrub with hammers, fermented it and left it to dry in the harsh African sun.
Rooibos tea is not strictly speaking a tea, but in fact an herbal infusion. The shrub from which the leaves are harvested for the tea, is part of the fynbos species which is only found in South Africa. So unique is this particular shrub that it only grows in a place called Clanwilliam, a mountainous region 250km from the city of Cape Town. It is believed that the tea plant only grows there because of the specific microclimate of this region.
Subsequent attempts to grow it elsewhere in the world, including Israel and New Zealand have failed.
Given the tea's proven health benefits, including it being caffeine free, low in tannins and rich in antioxidants; the drink has grown in popularity among the health conscious and can be found all over the world including on the Starbucks menu as Red tea or African red tea.
While health aficionado's have long proclaimed the tea's benefits, scientists are still conducting studies to prove a range of claims including, amongst others, that the tea contains anti-carcinogenic and stress-relieving properties.
The SA Rooibos Council has set aside a 2 million rand ($245,398.77 U.S.) budget for rooibos research for this year, which will include, looking at the anti-aging, anti-obesity and cancer-preventing properties of rooibos tea, and the role of rooibos in performance during exercise and post-exercise recovery.
A research team from the University of Stellenbosch’s biochemistry department, led by Professor Amanda Swart, recently found that rooibos tea contains components that can help alleviate stress and anxiety.
Rooibos tea works by lowering the production of cortisol – a steroid hormone secreted by the adrenal gland, also known as the stress hormone. Swart and her research team found that by lowering cortisol levels, the effect of the body’s response to stress is also lowered.
Swart and her team identified two rare components in rooibos, aspalathin and nothofagin, that contribute to the stress-lowering effect. The findings were published in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology late last year.
Swart said: “Because Rooibos, anecdotally is known to have a soothing effect, it prompted us to look if it had any effect on cortisol, the stress hormone.”
Swart explained that cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal glands differs between different people and males and females. People's individual cortisol levels also differed at various times of the day.
Swart and her team found that Rooibos tea can lower the production of cortisol in the adrenal glands and “significantly so.” Swart made clear that to determine whether Rooibos tea had a “soothing” effect on people, would require a psychological study to assess.
In 2008, it was proven that rooibos significantly reduces the risk of heart disease. That clinical trial was led by Dr. Jeanine Marnewick and involved the participants in the trial to drink six cups of rooibos tea a day for six weeks.
She explained why so many cups of Rooibos tea had to be ingested.
“Unlike any other vitamin which you take once a day; rooibos doesn't build up in the blood. Rooibos has a very short lifespan in your blood and that's why you need to take rooibos throughout the day.”
She emphasized that rooibos tea is not “curative” but instead it is “preventative.”
“Don't look to Rooibos as medicine; but rather as a natural way to improve your health and make it part of your daily health upkeep,” said Marnewick.
Also on the go for more than a decade, and as yet not concluded, is ongoing research at South Africa's Medical Research Council, into the ability of Rooibos to prevent or slow down cancer.
While the science fraternity is applauding the benefits of Rooibos as an indigenous health remedy that is fast gaining traction all over the world, indigenous leaders are not surprised by Rooibos tea's popularity.
Cecil le Fleur trustee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC) and the national Khoi San council explained: “We know that when we grew up as children in the villages, we were totally reliant on herbs for our medicine. Our people knew what type of herbs to use for which illness. When the Europeans came to our country, they made use of this knowledge to make medicines in a more scientific way.”
And while science goes all out to prove the benefits of red tea, Indigenous Peoples continue to drink the herbal drink with the confidence that their forebears knew that they were on to a good thing with the brew that boosted their health and wellbeing.