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When we’re not feeling well, we turn to tea—and for good reason, too. Warm, comforting, and aromatic, tea has a healing vibe before we’ve even taken a sip. But herbal teas are also healing in a more literal sense, offering research-backed relief for ailments from joint pain to constipation, headaches to the flu. Herbal teas help improve your health without the stimulating effects of caffeine, which can get in the way of the rest your body needs when you’re ill. You can put herbal tea to work for you by knowing what to look for, either in the tea aisle at the grocery store or through an online purveyor of organic dried herbs.
How To Brew Your Herbal Tea
“If you are creating your own herbal tea blend, more is not necessarily more,” says Emily Kanter, the second-generation co-owner of Cambridge Naturals, a wellness and herbal shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Including 16 herbs in a tea infusion is not necessarily better than using three really powerful herbs,” she advises. Instead, choose a few proven, well-researched herbs, steep, sip, and mend. Steeping times can vary according to different herbs as well as your taste. Loose herbs can be placed directly in boiling water (strain before drinking), or you can Fill Your Own Disposable Tea Bags. Most blends can steep for between five and 15 minutes; be sure to squeeze the tea bag into your cup before discarding to ensure every healing bit gets in. Or make a potent tea infusion by steeping herbs (or a few tea bags) for 20 minutes or up to two hours, re-heating and sipping throughout the day. Don’t feel like you have to drink gallons of the stuff to experience its effects, though. “Three to five cups a day is a good maximum to set,” says Kanter, “with plenty of pure, clean, filtered water to sip in between.”
Now, here’s what to drink depending on what ails you.
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If you are sipping an herbal tea for a headache, you’re already doing something right—you’re hydrating your body, which can help prevent and alleviate some forms of headache. Migraine sufferers might find relief with feverfew, a traditional medicinal herb that has been found to help some migraine patients. Teas that contain ginger can also help with the nausea that often accompanies migraine. For everyday tension headaches, Kanter recommends calming herbs like chamomile or lavender, which are very gentle and relaxing to the nervous system.
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Any tea can help a stuffed up nose or clogged sinuses if you simply hold the hot mug near your face and allow the steam to float into your nasal passages. Try peppermint tea as an herbal infusion; peppermint’s clarifying properties can be very soothing to a clogged sinus cavity. Some people might find the aroma too strong; steep for a shorter period of time if it bothers you.
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You have a lot of choices when it comes to teas for encouraging sleep. Common blends include relaxing herbs like chamomile and lavender, plus valerian, a medicinal herb that is also used to treat anxiety, headaches, and asthma. You might be surprised to learn that sage (steeped for four hours) is a natural sleep aid. There is also lemon balm, which is a member of the mint family and can be purchased in its dried form and steeped for five to ten minutes in hot water. Many prepared blends are available for sleep, like this organic Valerian Mint blend from Celebration Herbals. Kanter recommends drinking a sleep-inducing tea about 30 minutes before bed.
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The simplest tea-like solution for a sore throat is to melt some raw, local honey in hot water, squeeze the juice of a whole lemon into the mug, and sip. The honey will coat your aching throat, and the lemon is both astringent and rich in vitamin C. Both have antiviral and antibacterial properties. For a true herbal tea, though, reach for a blend like Traditional Medicinals’ Throat Coat, which contains slippery elm, licorice root, and marshmallow root—all of which are soothing and rejuvenating to the throat. If you don’t enjoy the taste of licorice, try a sage tea, which has mild numbing properties to help dull the pain. Kanter’s advice is to allow your tea to cool a bit before sipping—a too-hot brew can irritate your already-fragile throat membranes.
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Kava, which is sometimes also called kava kava, is a medicinal herb that is frequently used in tea blends that relieve stress. Yogi’s Kava Stress Relief blend is rich in kava, plus cinnamon to bring on a warm, relaxed sensation. Passion flower, lemon balm, and lavender are also soothing to the mind and spirit, and this Honey Lavender Stress Relief blend from Yogi Tea contains all three. When you reach for tea for stress relief, be sure to practice some self-soothing techniques like deep, mindful breaths (make your exhale longer than your inhale for maximum relaxation) and gently focusing on nothing more than the feeling of the tea warming your body and soothing your soul.
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Honey and steam are your friends when you have a chest cough. There are, of course, also many herbs to brew for cough relief. Wild cherry bark, which is found in many cough syrups, is useful to add to a cough-calming brew. Herbs that contain antioxidant-rich vitamin C, like hibiscus, are also helpful, as are licorice root and marshmallow root, which can help ease a sore throat.
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The flu hits a body hard, upsetting both the respiratory and digestive systems, not to mention those infamous all-over aches. Because the flu is a virus, the antiviral herb elderberry is a time-tested remedy. Elderberry is truly a superfruit, containing high levels of vitamin C, plus a range of other antioxidants called anthocyanins. Elderberry extract has been shown to shorten the duration of flu infection. Kanter suggests taking elderberry syrup directly (fresh or dried elderberries can be toxic if not boiled for a sufficient length of time), like this one from Gaia Herbs, or stirring a spoonful into a cup of ginger tea or other herbal brew that addresses the flu symptoms that are bothering you most.
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For achy knees, shoulders, necks, and backs, anti-inflammatory herbs are the stars of the show. Turmeric, ginger, licorice root, feverfew, slippery elm, and holy basil, are your best bets. Try Yogi Tea’s Joint Comfort blend for turmeric’s soothing effects, or concoct your own blend with dried anti-inflammatory herbs purchased from a trusted source. As with other ailments, hydration is an important component of coping, so you’re already doing yourself a favor by sipping any herbal brew.
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Teas made from anti-inflammatory herbs like ginger, licorice root, and peppermint are helpful in soothing indigestion, gas, and bloating. If you have acid reflux, it’s best to avoid the peppermint, which can be too strong and can actually stimulate more acid production. Soothing chamomile tea is another good option for comforting a too-full or cramping tummy. Teas that have a slightly bitter flavor, like fennel or dandelion root (try Traditional Medicinals Roasted Dandelion Root) stimulate the digestive tract to produce saliva and enzymes to help your body process your food. Kanter recommends using herbal tea to stop indigestion before it starts—she sips a cup of ginger tea after dinner every night.
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The herb senna, an FDA-approved non-prescription laxative, is the main ingredient in most herbal teas that help relieve constipation. Teas like Traditional Medicinals Smooth Move blend promise to produce a bowel movement six to 12 hours after drinking, so taking the tea before going to bed is a good strategy for waking up, taking care of business, and going about your day. If you have never taken a laxative tea before, it’s best to steep it for a shorter period of time—five minutes instead of the typical ten to 15—or drink only half a cup until you learn how your body reacts.
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Raspberry leaf tea—different from raspberry-flavored teas, which are often made using artificial ingredients and colors—has long been the trusted herbal remedy for women’s health issues, from heavy periods to PMS symptoms to fertility. It is even safe to use in moderation during pregnancy, though women should always discuss any herbals with their doctors before drinking. Traditional Medicinals and Yogi Tea both make organic raspberry leaf tea that can be taken throughout the menstrual cycle to help temper the uterus and bring balance to hormones.