Sunday, October 28, 2018

Hawaiian tisane / "herb teas" and health benefits

Awhile back I reviewed a Hawaiian tisane (herb) blend, a combination of mamaki and wapine (a version of lemongrass and something else less familiar, with details in that post about what that is).  It was from a Hawaiian close family friend from a producer called Rocky Farms, located in Waimanalo. 

usually there were a few people around, but not different than this (credit)

That family friend (an extra uncle, sort of an in-law to me since they took in my wife more than me) lives in Waimanalo, and that whole small community area looks like you stepped into a postcard.

Since these posts tend to run long I'll go with that theme and quote a part of that post content about an herb here (referenced from here, with even more information here):

Mamaki is a native Hawaiian nettle species known as an ancient miracle herb. Mamaki tea is best known for its refreshing, smooth taste and medicinal uses. It is known to act as an antioxidant that promotes healthy cardiovascular functions, lowers stress and fatigue levels and acts as a mild laxative. It is also commonly used to reduce allergy symptoms and promote liver Health.

It's hard to evaluate those sorts of health claims, and more typical for tea reviews to just not bring them up.  I won't get far with a flavors review here, instead dealing more with accounts of health benefits (not endorsing or rejecting those, just sharing them), and more about local related resources in Oahu.

I think tea (the Camellia Sinensis kind) and other herbs probably are very healthy but it's hard to go further than that with specific guesses, or to research the subject.  Input turns up but it can be hard to place.  If the claim is that an herb helps with an upset stomach of course that can be tested, or a laxative effect can be, but for most of those already listed in that short passage would be more difficult to evaluate. 

a vendor photo with more information, apparently sold as RTD (credit)


The herb blend I tried tastes like those herbs.  Turmeric stands out a little, but then it might not seem to as much without appearing on the label.  The flavor is mild with some complexity, with a bit of sweetness and decent balance, nice enough.  The other flavor range reminds me of floral flavors that aren't necessarily sweet or overly aromatic, like chrysanthemum or chamomile.  There's also a vague, light spice background element, not one that's easy to place.  I'd probably drink light oolong that's in the same general range instead for taste if it came down to just that, and of course people do make health claims about those too.  It's pleasant tasting enough that I'd also drink it just for taste if I had it around, and for me it's nice to have tisanes--herb teas, to some--in the evenings sometimes, since I avoid caffeine then.

That's all I'll cover for flavor description.  To me health claims are more interesting, even if I tend to not accept those as necessarily accurate.  That skepticism is based on experience with lots of claims being made about tea, which seem to extend too far for all of them to be accurate.  For "real tea" those are based on traditional practices or medical care, sources like Traditional Chinese Medicine.  That could be a good input, but one ends up suspecting that some of the modern marketing function may have tied back to previous marketing functions instead of an earlier form of higher knowledge.  The framing doesn't help, references to "qi" and "internal heat / wind," but really valid practices framed in contexts that have been replaced with modern models could still be just as valid and accurate. 

Back to description

Per the written note this contained that mamaki (version of nettle), olena (Hawaiian version of turmeric), and ualoa.  That vendor picture of the same Mala blend listed it as uhaloa, olena, and wapine (lemongrass), so off by one ingredient.  I could swear the mamaki is common to both, as shown in this earlier blend photo, but then later it does look more like uhaloa (see later description and photo):

reviewed in the last post

Wapine is the lemongrass; easy enough to spot, and it does seem to turn up in this second Mala blend.  It would be easy to mix the herbs up when sending a note with it; no matter.  Let's review the turmeric (olena) health claims then come back to uhaloa.

Olena / turmeric health claims

Turmeric is regarded as some sort of miracle health input per some "progressive" or non-mainstream health sources.  Not as if it's a research summary site but let's see what WebMD makes of that (summarized):

possibly effective for hay fever, depression, high cholesterol, osteoarthritis, itching (pruritus).

They then go on to list out as many conditions there is evidence it doesn't help with (surely based on other hearsay claims that it does), and a list twice as long related to benefit claims there just isn't good evidence to support or imply are probably not accurate.  Note that the general theme there is that they are citing what has been confirmed through research as likely (in the initial claim), and rejecting what seems unlikely based on research.  WebMD isn't a research status summary; one can do better, but the point here is to get a feel for where these claims stand, not try to ground them.

It's very difficult to do isolated studies on people to prove nutritional or preventative claims, so unless there is a clear linkage to a negative effect it's hard for research to come to a firm conclusion.  Studies can show what a limited input over a short time causes, or test high doses on rats.

Another article there on WebMD is more positive, and more colorful and speculative:

A tablespoon of ground turmeric offers 29 calories, nearly a gram of protein, 2 grams of fiber and 6 grams of carbohydrates. It contains minerals such as manganese, phosphorus and potassium. Turmeric also contains magical nutrients -- the kind that practically cast spells to keep you strong and healthy.

Turmeric is used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat inflammation -- both inside and out. Uses include cancer prevention and treatment as well as treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and infections.  Curcumin, a substance in turmeric, is being researched for cancer prevention and treatment, and has shown promise in animal studies... 

That one Hawaiian herb vendor (Maui Medicinal) lists even more potential benefits on their page.  Turmeric probably is a beneficial dietary input, even without the benefit of magic.  Let's move onto the last one, uhaloa.

the live version (photo credit)

Uhaloa background and claimed health benefits

The University of Hawaii related site I referenced in that earlier post passes on a full description (that's one of my alma maters, by the way; I went to UH Manoa awhile back):

Waltheria indica var. americana (uhaloa)

ʻUhaloa (Waltheria indica) belongs to the Malavaceae or Mallow family, sometimes placed in Sterculiaceae, or Cacao family. The genus Waltheria has some 60 species, 53 of which are from the Neotropics (the Americas). Two species are native to the Hawaiian Islands...

Hawaiian Names:  ʻAlaʻala pū loa, hala ʻuhaloa, hiʻaloa, kanakaloa are all alternate names for the commonly used ʻuhaloa...

Modern Use:  Medicinally, in the Hawaiian Islands ʻuhaloa is still used even if other traditional plants are not always in use. [6] When mixed with certain other plants ʻuhaloa is used for sore throats, bronchial infections, and asthma. [1,2] The bitter roots are used much like aspirin is today. [2]

This plant is used throughout the Americas. One reference source outlines the importance of Walthera indica: "A tropical shrub, the whole plant (roots, leaves, buds and flowers) is used against chronic asthma. This plant has anti inflammatory and antifungal properties. Other uses include: cortex (root bark); chewed as a very effective natural medicine for sore throat. Internally for arthritis, neuralgia, common cold, cough, bronchial phlegm or mucous, diarrhea, eye baths, fatigue; used as a bitter tonic." [5]

that does look right (photo credit)

Interesting!  That Rocky Farms picture source adds more to the health claims listed on that package:

'Uhaloa tea with bark. The leaves & flowers serves to treat (asthma), arthritis, neuralgia and pulmonary complications like bronchial phlegm, mucous and chest congestion. The bark is chewed to help with sore throat.

I also spoke with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs about doing research and they sent a really interesting looking reference citation, well worth following up for anyone interested in the subject (from "Native Planters in Old Hawaii:  Their Life, Lore and Environment," by E. S. Craighill Handy and Elizabeth Green Handy):

mamaki and uhaloa are mentioned

That book costs $700 on Amazon; you'd have to really want it.  All the claims do seem to align, but then that doesn't confirm them as accurate since it could relate to common sourcing.  I bet these herbs are very healthy, and it would only matter if effectiveness related to one condition was limited (or related to a different cause, so only ineffective in one case), if someone was trying to use that as a cure or preventative for something in particular.  

Rather than stick with the review of health claims, which is hard to extend further, I'll switch topics and say more about local medicinal herb resources there in Hawaii (East Oahu, more specifically, still in that same area).

Waimanalo's Community Herbal Medicine Garden

Looking around at subject references, most specifically related to that Waimanalo origin area, turned up mention of the Waimanalo Health Center there, focused on renewing use of medicinal herbs.  A recent media article described that background:

lotus?  it's a random picture from that Center's FB page.

Lāʻau lapaʻau is the traditional Hawaiian practice of healing using plants. Practitioners list an arsenal of more than 2,500 plants used for various human ailments.   

“Lāʻau lapaʻau is a fading art. I wouldnʻt say dying art, but its fading,” says [Ikaika] Rogerson, “Hopefully by being able to teach the community even just the basic different varieties of lāʻau that we have within the community and how to use it then maybe itʻs an alternative to purchasing pills.”

This is part of why I'm open and optimistic about use of herbs either as a medicinal or dietary supplement.  I can't be certain that traditional herbs could be used as directly as conventional medicine (which isn't ideal either), but there's a long history of plants used effectively for both purposes.

People on the skeptical side point out that if a compound is confirmed to have a benefit it's adopted for use but that misses part of the point.  If that skeptic is eating a McDonald's based diet along with a handful of pills a day they're not going to be nearly as healthy as someone eating a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables, diverse foods, and some herb / tisanes for additional input.  I don't buy that taking any number of pills a day would provide a similar benefit.

olena / turmeric (source credit)

They mention this about turmeric in that last article:  

'Olena or turmeric, one of the most versatile plants in traditional Hawaiian herbal medicine can be used for a number of ailments. Juice is extracted from the root and can be used to enhance the immune system and purify the blood.

Detox skeptics might feel a little "triggered" by that last claim since the kidneys and liver purify the blood, not medicine or supplements, but again valid health benefits and accurate use of updated models and terms are two separate issues.  According to that WebMD source turmeric is shown through research evidence to lower triglyceride levels and possibly reduce cholesterol, qualified as follows:

Turmeric seems to lower levels of blood fats called triglycerides. The effects of turmeric on cholesterol levels are conflicting. There are many different turmeric products available. It is not known which ones work best.

Not a strong endorsement, that middle part, but then this is passing on multiple sources of research evidence for study still in progress as a very short summary, and "findings conflict" would be a natural result.

Post-script; trying to apply all that

This has always been the part that's a problem for me; how to apply that information.  That plant background database looks great, quite solid as such content goes, but it doesn't seem like it would work well to scan through that and know what herbs to use for treatment or preventative purposes.  You could try, but it seems limited and not designed for that.

I've talked to a couple of people trained in the use of herbs as both (herbalists?) and of course their recommendation is to go to someone with similar training and get consultation input.  I'm usually skeptical when answers inevitably turn to "just pay me" but in this case there aren't many good options.  Progressive-minded health enthusiasts (odd putting that in any phrasing) tend to pick and mix what they want to buy into, from a broad range of sources, the herbal health equivalent of salad bar faith.  Maybe that works. 

I didn't get around to talking to her but Leina‘ala Bright seems to work in a similar capacity in the Waimanalo Health Center I'd mentioned (although I really don't know her duties or their range of services).  Some input in a reference they passed on from her research at UH adds more about why turmeric probably really does live up to at least some of the claims:

That source includes a reference of her as a researcher and "Cultural Practitioner of Lomilomi, Lā‘au Lapa‘au;" that works.

Incorporating use of tisanes might work better than one might expect for the same reason tea is almost certainly living up to a lot of it's variously grounded cited benefits:  if you replace soda with tea you are at least eliminating a negative with a neutral input, even if not a positive one, and some of the component benefits are probably real.  Anyone replacing boba tea--powdered, artificially flavored, heavily sweetened, products containing powdered milk or other fats and thickeners--with real tea is taking a similar step.

I recently had an opportunity to use this herbal tisane more directly, when I picked up a stomach problem from my kids and threw up a few times.  I was wary of drinking even water because not long before I'd seen my daughter try to drink water with the same condition and it didn't work out.  I drank a mug of this tisane (related to some of this research saying one herb calms an upset stomach), and my stomach did feel much better, and then I was able to handle another small glass of electrolyte solution. 

the morning Kalani was sick; I think positive outlook alone helps a lot

I'd love to be able to incorporate herbs and other tisanes in a way that makes more sense over the long term but at least making that start into useful application was nice.

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