Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pine needle tisane ("herb tea"), nutritional / medicinal uses research

In a discussion of a recent blog post about making pine needle tisane (herb tea, to some) someone commented with references on pine needle infusion nutritional and medicinal properties.  Online discussion somehow never works out like that, with someone contributing both insightful content and good reference links.

Norway spruce (left) and red pine, fresh picked versions

This first source they mentioned was a general reference, with a good mix of information about history and uses of pine needle tisane (from here  medicinalfoodnews.com/articles/pine-needle-tea):

Boasting four to five times the amount of Vitamin C found in a lemon, pine needle tea has been a medicinal favorite of indigenous peoples for centuries and is said to have helped scurvy-afflicted European settlers survive their first winter in the New World. Also high in fat-soluble Vitamin A - an antioxidant essential for healthy vision, skin and hair regeneration and red blood cell production, it is frequently prescribed by herbalist healers as an expectorant to thin mucus secretions; furthermore, it can be used as an antiseptic wash when cooled. Different varieties of pine have their own flavor, so some drinkers mix and match to find the taste they like best.

As related background on the last point, I tried four different pine needle infusions in that review post and they did vary, but all of them tasted quite similar, "piney."  I tried blending a couple at one point, and the mix was interesting, but they shared a lot of common ground.  I'd expect someone would typically either like all of them, and also blends of types, or hate them all instead.

The point here is to research nutrition or even potential medicinal use though, so back to that.

chopped fresh pine needles, hemlock pine (lower left) and white pine

What about a summary site like WebMD?  That's not exactly the last word on confirmed medical or nutritional facts, but here is their take:

Pine is a tree. People use the sprouts, needles, and bark to make medicine...  Pine is used for upper and lower respiratory tract swelling (inflammation), stuffy nose, hoarseness, common cold, cough or bronchitis, fevers, tendency towards infection, and blood pressure problems.  Some people apply pine directly to the skin for mild muscle pain and nerve pain.

So far so good, although the general "some people think that..." angle doesn't inspire confidence.  That first article (here) also went into some cautions; it's good to also keep in mind potential negative issues related to following online medical or supplement advice:

A few words of caution: while there are over 100 different varieties of pine, the Ponderosa, Norfolk Island and Yew needles should be avoided, as brewing can prove toxic. You’ll want to collect your needles from trees at a distance from the roadside to be sure they haven’t been exposed to exhaust or chemicals, and far away from dump sites. Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant should avoid pine needle tea as it has been linked by some sources to miscarriage.

Related to that recent review post on lapsang souchong, the Chinese black tea said to be made using pine needle smoke to flavor tea leaves, it makes you wonder which pines are being used for that.  Hopefully not those toxic varieties.

hemlock pine (not the same plant that killed Socrates)

Another research paper source goes into more about possible health benefits:

Pine trees (Pinus densiflora) belong to the family Pinaceae and are widely distributed around the world. In East-Asian countries such as Korea and China, various parts of pine trees, including the needles, cones, cortices, and pollen, are widely consumed as foods or dietary supplements to promote health [4]...  In addition, pine needle drinks have been used as folk medicine, to treat hypertension for example [5]. Moreover, pine needles have been shown to inhibit leukemia cell growth [6] and protect against oxidative DNA damage and apoptosis induced by hydroxyl radicals [7]. For the remainder of the biological effects of pine needles, those from extracts of similar materials (i. e. pine bark) have pharmacological, antioxidant activity, antiproliferative, and antiimflammatory actions [8,10].

I'm not so sure about all that but a research-oriented reference does have a much more authoritative ring to it than some personal web page.  It's not easy to prove broad claims though, so regardless of the source sounding promising there's no guarantee those claims are accurate.  A close read shows them to not be even presented as conclusive as they might seem at first.

snowball fight battle, with lots of potential "tea" in the background

That paper isn't a light read, and even their clear and condensed summary sounds like the results could benefit from another level of interpretation:

Proanthocyanidins, known as condensed tannins, are among the oldest of plant secondary metabolites. These compounds are widespread in woody plants, but are also found in certain forages. Catechins and proanthocyanidins are strong antioxidants and are associated with many useful biological effects of tea and other plant products. The effects of bioflavonoids extracted from pine on free radical formation have already been investigated in murine macrophage cell lines, and strong scavenging activities against reactive oxygen species were exhibited [26]. 

There's more, that was just the clear, easy-to-read summary part.  The general point here is that they did site actual studies (more in the first citation, and another here) but this article is itself a summary of potential benefits with reference to compounds that may be causes for those effects.  It's not a summary of limited, specific findings and confirmed conclusions.  They're not saying that pine needle use as a tisane could cure cancer, lower blood pressure, or serve as an antibiotic, but they are summarizing a range of potential positive effects, some based on tradition, and also mentioning some related research.  This is one form of academic study that comes up but it's not the same as targeted research that tries to support or present limited evidence against narrow hypothesis based on targeted and controlled study.

The last research article mentioned in that discussion is addressing the anti-bacterial claims part, not so much as a survivalist wound-wash treatment, but in relation to potential for use as a food washing agent:

The antibacterial activity of water-soluble extract from pine needles of Cedrus deodara (WEC) was evaluated on five food-borne bacteria, and its related mechanism was investigated by transmission electron microscope. In vitro antibacterial assay showed that WEC possesses a remarkable antibacterial activity against tested food-borne bacteria including Escherichia coli, Proteus vulgaris, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus cereus...  In a food system of fresh-squeezed tomato juice, WEC was observed to possess an effective capacity to control the total counts of viable bacteria. Shikimic acid was isolated from WEC and identified as the main antibacterial compound. All results of our study suggested that WEC might be a new potential source of natural antibacterial agents applicable to food.

Sounds so promising!  And this reads a bit more like actual research (although broader summaries citing other works instead of conducting testing do serve a purpose, just a different one).

snowy winter scene

Related to these findings, instead of as a food wash this might also support that one of those survivalist guys could just use a pine-based infusion for washing wounds, as mentioned in the other source.  Or maybe for washing their own vegetables, back to the point here, since they wouldn't have any vinegar or baking soda or related commercial products on hand.

The take-away:  with some deeper reading some really interesting and potentially very well grounded ideas about some obscure subjects can be turned up.  There seems to be a lot of potential for pine needle tisane / "tea," related to nutritional properties or possibly in relation to targeted health benefits.

At this point these other medicinal benefits seem to be based on traditional medicine use, already accepted by some practitioners, with a limited degree of supporting positive findings from research.  It seems this includes potential for pine needle infusions to be used as a medicinal antiseptic wash or as a food-sanitizing wash, although in modern society there would already be commercial alternatives for such purposes.

All of this might work best in the stranded-in-the-woods or end-of-the-world scenarios, but there seems to be no reason why an ordinary person with access to a modern society couldn't use pine needle infusions for the same purposes.  And to me it even tasted nice.

Everything I encountered on preparation seemed to be pointing towards using fresh pine needles to prepare infusions, but it occurred to me that if a dried ingredient version possessed similar characteristics then an entire Christmas tree could be converted for use as a tisane.  One might wonder about use of fertilizer or pesticides, since those trees wouldn't have been produced with food-related use in mind, but it might not be much of an issue for pine trees.  My grandparents ran a small Christmas tree farm and those trees really didn't require pest protection or fertilization to thrive, the same as those pictured here at my parents' house in Pennsylvania.

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