What is Rooibos?
Rooibos is a member of the legume family of plants and grows only in South Africa. The scrub is red coloured, with stems that contain many dark green needle shaped leaves. Only the leaves and twigs are used. Rooibos leaves are harvested in summer, cut or chopped and are left to ferment – although unfermented Rooibos is also produced. During the fermentation of the Rooibos leaves, some chemicals are oxidized by enzymes resulting in the typical red colour and distinct flavour.
The plant is mostly used to make a herbal tea which has been popular in Southern Africa for generations. Rooibos tea’s history is rooted in the Cederberg region of beautiful South Africa. Khoisan, the indigenous Bushmen of the region, harvested the leaves from the plant for centuries. They used the leaves as herbal remedies for many ailments, and loved the delicious sweet taste of the tea. Rooibos tea history nearly ended with the dwindling of the Khoisan tribes, but thankfully a botanist named Carl Humberg rediscovered the leaves in 1772 and revived a more widespread interest in the tea drink.
In 1968, Annique Theron (a South African mother) published a book on Rooibos tea’s amazing health benefits. She stumbled on the natural healing powers of Rooibos when, one sunny April morning, she warmed her allergic baby’s bottle with warm Rooibos tea. Annique was amazed at the instant calming, soothing and healing effect it had on her baby daughter of fourteen months, Lorinda. Annique set out to investigate this tea’s healing potential and found she stood alone in her discovery of its anti-allergic qualities. However, she soon found hundreds of mothers with similar problems varying from food allergies to eczema, insomnia and hyperactivity in their babies and children. Annique published her findings about allergies in children and adults in her book: “Allergies: An Amazing Discovery”. After the book’s release, hundreds of studies found more and more about Rooibos tea’s antioxidants and other health advantages. With this new medical understanding of Rooibos, the tea’s popularity exploded.
Nutritional content and health benefits
Rooibos has long been used in traditional medicine in South Africa and is considered a natural remedy for the following conditions:
- stomach ulcers
- nervous tension
- colic (especially in infants)
Rooibos is now becoming more popular in other countries among health-conscious consumers due to its high level of antioxidants such as aspalathin (found only in Rooibos) and nothofagin, its lack of caffeine, and its low tannin levels.
Because Rooibos is said to quickly replace sodium lost through sweating, the tea has furthermore become a welcome alternative to cold refreshments for sportsmen, manual workers or other people who suffer under high physical strain. The proportion of mineral nutrients and micro nutrients in Rooibos is also supposed to improve the quality of hair, teeth, fingernails and bones. Rooibos contains considerable amounts of important minerals such as:
- Alpha-hydroxy (great for the skin)
Placed directly on the skin, it can slow the aging process; it boosts the immune system and eases irritability, headaches, and insomnia. It contains no oxalic acid, so people who are prone to kidney stones can safely consume it. Rooibos delays the recurrence of the herpes simplex virus in humans and thus have anti-viral properties. It slows down certain inflammatory skin diseases and makes the skin less sensitive to damage from the sun.
Research studies in vitro (in a controlled laboratory environment) and in vivo (in live animals) help to understand and verify the health promoting properties of Rooibos. Although human studies of Rooibos are scarce in scientific literature, animal studies suggest it has potent antioxidant, immune-modulating and chemo-preventive effects. To date, no adverse side effects of consuming Rooibos tea have been documented!
1) Rooibos and Inflammation
Rooibos may help fight inflammation, suggests a 2009 study on rats. The study also showed that Rooibos consumption may help protect against DNA damage induced by free radicals, possibly due to its antioxidant content.
The first human clinical intervention trial with adults at risk of developing heart disease started in South Africa in 2007 and is led by Dr Jeanine Marnewick. It focuses on the potential of Rooibos to protect against oxidative stress (i.e. an excess of oxidants) and inflammation associated with the development of heart disease. Oxidative stress can damage important cellular components such as lipids, proteins and DNA, resulting in the development of several degenerative diseases.
2) Rooibos and Immunity
In addition to offering antioxidant benefits, Rooibos may help strengthen the immune system. That’s the finding of a 2007 report, which reviewed previously published animal studies on Rooibos and its biological effects. Researchers have now shown that Rooibos promotes the production of antibodies when immune systems are challenged.
3) Rooibos and Cancer
Studies conducted by the Medical Research Council of South Africa (“MRC”) show that Rooibos reduces cancer-associated changes in animal cells by protecting cells against DNA damage, or mutagenesis. Cancer develops in several steps and mutagenesis is one of the first steps. During mutagenesis the DNA of a cell is changed because of excessive exposure to physical or chemical agents called ‘mutagens’ found for example in cigarette smoke, sunlight or chemical substances such as hydrogen peroxide. Rooibos offers protection (or chemo-prevention) against these mutagens in more than one way:
- It is a potent antioxidant, which means that it ‘scavenges’ free radicals. These are highly reactive molecules that are also produced during normal processes in the human body. Free radicals can damage the DNA of cells, but antioxidants bind to the free radicals and inactivate them before they can cause any damage.
- Rooibos also increases the antioxidant status of the liver. Rooibos stimulates the liver enzymes that break down carcinogens in the body. Ongoing exposure to carcinogens such as certain kinds of toxins and cigarette smoke, will eventually lead to cancer.
Several studies show that Rooibos effectively counteracts the development of skin cancer in mice by interfering with the process whereby the cancer develops. Those who were treated showed 70% fewer tumours. The tumours were also smaller and took longer to develop.
4) Rooibos and diabetes
A group of leading South African researchers are focusing their attention the anti-diabetic and anti-obesity properties of Rooibos. Dr Johan Louw at the Diabetes Discovery Platform at the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Prof Lizette Joubert at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) are jointly supervising the research project. They are collaborating with an international biotechnology group – the MC2 Biotek Group.
“In healthy people, their cells take up and use glucose effectively and the process is controlled by the insulin hormone, but in diabetics these processes are impaired,” Louw explains. “We have obtained encouraging results for Rooibos extracts in our pre-clinical studies with diabetic animals, as well as in cell models, showing that compounds in Rooibos can play a role in these processes.”
“We plan to continue with follow-up work to look at Rooibos and obesity in animals and humans.”
South Africa’s focus on the potential of Rooibos to manage diabetes builds on research in other countries: Slovak scientists have recommended Rooibos to help prevent and treat diabetic vascular complications, especially in eye membranes. Japanese scientists found that Rooibos helps improve the glucose uptake of muscle cells, thereby maintaining normal blood sugar levels in diabetic mice, and also that it stimulates pancreatic beta-cells to secrete insulin.
Summaries of the most recent Rooibos studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals can be found on www.sarooibos.co.za.
Rooibos’ miraculous properties to cure and soothe are backed not only by scientific research and international recognition, but also by years of hands-on experience of mothers with infants suffering from colic, people suffering from insomnia, food allergies, stomach cramps or eczema, as well as animal carers throughout South Africa.
Food for Thought
With all the proven goodness that is Rooibos, how could you not be sure it will have a positive effect on any animal? Shop for our Rooibos infused treats here.