The daisylike flowers of chamomile (Matricaria recutita) make an aromatic herbal tea that’s so safe it’s recommended by pediatricians to ease colic in babies. For adults, it soothes stomachs and calms nerves. And now, if the latest study is to be believed, it looks like drinking chamomile tea can cut your risk of dying over a certain period by nearly a third. Could that really be true?
When researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston decided to see whether chamomile is the fountain of youth, they already had some clues that it’s a flower with power.
After all, chamomile has been used for millennia to treat everything from gastrointestinal ailments and skin conditions to insomnia and gout. It has strong anti-inflammatory properties. It reduces stomach spasms (in Germany, doctors prescribe chamomile extracts to treat peptic ulcers). In clinical studies, chamomile has been shown to reduce anxiety. Applied topically in a cream, it treats sunburn. It contains compounds that may protect against heart disease and cancer.
The Texas researchers also knew from their own previous work that Mexican-Americans make use of herbal medicines—especially chamomile—at a higher rate than most other groups. So they studied about 1,600 elderly Mexican-Americans in the American Southwest. The average age of these subjects was about 80 and about 14% regularly drank chamomile tea. Over the course of the seven-year study, about 40% of the study subjects died.
Study findings: Compared with people who did not drink chamomile, women who regularly drank chamomile tea were 28% less likely to die during the course of the study.
Men who drank chamomile tea were no less likely to die than men who didn’t, however. Why? Researchers don’t know, but the researchers did note that only a small group of men drank chamomile, and they speculated that it may have been more of an occasional thing rather than a habit. The men also drank more alcohol and smoked more heavily.
Even for women, the study doesn’t prove that chamomile is the elixir of life. Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t measure how frequently or how much tea the women drank, so we can’t know whether the benefits are more likely with, say, one cup or three cups a day. It’s also possible that Mexican-American women who regularly brewed and sipped té de camomila may simply have led healthier lives overall. Of course, the researchers adjusted the data for socio-demographic variables (which do have an effect on longevity), health behaviors and chronic conditions. “We established controls for as many factors as we could,” said one of the study’s authors, Bret T. Howrey, PhD, of the department of family medicine at UTMB. “But we can’t be sure if chamomile alone accounted for the women’s decrease in mortality and to what extent healthy diets or lifestyles affected the outcome.”
So don’t expect miracles from your tea cup. You’ll still need to eat colorful salads. Keep going to that yoga class or whatever you do for strength, flexibility and stress relief. But if you are looking for a delicious herbal refresher that is naturally caffeine-free and may promote longevity, try chamomile tea.
HOW TO TAKE YOUR TEA
Here’s what you need to know to brew the most flavorful, healthful cup:
• Chamomile’s small flowers are the main source of its healing active ingredients. These include alpha-bisabolol, which has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antifungal properties…apigenin, which has cancer-fighting and anxiety-reducing properties…and chamazulene, which has anti-inflammatory action and forms when chamomile tea is heated to the steaming point.
• Keep tea bags or dried flowers in a sealed air-tight container to retain more of the healthful volatile oils.
• Got a green thumb? German chamomile (Matricaria recutita), by far the most common variety sold in the US, does best in full sun and well-drained soil.
• To make one cup of tea, put a teabag or a tablespoon of dried minced flowers into a teapot, teacup or mug. Pour boiling water over the herb, cover and steep for 15 minutes.
• To get the healthiest brew, be patient. Only 10% to 15% of the volatile oil containing chamomile’s active ingredients makes it into the typical cup of chamomile tea. To boost the medicinal effects, keep the chamazulene-forming steam from escaping by placing a saucer over the cup and steeping the tea for the full 15 minutes (reheat as necessary).
• Most herbalists recommend drinking a cup of chamomile tea three times a day to ease short-term bodily ills such as indigestion, while one cup a day will do for long-term benefits.
The only caution: Chamomile flowers can cause allergic reactions in some people, especially those allergic to ragweed.
• For a soothing ritual, try adding chamomile to your next bath.
If you’re lucky, you may find yourself soaking in a tub filled with Matricaria recutita flowers (a traditional skin revitalization treatment) as you sip a cup of well-steeped chamomile tea… cheered that such a blissful routine just might add years to your life.