“Do herb drinks fall into the classification of ‘hot drinks’ forbidden by the Word of Wisdom?’” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 24–25
Dr. Clifford J. Stratton, associate professor of anatomy, University of Nevada, School of Medical Sciences; high councilor, Reno Nevada North Stake That’s a good question but a difficult one to answer, since over a thousand different herbs have been identified to date but not all of them have been so thoroughly studied that we know all of their medicinal values. Fortunately, the most popular herbs and herb drinks have been analyzed—but the only source I’d recommend checking is a medical library. Information available from popular or commercial sources that I’ve examined is frequently unreliable.
All herb drinks can’t be discussed in this limited space, but I will include comments on some of the most popular.
Salvia, popularly known as sage, has been used in teas for centuries. Its active ingredient is a greenish-yellow volatile oil with a strong tannin content. One species, Salvia reflexa, is poisonous,1 but extracts from Salvia officinalis are very effective in modern bronchitis medicines and in preparations for throat inflammation. As a gargle, it prevents excessive salivation and has a significant antibacterial effect.2
Panax, or ginsing tea, is reportedly a daily drink for five or six million Americans. It stimulates the adrenal gland of the kidney and causes a dramatic increase in corticosteroid secretion. That means it interferes with carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism, electrolyte and water balance, the heart, kidneys, voluntary muscles, and the central nervous system.3 Its use should be avoided unless advised by a physician.
Mint, spearmint, peppermint (Mentha) teas effectively aid in the release of gas from the stomach and intestine,4 and can safely be used in moderation for that purpose. Dandelion roots (Taraxacum officinale) were used by physicians in the nineteenth century to treat chronic diseases of the liver, but their actual usefulness has not been substantiated.
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) can increase cortisone production, but it also contains compounds which cause dermatitis in many individuals. Since synthetic cortisone is available by prescription, without the other undesirable components found in the plant, the traditional use of alfalfa for rheumatism and arthritis is strongly discouraged today.5 Clover and sassafras teas contain poisonous substances (cyanide and safrole, respectively). Clover is therefore not used in medicinal compounds; the use of sassafras is prohibited in the United States.6
Numerous “combination” herb drinks, used as pleasant drinks or for their medicinal properties, are also on the market. The effect of each of the herbs should be determined before the tea is routinely ingested. For example, red zinger contains seven herbs. The hibiscus, rose hips, and orange peel contain no drugs. However, the peppermint, lemon verbena, wild cherry bark, and wintergreen have known diverse medicinal properties.7 One would not drink red zinger for pleasure since it contains medications, and neither is it used for its medicinal properties since they are so diverse.
Ephedra, popularly known in the western U.S. as “desert tea,” “Mormon tea,” “squaw tea,” or “Mexican tea,” contains no harmful alkaloids but is high in vitamin C. If taken in large quantities it decreases the heart rate and thus may decrease blood pressure. Earlier claims that it helped treat venereal disease and sore throats are probably unfounded.
It’s important, however, not to confuse the North American Ephedra with the Chinese Ephedra, Ma Huang, which contains a large quantity of ephedrine, a salt of an alkaloid which strongly stimulates the nerves and thus should be used only as a drug under a doctor’s care.8
Thus, each herb tea can be classified as a “hot drink” or “an herb to be used with prudence” only after we know what effect it has on the body.
Many drinks contain no significant levels of drugs and can be used as tasty warm drinks with some nutritive benefit. However, a well-nourished body has no unnatural cravings and requires no drugs to perform well both intellectually and physically.
The Lord has given us herbs “to be used with prudence and thanksgiving” (D&C 89:10–11) “to strengthen the body” in certain cases of minor illness. But he has warned us that herbs should be used “with judgment” (D&C 59:17–20), “not in excess” and “neither by extortion,” based upon reputable information (see D&C 59:17–20; D&C 89:10–11).
As a doctor who has researched the pharmacologic components in herbs for many years, I must stress the importance of not “prescribing” herb teas as medicine for yourself or others. Many herb teas do contain drugs whose effect is unknown, and “folk knowledge” is not a reliable guide. Any illness requiring drugs should be treated by a physician; and a prudent individual will not consume large quantities of any herb for any reason.