What Is Rooibos?

Rooibos loose and bag tea

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak 

Rooibos tea is a caffeine-free herbal infusion. It's made from the South African plant Aspalathus linearis.

The drink has long been used as a natural remedy for many conditions. Now, researchers are studying potential medical uses. Nothing is conclusive yet, but some studies show promise.

This article reviews the medical research on rooibos, its side effects, dosages, how to brew it, and what to look for when you buy rooibos.

Not a True "Tea"

Technically, something is only considered a tea if it comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. While rooibos does not, it's prepared like a tea and is often referred to as one.

What Is Rooibos Used For?

One of rooibos' main traditional uses was soothing colic in babies. It was also used for wound healing, allergies, asthma, and sore throats.

Some of those uses are starting to gain a level of scientific backing. Researchers have delved into an array of other possible uses as well. However, studies so far have primarily been done in labs or on animals. Large human trials are needed to confirm what rooibos may be beneficial for.

Several important properties of rooibos have been discovered. Studies suggest it's a/an:

  • Antioxidant
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Immunomodulator (affecting the functioning of the immune system)
  • Liver protectant
  • Brain protectant
  • Antispasmodic (muscle spasms reliever)

Some of the best-researched uses of rooibos are as a treatment for:

Heart Disease

Research on animals suggests rooibos has several beneficial effects on the heart. It appears to lower the risk of heart disease by:

A 2018 review said rooibos clearly has benefits as a therapeutic food for preventing and treating heart disease.

Rooibos is generally fermented, which gives it its characteristic red coloring. "Green"(unfermented) rooibos is often what's used in studies. The two forms appear to have some different qualities but the extent of these differences and their effect on medicinal uses isn't yet clear.

Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome

Type-2 diabetes involves oxidative stress—when free radicals (unstable atoms that can damage cells) outnumber the molecules that fight them. This may be countered by the antioxidants in rooibos.

Other actions that may be beneficial in diabetes include:

  • Improving glucose (sugar) regulation
  • Increasing insulin secretion
  • Improving glucose tolerance
  • Preventing weight gain from a high-fat diet

Animal and laboratory studies have shown that rooibos can lower blood-glucose levels, including fasting levels.

Metabolic syndrome combines risk factors for type-2 diabetes and heart disease. Some studies show rooibos may lower these risks. Some research has suggested it for preventing and treating metabolic syndrome.

Again, human trials haven't yet begun on rooibos for these uses. Until those are done, researchers won't know the actual risks and benefits of rooibos treatments.

Cancer

Rooibos' properties as an antioxidant and immunomodulator may make it effective against some kinds of cancer.

  • Topical rooibos has shown some promise at reducing skin tumors in mice.
  • A green rooibos extract appears to stop cell replication in prostate cancer that keeps growing despite low testosterone levels.
  • Green rooibos extract may reduce cell growth in colon cancer.

In addition, rooibos appears to protect against the side effects of chemotherapy used to treat cancer.

All of these findings are from early studies. Human trials will have to be run to see if rooibos is a safe and effective cancer treatment.

Other Potential Benefits

Early-stage research into rooibos for many other health uses is ongoing. So far, it appears promising for:

Recap

Rooibos may be useful for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, among other things, but more research on humans must be done to confirm that. Regardless, rooibos should be considered a supplement to standard care, not a replacement.

Possible Side Effects

According to most sources, rooibos is considered "likely safe" for most people when drunk regularly.

Evidence is insufficient to determine if rooibos is safe for pregnant or lactating women.

A possible shortcoming of medicinal rooibos is that it may not be absorbed well through the gut. Also, the liver may clear much of it from your blood before your body has a chance to use it.

This could mean it will take large amounts to have an effect. In rare cases, large amounts may cause liver damage.

Interactions

Supplements can have negative interactions with drugs and other supplements. A key one to be aware of: the common cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor (atorvastatin).

A study on rats suggested rooibos may increase the effects of Lipitor, meaning side effects may be more likely.

If you're taking Lipitor or a similar drug, be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking rooibos.

Rooibos tea
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak 

Dosage and Preparation

Rooibos is prepared as an infusion. Usually, eight ounces of water is poured over 1 to 2 teaspoons of tea leaves.

According to some studies, you must allow it to steep for 10 minutes in order for substances in rooibos to reach medicinal levels.

What to Look For

Rooibos is often referred to as "red tea." It's typically sold in the tea section of grocery and health-food stores. You can also find it online.

There are also products containing rooibos extracts. They come in powdered, capsule, serum, and tincture forms.

When reviewing your options, don't confuse rooibos extracts with green tea or tea tree products. These all come from different plants with different medicinal properties.

Summary

The rooibos plant may have numerous medicinal uses. It's an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and may be beneficial in heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and myriad other conditions.

Importantly, though, research has yet to move into human trials, so safety and effectiveness in humans isn't established. Talk to your doctor before adding rooibos to your healthcare regimen.

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