Hibiscus is a hot (but oh, so cold) herb these days. It’s been receiving a lot of attention after several studies confirmed its ability to lower both blood pressure and cholesterol. I would like to offer a more holisitc perspective on this radiant plant and how to use it.
Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), also known as roselle, is a member of the mallow family, along with marshmallow, rose of sharon and okra. It is native to Malaysia and commonly cultivated in tropical and subtropical parts of the world. It can be grown here as a warm-season annual, or as a perennial if brought inside during cooler months.
The part used is the calyx (at the base of the flower). It is traditionally made into a tart and magenta-colored tea, called sorrel in Jamaica, ‘aqua de jamaica’ in Mexico. Hibiscus tea is very cooling and refreshing in the heat of summer. By cooling, I mean that this plant has a refrigerant effect. It literally reduces the body temperature. Cooling herbs are generally anti-inflammatory (cooling to inflammation), which Hibiscus certainly is. It is high in antioxidants such as anthocyanins and polyphenols that protect cells from free radical damage. This is partly how it lowers cholesterol, which forms in response to oxidative damage.
It’s important to note that using hibiscus to treat a symptom such as high cholesterol is an allopathic approach to using herbs and this is not holisitc herbalism. Using hibiscus in this way, without making any dietary or lifestyle changes is like putting a band-aid on the problem. Addressing the root cause of oxidation is the primary goal. So before you expect hibiscus to save you from heart disease all by itself, consider giving up cigarettes, removing trans fats and hydrogenated oils from your diet, reducing the amount of sugar you consume and the amount of stress you allow into your daily life. Yoga, meditation, omega-3s and an appropriate diet for your body type, along with herbs that address your unique strengths and challenges will get you much farther along the path to wellness than a single herb or supplement alone.
That said, some amount of oxidation is unavoidable. It’s a natural byproduct of metabolism. Antioxidants are important phytochemicals that everyone should be getting regularly. And hibiscus tea is a great way to keep your body cool, hydrated and reduce oxidative damage. I’m an advocate for getting safe, tasty and healthful herbs into people’s daily lives, as prophylactics or tonics. There’s no harm in using hibiscus (see the safety considerations below for the few contraindications), as long as you don’t use it as a replacement to a pharmaceutical. Here are a few fun and delicious ways to incorporate hibiscus into your summertime routine:
Hibiscus-Blueberry jello! This recipe comes from my Ayurvedic teacher, John Immel. His website is an amazing resource for all things related to food, Ayurveda and digestion. http://www.joyfulbelly.com/Ayurveda/recipe/Hibiscus-Blueberry-Jello/22335
Tropical Hibiscus Punch: amp up Meadowsweet Botanical’s Hibiscus-Berry Herbal Tea blend by turning it into a non-alcoholic punch or cocktail. Start by making a strong brew of the tea. I like to use 1 Tbsp per 8 oz of water and simmer for 10 minutes, then remove from heat and steep for another 30 minutes, or until it reaches room temperature. Then strain and add honey to taste, followed by a slosh of pomegranate juice, a few drops of vanilla extract and a splash of orange blossom water. Garnish with a wedge of lime.
Hibiscus Kombucha: For those of you who already make kombucha, you are probably familiar with the post-fermentation flavoring process using fruit juices and such to the brew before bottling. You may or may not have experimented with using herbal teas to flavor your kombucha as well. A strong hibiscus tea, lightly sweetened and added to your brew gives your kombucha a great color and flavor. You could try this with the Hibiscus-Berry tea blend, or on its own. Other herbs that would pair well with this are: fresh ginger, elderberry or mint. The Cultured Leaf, a local kombucha brewery, makes an awesome hibiscus-elderberry kombucha that is to die for (https://www.facebook.com/culturedleaf)
Hibiscus Enchiladas: I have not tried this recipe, but it looks intriguing. If anyone does try it, let me know! http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/hibiscus-flower-enchiladas-368293
Energetics: Sweet, sour, bitter, cold
Properties: Diuretic (one mechanism for decreasing blood pressure); thins the blood (another mechanism for reducing blood pressure), antibacterial, antispasmodic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-parasite, sedative, astringent, alterative
Traditional uses: topically used as a wash for eye infections, rashes and wounds, bladder infection, cancer, constipation, cough, diarrhea, fever, hangover, hypertension, liver disorders.
With so many properties, hibiscus can be a useful ally in many situations, from itchy rashes, to wet coughs, to high blood pressure, to UTIs. What these symptoms all have in common is some combination of heat and moisture. Hibiscus’s cool and drying energetics make it best suited for pitta and kapha disorders (these are Ayurvedic terms, which I will not explain here, but if you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out my Summer Ayurvedic Workshop at Harmony Healing Arts in July.) The sour taste can increase digestive juices and decongest the liver, improving digestion and thus helping to build the blood (the red color is also an indication that an herb builds the blood). Specifically, signs of heat in the first and second chakras such as parasites or dysentery, bladder infections, or excessive menstruation due to heat.
People who are already chilled should not consume hibiscus due to its cooling properties (not a great idea to drink hibiscus tea in the winter if you live in a drafty house). And because it can lower your blood pressure, people on blood pressure medication should use hibiscus in moderation. If you do wish to use this tea therapeutically to lower your BP, you should work with your doctor to wean yourself off of medication and make sure you are taking your blood pressure daily. And people with Vata constitutions (cold and dry tendencies) should use hibiscus in moderation as it can aggravate vata.
If you would like to find out more about the therapeutic uses of hibiscus and whether it’s a good fit for you to add to your daily life, consult with your local herbalist. This information is intended for educational purposes only.