In the past several years, the health benefits and antioxidant properties of tea as a beverage have been getting increased attention. This can be called part of the increasing awareness of health and self-care in America. Besides which, tea’s just good. And Americans are catching on. If you couldn’t tell by the appearance of companies like Teavana hawking intricate pots to the malls of even the deepest pockets of the Midwest, here are some numbers. The U.S. market for tea has gone from $2 billion in 1990 to just over $10 billion in 2013. Given such a steep rise it’s no surprise that the industry has been changing. Nor can it be any surprise that new, formerly peripheral types of tea are now coming into focus. With that in mind, I present to you a new star in the field:
Jiaogulan (pronounced ji-ow-goo-lan), also known as gynostemma pentaphyllum and, more evocatively, the Chinese “Immortality Herb,” is a traditional medicinal tea that, despite millennia of consumption in East Asia, is very new to the U.S. The plant is a member of the same family as the cucumber and grows in vines throughout Southern China and the surrounding region.
As fascinating as the botany of the cucumber family is, the obvious standout of the above information is the whole “Immortality Herb” thing. It’s an old nickname, prominently touted in the title of a book by Dr. Jialiu Liu and Michael Blumert, first published in 1999 in which many of the most famous of the features of the herb were promoted. Blumert and Dr. Liu credited the plant with a whole host of beneficial cardiovascular and immunological effects.
According to Liu and Blumert’s claims, there’s little that jiaogulan can’t do. The plant, whether as an extract, tablet or tea, has been used to treat a laundry list of ailments, from insomnia and high cholesterol to cancer and diabetes. It’s often compared to ginseng thanks to the all-around goodness of both plants for you. Jiaogulan is known to be rich in anti-oxidants and to be an adaptogen, a group of plants (such as ginseng or holy basil) that help to normalize bodily processes in times of stress. Given the amount of chronic stress in the average adult diet, it’s no surprise that the hunt for new and better adaptogens is ongoing and enthusiastic. Jiaogulan is one of the more promising and unexplored of this class of herbal medication.
Though jiaogulan has been consumed as a tea and a supplement for thousands of years, the plant has kept a low public profile until very recently. The modern origin story of jiaogulan as told by David Winston and Steven Maimes and jiaogulan.org is that during the first Chinese national census in the 1970s the government noticed extreme longevity among the residents of Guazhou, a small mountainous province in the south of the country. Researchers concluded that the long lives of the people of this region were thanks to their traditional consumption of jiaogulan. It is only since then that the herb’s arsenal of health benefits has become the subject of serious scientific study.
Considering that it took many years after the first Chinese national census before jiaogulan came to the attention of Western scientists, doctors, and tea-drinkers, it comes as no surprise that many of the positive health impacts attributed to the tea have not been given the unconditional thumbs-up by the wearers of American lab coats. The WebMD page for the supplement is, for example, comically cautious about any overt endorsements of the effects of the plant, using several “is used for”s and “might help”s. What, exactly, the mechanisms and effects of jiaogulan are remain subjects for investigation. As with any herbal supplement, keep in mind the meaning of the word “supplement;” don’t throw out your insulin because there is some evidence that jiaogulan helps type 2 diabetes. At the same time, if you have diabetes or pretty anything else, feel free to pour yourself another cup of tea, as jiaogulan shows no signs of being harmful in regular usage and is even caffeine-free.
Despite jiaogulan’s innocuousness, the plant is illegal in Germany and much of the EU based on its newness. The term is “Novel Food,” which prevents the plant’s sale for consumption. These regulations are effectively border control for any non-native and unfamiliar foodstuffs to come into the EU after 1997 and says very little about the health effects of jiaogulan. If you happen to live in a country where such bans are in place, you should take to the street and demand your right to immortality.
It should also come as no surprise that in America jiaogulan is primarily available online, as demand is still growing. Unlike Germany, America has no bans on the sale of jiaogulan, whether as tea or tablet. Getting your hands on the stuff, however, poses a slight inconvenience due to the logistical headache of a product whose audience is still new and growing. Despite that, many suppliers are available, and the tea is not especially expensive. One company, Immortalitea, specializes in the import of jiaogulan and expansion of interest in its consumption. Immortalitea presents itself as operating within a strict farmer-friendly, sustainable framework. Check out their catalog here, where you can find the herb in loose-leaf or tablet form. Another jiaogulan specialist is Aum Tea, a Thai exporter that advertises itself as “Organic growers of the sweetest Gynostemma Pentaphyllum in Asia.” Alternatively, if you prefer the more standard methods, you can find jiaogulan on both Ebay and Amazon.
While not even the residents of Guazhou have necessarily achieved the fabled immortality that so much of jiaogulan’s PR centers on, if you are interested in enriching your health or just expanding your tea cabinet, you should think about giving jiaogulan a try.