Tea is one of those ubiquitous beverages that seem to have been around since the beginning of time. Perhaps every culture drinks tea, uses it as part of rituals, and also relies on its purported healing properties. China has been consuming tea for some 2,000 years and cultivates five distinct classes: green, red, black, oolong and pu-erh. Pu-erh is a tea unlike any other, with clinically-proven health benefits that can be attributed to a unique fermentation process.
Pu-erh, a microbially-fermented tea
Pu-erh (also spelled pu’er, po lei and bo nay) tea is served with every meal in China because it aids in digestion, promotes bowel regulation, helps shuttle fat through the digestive tract, regulates blood sugar and balances cholesterol.
Pu-erh is in a category of its own because of its special post-fermentation process. Through this process it becomes a true ‘black’ tea; the Chinese consider Assam or Darjeeling teas as ‘red’ teas.
While most teas undergo oxidation via tea plant enzymes, they are not truly fermented. Conversely, pu-erh goes through a post-fermentation process wherein active bacteria, molds, yeast and fungal cultures are added, making it microbially fermented. This unique process makes pu-erh at once unique in flavor but different in its chemical composition, thus lending itself to delivering potent healing properties.
Because pu-erh contains theophylline and the amino acid GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), it is shown useful in alleviating the symptoms of arthritis, anxiety, asthma and arteriosclerosis. Below, we’ll look at a handful of published clinical studies on the healing properties of pu-erh.
Weight loss and cholesterol suppression
A study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry which compared studies on the hypolipidemic and growth suppressive effects of oolong, black, pu-erh, and green tea leaves in rats. The study, carried out by the Wun-Shan Branch, Tea Research and Extension Station, Taipei, Taiwan, evaluated the growth suppressive and hypolipidemic effect of these four different teas on male rats for 30 weeks. The results were interesting, indeed. Oolong and Pu-erh teas had the greatest effect on “body weight suppression,” respectively. Pu-erh and oolong also had the greatest lowering effects on levels of triglycerides; but overall pu-erh was more efficient in lower the levels of total cholesterol.
Another study carried out by the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, College of Medicine National Taiwan University, Taipei, and published in the journal Oncology Research, looked at pu-erh’s effects on suppressing fatty acid synthesis (FAS). The researchers fed pu-erh tea leaves to rats and the result was a significant suppression in FAS, and suppression of body weight, levels of triacylglycerol, and total cholesterol.
Experimental Gerontology published a study on the effects of fermented and unfermented pu-erh tea on weight gain, serum levels of lipids and lipoprotein, lipid oxidation, and blood antioxidant enzymes in rats. Sponsored by the Certificate Assessment Center of Yunnan Pu-erh Tea, Kunming, Yunnan, China, researchers examined the effects of these two kinds of pu-erh against control groups. Results suggest that when compared to unfermented pu-erh and control group, fermented pu-erh tea “exerts strong antioxidative and lipid-lowering effects and therefore can be used to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disorders.”
The Department of Biotechnology, Yuanpei University, Hsinchu, Taiwan published a study in the Journal of Biological Sciences that looked at the effects of pu-erh tea and GABA on oxidative stress in kainic acid-induced status epilepticus. The results found the combination to have “neuroprotective effects against excitotoxins that may have clinical applications in epilepsy.”
China Daily newspaper published a study on pu-erh’s effective on diabetes, hailing the tea as “a wonder cure for diabetics.” Researchers from Jilin University and the Changchun Science and Technology University in China, studied the effects of pu-erh on reducing blood sugar levels. They used 20 genetically-obese lab rats with high sugar levels, feeding 10 with pu-erh tea and 10 with no tea. After 11 months, 8 rats in the non-tea fed group became diabetic and had sores before dying. All 10 rats in the pu-erh group survived the year and showed no trace of sores or diabetes.
Researchers took the information a step further, comparing pu-erh with the popular blood sugar lowering prescription drug Rosiglitazone. Two weeks into the study found the Rosiglitazone-fed rats had a blood sugar decrease of 36.5%. However, the pu-erh fed rats had a blood sugar reduction of 42%.
These results led the researchers to then conduct a human trial of the same nature. They asked 120 diabetic volunteers to “drink pu-erh regularly and stop their medicines, while making no change to their dietary habits.” Seventy percent of respondents reported a lowering of blood sugar levels to below below 7 mmol/L. The average decrease among the group was 35%.
How to enjoy pu-erh
Most often pu-erh is found tightly compressed into round ‘cake’ shapes or bricks that must be pried apart to release chunks for brewing. It is said that each layer of the tea has its own flavor and unique attributes.
Prying the tea apart can be difficult, as some pu-erh are fermented for years and very tightly packed through a special process of piling and pressing. Follow these instructions.
It seems pu-erh may indeed be a ‘miracle healing tea’ and I can attest to its great taste. I encourage you to give it a try — three times a day to experience the best results overall.