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To maintain a healthy gut this holiday season, drink Rooibos

From cocktail parties and Christmas feasts to New Year’s Eve festivities, the end-of-year holidays are synonymous with social gatherings and delicious, but often rich and indulgent food and alcoholic excesses that can become a challenge for the digestive system.

Researchers claim that herbal drinks, like Rooibos, which is indigenous to South Africa and derived from the leaves of the Aspalathus linearis plant, may prove useful in alleviating discomfort from overeating.

Dr Hanel Sadie-Van Gijsen, a senior researcher at the Centre for Cardiometabolic Research in Africa (CARMA) within the Division of Medical Physiology at Stellenbosch University, says recent studies have demonstrated that Rooibos can improve various aspects of gut health and digestion, while alleviating inflammation and discomfort. 

She says one of the most prominent traditional uses of Rooibos was to treat a variety of stomach and gut ailments, but until recently the scientific basis for this has not been studied in much detail. However, recent studies conducted by Stellenbosch University (SU), the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), along with other international research centres focused on nutrition, microbiology and health sciences all demonstrate a variety of actions that Rooibos exert in the gut that not only aids digestion, but also improves overall health and assists with disease management.

The gut microbiome is the collective name for all the micro-organisms that live in our digestive system, but they mostly reside in the colon (large intestine).

Dr Sadie-Van Gijsen says while the gut microbiome is technically not a physical part of our bodies, the function of it is so crucial to our health and well-being that we must view it as part of our bodies, and we must take care of it accordingly.

“A healthy gut microbiome helps us to efficiently extract nutrients from our food, it assists in our immune response, supports the intestinal barrier function, reduces intestinal inflammation, improves metabolic function and even protects our brain health.

“Rooibos, which is rich in polyphenols – a large family of plant bioactive compounds – has a proven prebiotic effect, which supports the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, whilst restoring and maintaining intestinal balance. Polyphenols in Rooibos have a double benefit in that they inhibit the growth of harmful gut bacteria and stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. This prebiotic effect of Rooibos polyphenols has also been shown to reduce blood markers of inflammation, therefore lowering the risk of disease.

“Beyond the impact of Rooibos on gut bacteria, the tisane also has several other advantageous effects in the gut. Researchers at UKZN have shown that hot water infusions prepared from fermented (red) Rooibos tea bags (essentially how we would prepare a cup of tea at home) inhibited glucose uptake by the intestine. This action may assist in blood glucose control.

“Work performed in India found that orientin, a polyphenol found in both green and fermented Rooibos, successfully inhibited chemically-induced colorectal cancer in mice. Other studies have shown that fermented Rooibos has anti-cramping and anti-diarrheal effects, by balancing the actions of potassium and calcium ions in the gut, thereby achieving smooth muscle relaxation. Rooibos also reduces intestinal fluid release to alleviate diarrhoea.” 

She says as the field of gut health and probiotic/prebiotics continues to evolve, more research on Rooibos’ actions in the gut and microbiota is sure to build on the existing evidence, which suggest that Rooibos can safely be consumed by adults and children as a daily support for gut health, in combination with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle practices.

Here’s a snapshot of how Rooibos can support gut health these holidays:

  1. Anti-inflammatory properties: Rooibos contains polyphenols such as flavonoids and dihydrochalcones that possess anti-inflammatory properties. These compounds may help reduce inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially easing digestive discomfort.
  2. Antioxidant effects: The antioxidants present in Rooibos, such as quercetin and aspalathin (in green Rooibos), can help neutralise harmful free radicals in the body. By reducing oxidative stress, the tisane may contribute to overall gut health.
  3. Prebiotic potential: Rooibos’ bio-active compounds act as prebiotics, supporting the growth and activity of beneficial gut bacteria. This could contribute to a healthier gut microbiome and improve overall metabolic health.
  4. Relieving tummy turmoil: Rooibos has anti-spasmodic properties, which means it can relieve cramping of the stomach and intestines. Being caffeine-free, Rooibos also normalises intestinal fluid release and together with its prebiotic effects, these actions can help alleviate diarrhoea.
  5. No oxalic acid: Unlike some other teas, Rooibos does not contain oxalic acid, which in excessive amounts might contribute to kidney stones or interfere with mineral absorption. This absence makes it a favourable choice for those concerned about these issues.