Rooted in South African culture, generations have been using rooibos as a remedy for insomnia, allergies, and gut problems. It can reduce blood sugar, protect the heart, improve skin health, and more. Rooibos is caffeine-free and rich in antioxidants. Read on to learn its health benefits, potential side effects, and interesting recipes.
What is Rooibos?
Over 300 years ago, the indigenous people of South Africa’s Western Cape were collecting wild growing shrubs and using it to make tea. After cutting, fermenting, and sun-drying the plant, they brewed it into a deep-red, sweet-tasting drink. People named it rooibos, which means the “red bush” in Afrikaans .
Rooibos tea is made from the stem and leaves of Aspalathus linearis shrub. Native only to South Africa, rooibos is made of over 200 varieties that carry green needle-shaped leaves and bloom small yellow flowers .
While first cultivated as a crop in the 1930s, rooibos is now exported to over 31 countries around the globe .
Throughout generations, the natives of South Africa have used red rooibos for insomnia, anxiety, allergies, asthma, colic in infants, and lack of appetite [3, 4].
In recent years, the naturally caffeine-free rooibos tea has become a favorite among tea-lovers worldwide. Its pleasant taste coupled with its health benefits triggered a surge in its popularity and a huge export boom. You can now find it in almost any store or cafe.
- High in antioxidants
- May support heart health
- Helps lower blood sugar
- Low in antinutrients
- Improves skin health
- Few human studies
- High doses might be toxic to the liver
- May be contaminated with bacteria
- Possible drug interactions
Taste & Varieties
To make tea, rooibos leaves and stems are first harvested throughout the summer months. The next step is to either ferment or dry it, which will create two distinct types of rooibos tea .
The tea produced from fermented rooibos leaves is called red tea. During fermentation, green leaves turn a deep red color. Fermentation gives the tea a strong sweet and fruity taste with a rich, nutty-like smell.
Tea from dried, unfermented rooibos leaves is green in color. It has an earthy, herbal-like taste, similar to green tea but not as astringent.
Both varieties are naturally caffeine-free. This makes rooibos a great choice for people who want to limit caffeine intake or avoid its stimulating effects .
Benefits of Rooibos Tea
1) High in Antioxidants
Rooibos tea is an antioxidant powerhouse. Its main antioxidants belong to the large family of polyphenols, including all the following [5, 6]:
- Flavonoids: aspalathin, chrysoeriol, quercetin, rutin, orientin, luteolin, and vitexin
- Phenolic acids: caffeic acid, syringic acid, ferulic acid, and vanillic acid
One cup (150-200 mL) of rooibos tea will give you up to 80 mg of polyphenols. The unfermented (green variety) of rooibos is even richer in these compounds .
Antioxidants are vital for good health. They act as a defense mechanism against oxidative stress that causes free radical damage in the body. Oxidative stress is one of the root causes of chronic disease and inflammation .
Drinking red rooibos tea significantly increases blood antioxidant levels. Antioxidants from the tea combat oxidative stress and reduce the risk of diseases like cancer and diabetes [9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15].
In animal studies, rooibos reduced liver damage and markers of inflammation (TNF-alpha, IL-1b, IL-6). The tea and extract restored liver function and increased key antioxidants (glutathione, catalase, superoxide dismutase) [16, 17].
Rooibos antioxidants might also enhance your brain health. In rats with poor brain blood flow, rooibos tea limited brain cell death and lessened anxiety by lowering oxidative stress .
2) Low in Antinutrients (Oxalic Acid and Tannins)
Found in nutrient-dense foods, antinutrients block the absorption of vitamins and minerals. They may also trigger autoimmune reactions in sensitive people .
Black and green teas are a source of two antinutrients: tannins and oxalic acid. High tannin content gives green and black tea their distinct astringent taste .
Tannins and oxalic acid can interfere with iron absorption, worsen autoimmunity, impair nutrient digestion, and increase the risk of kidney stones. Rooibos tea is low both in tannins and oxalic acid [21, 22, 23, 24, 25].
Drinking rooibos tea did not interfere with iron absorption in healthy young men. By comparison, men who drank black tea had much lower iron absorption levels (1.7% black tea vs. 7.25% rooibos tea) .
3) Skin Health
Red rooibos is a popular cosmetic ingredient in products that promise to fight aging and keep acne at bay.
Numerous claims of red rooibos enhancing skin health mention its vitamin C and zinc content. In actuality, red rooibos contains little of either, and it’s skin-boosting properties are most likely due to high antioxidant levels .
Polyphenols keep your skin looking young and healthy. They can protect it from UV-rays, reduce premature aging, and they may even halt the development of skin cancer .
In a clinical trial, applying a cosmetic mixture made out of black tea and red rooibos for a month reduced wrinkles by 10% .
In cells and animal studies, rooibos extract promoted wound healing and prevented skin tumor growth in 60% of the cases [30, 31].
4) Heart Health
Regular intake of flavonoids is linked to better heart health and lower rates of heart disease .
Rooibos tea, a rich source of flavonoids, may support heart health by :
- Lowering blood pressure
- Lowering stress-linked hormone cortisol
- Decreasing oxidative stress
- Improving cholesterol levels
Drinking rooibos tea daily for 6 weeks in 40 adults at risk for heart disease significantly increased flavonoid levels in the blood and upped the antioxidant glutathione. Tea drinkers also had higher HDL (good) and reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol .
Rooibos tea also lowered blood pressure and protected the heart in rats [35, 36].
Polyphenols from red rooibos (aspalathin and nothofagin) reduced inflammation in cells and diabetic mice. Animals that consumed these polyphenols had more flexible and less inflamed blood vessels [37, 38].
5) Blood Sugar Levels
Red rooibos tea may help lower high blood sugar levels. In a clinical study, people who drank rooibos tea instead of water after a meal had lower blood sugar. Rooibos also reduced their insulin, total, and LDL cholesterol levels while increasing antioxidants .
In diabetic animals, aspalathin-rich rooibos extract reduced blood sugar levels and improved insulin sensitivity. Interestingly, the effect of red rooibos extract on blood sugar levels was comparable to the widely-used anti-diabetic drug metformin [40, 41].
People with diabetes suffer from inflammation and are at a high risk of stroke and heart disease. Polyphenols from red rooibos (aspalathin and nothofagin) reduced inflammation in cells and diabetic mice. Animals that consumed these polyphenols had more flexible and less inflamed blood vessels [37, 38].
Animal and Cellular Research (Lacking Evidence)
No clinical evidence supports the use of rooibos tea for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies listed below should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.
In cell and animal experiments, aspalathin, a flavonoid found only in rooibos tea, showed promising weight loss potential .
Unfermented green rooibos extract enhanced weight loss in animals; it also reduced blood cholesterol and triglycerides and prevented fat buildup in the liver .
In test tubes, aspalathin and other rooibos tea polyphenols prevented the growth and storage of fat cells [44, 45, 46].
Polyphenols in the red rooibos tea might prevent fat cell buildup in two ways :
- Inhibiting PPAR-gamma (PPAR-γ)
- Activating AMPK
However, in the lack of clinical evidence, rooibos tea can’t be recommended as an effective complementary approach to weight loss.
Pain and Inflammation
Flavonoids from red rooibos (aspalathin and luteolin) reduced inflammation in cells and animals with liver damage, multiple sclerosis, limb injury, and heart damage caused by toxins [17, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52].
Red rooibos tea might help combat inflammation and pain by inhibiting the following pathways:
Clinical studies are needed to confirm this benefit.
Traditionally, rooibos tea has been used as an aid to help with stomach discomfort and colicky pain in babies.
In animal studies, rooibos tea alleviated symptoms of colitis, reducing gut spasms and diarrhea [53, 54].
Traditional Benefits Lacking Evidence
Many health claims about rooibos are based only on anecdotal evidence.
Rooibos tea has been traditionally used as a folk remedy to help with :
- Asthma and allergies
- Infant colic
- Eczema and diaper rash
- Enhancing immune function
At this point, there’s no valid research to support these claims.
Rooibos Tea Side Effects & Safety
Pregnant women can enjoy rooibos tea as it is high in beneficial compounds and caffeine-free. Caffeine intake during pregnancy is discouraged byw many health professionals .
However, if you are pregnant, always talk to your doctor before introducing new foods and supplements to your diet.
According to two reported cases, drinking rooibos might be toxic to the liver.
A woman who consumed 1L of rooibos tea for 10 days had symptoms of liver toxicity: elevated liver enzymes (ALT, GGT, and ASP) and fatty liver .
When a man drank an herbal tea mixture of rooibos and buchu, he developed signs of acute hepatitis and liver failure. He recovered once he stopped drinking the tea .
It’s hard to make conclusions based on individual case reports, but caution is warranted.
During processing, rooibos tea may get contaminated with bacteria like salmonella .
Salmonella is one of the leading causes of food poisoning and causes symptoms like fever, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting .
If you are looking to purchase rooibos tea, it is important to choose a safe and reliable source.
Red rooibos tea contains phytoestrogens (isovitexin, luteolin-7-glucoside, and nothofagin). These are natural compounds that mimic the female sex hormone estrogen .
That said, red rooibos tea contains miniscule amounts of phytoestrogens and no hormonal side effects have been reported.
Due to its ability to lower blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure, rooibos tea might interact with the following drugs :
- Antidiabetics: Thiazolidinediones (TZDs), sulfonylureas
- Cholesterol-lowering (statin): atorvastatin
- Blood pressure: ACE inhibitors
How to Use Rooibos
If you purchased rooibos leaves, follow these steps:
- Add a teaspoon of the leaves directly to a cup of water and boil together for 10-15 minutes
- Reduce the heat and strain
- Alternatively, pour a cup of hot water over 1 teaspoonful of dried leaves and allow it to steep for 7-10 minutes and strain
- Add some honey, cinnamon or milk for taste.
Making rooibos with teabags is even easier. Simply pour hot water over and let it steep for 10-15 minutes before taking the teabags out.
Rooibos Kombucha: A Combo with Added Benefits
If you want to supercharge the benefits of red rooibos, try making rooibos kombucha.
Kombucha is usually made from black tea, sugar, and a starter culture (SCOBY). Black tea is a key component in kombucha fermentation. Yeast and bacteria require sugar and tea nutrients like caffeine to multiply and grow.
If you have never made kombucha before, make sure you’re familiar with the basics first.
Before you attempt to make rooibos kombucha, make at least 4 batches of kombucha with black, caffeine-rich tea. This will keep your SCOBY healthy and strong enough to turn caffeine-free rooibos into kombucha.
So how do you brew a rooibos kombucha?
- Start with a healthy SCOBY brewed from black tea
- Brew rooibos: add 4 tbsp. tea leaves to 1 gallon of water
- Boil for 10 minutes
- Add 1 cup of sugar to the tea
- Let the tea cool down
- Place SCOBY in your glass jar and add warm (NOT hot) rooibos tea
- Cover with a cloth and store in a dark, warm place
- Brew for 6-14 days
- Strain (with a coffee filter or cheesecloth)
This recipe uses 1 gallon of tea (~3.3L), but you can adjust it to your needs and jar size.
It’s possible to make kombucha just with rooibos tea, but have in mind that your SCOBY might grow slower and your brew will be less strong. If you’re not sensitive to caffeine, mix kombucha and rooibos half and half to stay on the safe side.
Rooibos is a delicious, antioxidant-rich, caffeine-free tea. The surge in its popularity in the West is not without a reason: research reveals rooibos may protect the heart, lower blood sugar, and improve skin health. People also use it for weight loss and digestive issues, but there’s no clinical research to back this up.
If you’re a DIY person, consider adding some rooibos tea to your next kombucha batch to supercharge the benefits. The main danger to watch out for is bacterial contamination and blends with other herbs you may react to.