A Cup of Tea Makes Everything Better – Or Does It?

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

I am an avid supporter of tea. Having a bad day? Brew yourself a cup of tea. Just ended a long-term relationship? A cup of tea is a sure way to mend your broken heart. Stomach cramps? Tea. However, the responses of seven companies to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic have forced me to question my enduring belief in tea as the magic solution to all my problems.

What is this myth and where did it come from?

On March 9, 2020, FTC-FDA warning letters were distributed to seven companies disseminating dubious information about their coronavirus-related products.1 Among these companies were groups such as Herbal Army, Inc, offering a Coronavirus Boneset Tea, and Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd., which advertised “Essential Oils to Protect Against Coronavirus” on Twitter but has since been suspended. The latter group claimed its products were “the most powerful anti-virus essential oils to provide defence against coronavirus.” Similar claims have flourished in the frantic search for a cure-all. A Winnipeg acupuncturist, for instance, suggested that drinking a six-day treatment of herbal tea would keep people “safe” from COVID-19. Below is the email provided to customers detailing the product in question.2

Ankang Acupuncture Healing Centre, Inc

Our question: Will COVID-19 cower before a cup of tea? Will a session of aromatherapy deal the crushing blow from which the virus can never recover?

Unfortunately, it may not be as simple as that.

It is first important to establish two things that we know to be true regarding curative COVID-19 treatments, as per the current World Health Organization (WHO) clinical management guidance document (as of March 13, 2020):

  1. “There is no current evidence to recommend any specific anti-COVID-19 treatment for patients with confirmed COVID-19.”3 That means there are no proven effective therapies for COVID-19 currently in existence, pharmacologic, naturopathic or otherwise.
  2. “Investigational anti-COVID-19 therapeutics should be used only in approved, randomized, controlled trials.”3 So, it is unethical to distribute anti-COVID-19 therapies, including herbal remedies and essential oils, with curative intent when they have not been proven effective in these experimental trials.

But wait. I said it wasn’t so simple, didn’t I? Well, while there is currently no compelling evidence to support the use of herbal teas and essential oils as anti-COVID-19 treatment strategies, that is not to say there is no evidence at all in favor of their potential medicinal properties. During the SARS outbreak of 2003, an article was published in Lancet in which glycyrrhizin, a major constituent of licorice root and a frequently-used Chinese herb, was found to potently inhibit the replication of clinical isolates of SARS virus.4 In fact, traditional Chinese medicine approaches, including teas, powders and tinctures, have been found to be useful as co-adjuvant therapy (alongside Western medicine) during the 2003 outbreak, with improvement of patient symptoms (e.g. increased arterial oxygen saturation), especially during the early stages of infection.5

Alright, but just how essential are essential oils?

First, the “essential” part of an essential oil refers to the fact that oil contains the essence of the plant’s fragrance, not that it is essential in any way to the plant’s survival, or to our survival, for that matter. That being said, one group of researchers found in their investigation of the antiviral effect of 12 essential oils that the replication ability of herpes simplex virus type-1 was suppressed by incubation with 1% essential oils for 24 hours.6 However, a lengthy review of 250 essential oils suggests that while several essential oils possess demonstrated potential as antimicrobial agents, this potential was significantly weaker when compared to synthetic compounds, such as antibiotics.7

Summary

Herbal teas and essential oils certainly merit more rigorous research to determine their effectiveness in human health. Unfortunately, the evidence I cited for their antiviral potential is far from sufficient to offer an assessment of their clinical application, and in the case of COVID-19, it is unethical at best and dangerous at worse to market these products proclaiming their efficacy when there is no solid backing evidence.

Practical Tips

Keep drinking tea. Continue using essential oils safely. If these activities relieve your anxiety and improve your mood, there is no reason to stop. And if they really are potent antiviral agents, all the better. But heed my warning: these practices should not be used as a substitute for social distancing and proper personal hygiene practices. And that’s the tea.

BUST OR NO BUST:

Our myth: COVID-19 can’t get me if I drink enough herbal tea, and valiantly don my lava rock diffuser bracelet.
Result: Bust. Myth-meter = 20/100 truthfulness

Written by Nadin Abbas.

References

1. Fair L. FTC, FDA warn companies making Coronavirus claims. Federal Trade Commission [Internet]. [cited 2020 April 20]. Available from: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2020/03/ftc-fda-warn-companies-making-coronavirus-claims
2. Barghout C, Annable K. Medical experts warn against claims by Winnipeg acupuncturist advertising ‘coronavirus prevention tea.’ Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [Internet]. [cited 2020 April 20]. Available from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/covid19-winnipeg-tea-1.5508703
3. World Health Organization. Clinical management of severe acute respiratory infection when COVID-19 is suspected. Updated March 13, 2020. Accessed March 18, 2020. https://www.who.int/publications-detail/clinical-management-of-severe-acute-respiratory-infection-when-novel-coronavirus-(ncov)-infection-is-suspected
4. Cinatl J, Morgenstern B, Bauer G, Chandra P, Rabenau H, Doerr HW. Glycyrrhizin, an active component of liquorice roots, and replication of SARS-associated coronavirus. Lancet. 2003 Jun;361(9374):2045-6. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(03)13615-x
5. Luo Y, Wang CZ, Hesse-Fong J, Lin JG, Yuan CS. Application of Chinese medicine in acute and critical medical conditions. Am J Chin Med. 2019;47(6):1223–35. https://doi.org/10.1142/S0192415X19500629
6. Minami M, Kita M, Nakaya T, Yamamoto T, Kuriyama H, Imanishi J. The inhibitory effect of essential oils on herpes simplex virus type-1 replication in vitro. Microbiol Immuol. 2003 Nov;47(9):681-4. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1348-0421.2003.tb03431.x
7. Winska K, Maczka W, Lyczko J, Grabarcyzk M, Czubaszek A, Szumny A. Essential oilas as antimicrobial agents – Myth or real alternative? Molecules. 2019 Jun;24(11):2130. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules24112130