Why Tea: The Science Behind the Steam

by Ben LeVine

Imagine waking up to a dystopian world where your roasted and rich morning cup of coffee was replaced by a white pill containing 5 cups worth of powdered caffeine. Your daily pleasures taken away, standardized, tasteless; take 3x a day. This seems to be the case in the world of adaptogens. Admittedly, I’m taking this to an extreme, but walk through any natural food stores and find the aisle dedicated to adaptogenic extracts, tinctures, powders, and pills. You’ll rarely, if ever, see tea. Part of our mission here at Taproot Adaptogen Tea is to change that.

Coffee tastes great and its main attraction—caffeine—is highly soluble in hot water. Can the same be said for adaptogens? Or are they best suited for highly standardized extracts sold in pill bottles?   

Traditional Use

Before the age of isolates and synthetic pharmaceuticals, the most common and traditional way of consuming adaptogens was as a tea.1 All of the common adaptogens are effective and functional as strong teas, though some better than others. Besides tea, many adaptogens also have unique culturally derived preparations. Hunters in the deep woods of Siberia have been known to take long swigs of Rhodiola-infused vodka. Ashwagandha, a primary Ayurvedic tonic, can be boiled down in a mixture of milk and ghee to make a medicinally potent paste. Both vodka and milk extract a different profile of chemicals from the plants due to the compounds’ varying degrees of solubility in water, fat and alcohol.

While the consumption options are many, traditional use of herbs respects the synergy of the whole herb, something research is now confirming as a smart idea. Finding the most active constituent, isolating and extracting it often produces an inferior product when compared to consuming the full spectrum of plant compounds. Bioavailability, for example, is often severely compromised in isolates. It seems that in nature these active compounds often have associated molecules that act as bodyguards, shuffling the stars safely through the threatening gut and into the bloodstream.2 Herbalist Lisa Ganora also notes that “time-tested information regarding the safety and efficacy of traditional products may not necessarily apply to contemporary extracts with significantly altered phytochemical profiles.”3

The Chemistry

While phytochemistry is a complex and ever-changing field, the research into adaptogens in the last 70 years has concluded that as a class, adaptogens commonly share several medicinal compounds: saponins, immunomodulating polysaccharides and polyphenols.

Saponins (both triterpenoid and steroidal) are arguably the main active compounds responsible for adaptogenic effects. They are not only readily water-soluble, but can even increase the solubility of compounds that normally don’t dissolve in water!4 Several eleutherosides, compounds unique to adaptogenic herb Eleuthero, are triterpenoid saponins thought to provide the improved stamina and stress resistance associated with this super herb.5

Immunomodulating polysaccharides are a class of water-soluble polysaccharides that stimulate and regulate the immune system. Ganora states: “Adaptogenic herbs are traditionally understood to help maintain health and vitality by increasing resistance to infection and stress, while discouraging the development of chronic disease. Some of this activity can be ascribed to the antioxidant, immunomodulatory, and anti-inflammatory properties of their polysaccharide constituents.”6

Lastly, polyphenols are well known to all of us as the potent antioxidants found in green tea, wine, chocolate and all those other fruits and vegetables.7 Over 8000 polyphenols have been identified throughout the plant kingdom, and most found in adaptogens are hot water soluble. Polyphenols found in Rhodiola—called rosavins—contribute the majority of the root’s adaptogenic activity, including increased stamina, energy and mental acuity.8

Luxury of Choice

While we are building a case for hot water extraction (a.k.a. well-steeped tea), teas, tinctures and other extracts are of course not mutually exclusive. Though I enjoy tea as my daily ritual, I’m thankful for isolates in severe situations. In fact, some estimates claim up to 50% of our pharmaceuticals are derived from or inspired by herbs!9

Tinctures and other whole plant extracts are also effective and can be used side-by-side with tea. Schisandra is traditionally consumed as a tea, which happens to be the best extraction method for its immune-supporting polysaccharides, but the berry also contains lignans. Lignans, with potent liver-protecting effects, are best extracted in alcohol and can be efficiently delivered via tincture.10 So here we see that taking a tea and a tincture of the same herb can often deliver very different and complementary sets of benefits.   

In a future post we’ll delve deep into another reason for tea: the primal potency of taste and smell. But for now we’ll sit back with a hot mug, infused with a feeling that we’re honoring a long lineage of tea drinkers by supporting our health and vitality.

Brew well.


Winston, D., & Maimes, S. (2007). Adaptogens: herbs for strength, stamina, and stress relief. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 253.

Bone, K., & Mills, S. (2013). Principles and practice of phytotherapy: modern herbal medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, 64. 

Ganora, L. (2009). Herbal constituents: foundations of phytochemistry: a holistic approach for students and practitioners of botanical medicine. Louisville, CO: Herbalchem Press, 61.

4 Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism the science and practice of herbal medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 79.

5 Ganora, L. (2009). Herbal constituents: foundations of phytochemistry: a holistic approach for students and practitioners of botanical medicine. Louisville, CO: Herbalchem Press, 142, 81, 109.

6 Ibid

7 These potent antioxidants are actually a subclass of polyphenols called flavonoids. There are many different classes of polyphenols, all producing very different actions in our bodies. 

8 Ganora, L. (2009). Herbal constituents: foundations of phytochemistry: a holistic approach for students and practitioners of botanical medicine. Louisville, CO: Herbalchem Press, 109.

Veeresham, C. (2012). Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology & Research, 3(4), 200. doi:10.4103/2231-4040.104709

10    North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. (2006). Materia Medica Intensive: Disk 15 Adaptogens [CD]. Boulder.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published