Herbal Spotlight: A Look Into Hibiscus
Hibiscus. Even the name sounds exotic. This lovely, tropical-looking flower is a beautiful sight to behold, not only for its looks but also for its medicinal effects for our body.
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When brewed into a crimson tea, its tart (if not sour) flavor, comparable to cranberry, can soon become one of the most powerful gifts from nature.
The earliest records of hibiscus date back to Flemish botanist M de l’Obel in 1576, with oral consumption (i.e., as a tea) tracing to around 1682 in Java. 
Hibiscus goes by many names and forms, from red sorrel to agua de Jamaica, roselle, Bissap, Lo-Shen, Sudan, and Karkade.  As a healing tonic, it’s been used all throughout India, Africa, Central American, China, and the Caribbean.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), hibiscus leaves are used as a topical treatment for shingles.  Symbolically the red hibiscus flower is associated with the Hindu goddess Kali. 
Nutritionally speaking, hibiscus is a rich source of Vitamin C, with trace amounts of amino acids, iron, potassium, and other minerals. 
No matter the historical use or nutritional benefits, there’s something to be said about the simplicity of a nice cup of tea. Furthermore, most of us today are familiar with hibiscus in the form of iced tea, brewed on the front porch in the midst of a hot summer afternoon.
So make yourself a cup and read on if you are indeed curious as to what this gorgeous flower can do for you.
Consuming hibiscus tea can help to lower blood pressure, according to several studies. In hypertensive rats, hibiscus was shown to have anti-hypertensive and cardioprotective properties. (In other words, it helped to lower their blood pressure and keep their heart healthy.)  According to a Tufts University study from Boston, hibiscus was able to lower blood pressure by as much as 10 points, on the condition that one consumes three cups on a daily basis for at least six weeks in order for this effect to occur.  In the same study, researchers discovered that the tea’s beneficial properties could be compromised if it’s consumed with excess sugar or milk. The sugar of course makes it a possible risk for obesity if consumed in excess. However, the fat content of the milk is what’s the most intriguing. It turns out that the healthy flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) in hibiscus interact with the milk fat in an effort to keep them from oxidizing. Which leaves you with less beneficial flavonoids. The solution? Stick with plain water (or at the very least, skim milk). And if you’re looking to increase the antioxidant concentration in hibiscus, it’s recommended to let it steep for a longer time as well as include an additional tea bag.
A final noteworthy study from Nigeria found that hibiscus tea performed even better than the blood-pressure lowering medication hydrochlorothiazide, while also maintaining a healthy electrolyte balance in the body (which some of these medications can disrupt). 
At least in a clinical setting, hibiscus tea was shown to have a “significant effect on blood lipid profile in patients with diabetes”. Participants were instructed to consume hibiscus (or sour tea, as it’s referred to in the study) twice a day for one month. In the end, they managed to lower their cholesterol, triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, all of which are heavily involved in diabetes. 
One review by the University of Arizona found that in over 10 countries using hibiscus tea as a “normal” treatment for hypertension patients were able to lower both their blood pressure and cholesterol without any adverse effects. 
The brightly colored pigments in hibiscus include anthocyanins, which research suggests may help to prevent oxidative damage, particularly in the liver. Anthocyanins are antioxidants, functioning as a shield against free radicals and neutralizing their damaging effects on our cells and body. It comes to reason that antioxidants may just help to take hold of the hands of time- or at least slow them down- when it comes to aging! 
Whether you’re looking to reach or maintain a healthy weight, hibiscus is a useful tool to have in your arsenal. In rats, extracts of hibiscus were shown to act as an anti-obesity agent, encouraging weight loss.  Another study involving 36 overweight participants tested hibiscus extract against a placebo to see if it had any effects towards weight. At the end of a 12-week period, the participants who’d taken the extract were able to reduce their body weight, body fat, body mass index (BMI), hip-to-waist ratio, and fatty liver to boot! 
So how was hibiscus able to do this? Well, according to one study, hibiscus extract was found to carry potential “blocking” effects on starch and sugar- based foods.  In it, it was found that hibiscus had a way of halting the production of the enzyme amylase, which is responsible for the digestion of carbohydrates. However, it should be noted that these effects were done in conjunction with other ingredients including apple extract, green tea, bean extract, L-arabinose and Gymnema sylvestre.
OK, so there isn’t a magical ‘weight loss tea’ that’s going to grant you instant results, but it doesn’t hurt to adopt healthier habits like drinking tea! (Provided you’re not turning it into a sugar bomb, of course.)
According to a small study, the antioxidant content of hibiscus may also impact the microbiome (aka, the gut) in a healthy manner. The polyphenols (antioxidants) in it not only feed us, but also our friendly bacteria, which play a huge role in maintaining optimal digestion, immunity, and mood, amongst others.  Hibiscus tea also has anti-spasmodic effects that help to reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It’s also a diuretic (thanks to its natural fruit acid content) and can improve both bowel and bladder function.  So if the dreaded bloat is getting you down, make yourself a cup and sip throughout the day.
Kidney Stone Prevention
Due to its aforementioned diuretic effects, hibiscus has also gained the attention of researchers looking for a means to prevent kidney stones. At least in lab settings hibiscus was shown to have “anti-urolithiatic” properties, helping to lower the instances of specific compounds that make kidney stones. 
This beautiful has a bite! Extracts of hibiscus prepared in a lab were shown to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, especially MRSA.  Continuing with lab studies, hibiscus has also been shown to deactivate E. Coli and Staph when administered in milk (this was tested in both full fat and skim milk).  So while you should always check with a doctor in the case of an infection, you can help to even the odds by adding some hibiscus to your microbe-fighting regimen.
Treat the blues with some hibiscus red! The flavonoids found in hibiscus have been shown to exhibit anti-depressant effects on mice undergoing stress-inducing behavioral tests.  Once again, this is by no means a cure-all or magic in a bottle, but it always helps to start with nature first before taking the next step. You can even combine it with other mood-lifting herbs and teas (such as lavender, chamomile, lemon balm, and skullcap, amongst others) if that suits your fancy.
Disclaimer: Do NOT, by any means, take this as medical advice. By no means am I saying you should forgo treatment for cancer. I’m simply showing you the power of nature, and where science could be headed in the coming years. In the case of hibiscus, there’s promising research to show its capabilities of slowing down cancer cell growth by way of inducing apoptosis (also known as programmed cell death). That’s because hibiscus contains protocatechuic acid, which has both anti-tumor and antioxidant properties.  So once again, please do not take this as a prescription. Stick with your doctor, but also have faith that nature’s got your back. Science will soon be catching up, and may start to incorporate herbs and extracts such as hibiscus in addition to conventional treatment.
More Antioxidant Love
When it comes to antioxidants, usually we think of fruits and vegetables, or exotic superfoods. Unlike say goji berries or watercress, hibiscus is one of the most common antioxidants that’s been hiding right underneath your nose. We’ve covered how its antioxidant effects impact liver health, depression, gut health, and blood pressure. But did you know that it could overall boost your defenses against oxidative damage?
While used in a concentrated dose on rats, one animal study found that hibiscus extract caused some amazing side effects. In it, the administration of hibiscus extract on rats increased their antioxidant enzymes while at the same time decreasing free radical activity by up to 92%! 
There are just a few things to keep in mind before consuming hibiscus tea.
First of all, if you’re on any blood pressure or blood sugar medications, you may want to talk with your doctor to see if hibiscus is safe for you. There’s a chance it can interfere with (if it not enhance) the effects of any of these medications. 
Secondly, patients are advised to stop consuming hibiscus at least two weeks before surgery. 
Taking hibiscus before Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) might increase how quickly the body gets rid of Acetaminophen. (But more info is needed to confirm this.) It may also interfere with Cytochrome P450-based medications.  Avoid consuming hibiscus when taking chloroquine for malaria, since it can diminish medication absorption. 
For pregnant women out there, hibiscus may possibly unsafe due to its potential to cause premature labor.  Nursing women should also check with their healthcare practitioner before consuming it. 
Finally, overdosing on hibiscus may become toxic to the liver, however this was shown in concentrated extracts, not tea.  Moreover, you’d have to consume an obscene amount of hibiscus in order for this to happen. You’ll find that for the most part consuming at least a few cups a day is the safest route to go, as most sources heartily recommend drinking somewhere between 3-4 cups. So practice moderation!