By Dr. Mercola
Herbal teas can be a rich source of beneficial compounds like polyphenols and flavonoids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Simply sipping a cup here and there, without leading an accompanying healthy lifestyle, may not make a major difference in your health, but among people in Greece, many of whom follow a healthy Mediterranean diet, herbal tea turned out to be quite protective against cancer.
Three types of herbal tea stood out for their anti-cancer potential, but out of the varieties (chamomile, sage, and mountain teas), chamomile took center stage, outshining the other two in terms of cancer prevention.
Drinking Chamomile Tea May Reduce Thyroid Cancer Risk by Up to 80 Percent
Rates of thyroid cancer are significantly lower in Greece than they are in the US and Europe. In Greece, about 1.6 per every 100,000 people are diagnosed with thyroid cancer each year, compared to rates of 13.2 and 5.2 per 100,000 in the US and Europe, respectively.1
In addition to the fresh vegetables and healthy fats upon which the Mediterranean diet is centered, Athens residents often enjoy herbal tea, and the study found that the more chamomile tea consumed, the lower the risk of thyroid cancer became.
Specifically, those who drank chamomile tea two to six times a week had a 70 percent lower risk of developing thyroid abnormalities while those who drank it regularly for 30 years had an 80 percent lower risk.2 According to the study:
"Although in the last decade several studies have addressed the protective role of black and green tea on several diseases, including cancer, there are only few and controversial studies on the effect of tea on benign and malignant thyroid diseases.
…Our findings suggest for the first time that drinking herbal teas, especially chamomile, protects from thyroid cancer as well as other benign thyroid diseases."
Chamomile Contains the Anti-Cancer Flavonoid Apigenin
It's likely that naturally occurring flavonoids, such as apigenin, are responsible for some of chamomile's anti-cancer effects. Apigenin, which is found in chamomile as well as in celery, parsley, fruits, and other vegetables and herbs, slowed cancer growth and shrank cancerous tumors in animal studies.
When mice that were implanted with cells of a particularly deadly, fast-growing human breast cancer were treated with apigenin, the cancerous growth slowed and the tumors shrank.3
Blood vessels feeding the cancer tumors also shrank and restricted nutrient flow to the tumor cells, starving them of the nutrients needed to spread. A study conducted in 2011 also showed similarly promising results; when rats with breast cancer were treated with apigenin, they developed fewer tumors and had significant delays in tumor formation.
Again in 2013, apigenin was shown to block the ability of breast cancer cells to inhibit their own deaths. Interestingly, the compound was also found to bind to 160 proteins in the human body, which suggests it has far-reaching health effects (unlike pharmaceutical drugs, which typically only have one specific target). The researchers explained:4
"…in contrast to small-molecule pharmaceuticals designed for defined target specificity, dietary phytochemicals affect a large number of cellular targets with varied affinities that, combined, result in their recognized health benefits."
7 Health Benefits of Chamomile
This soothing herb has a long history of traditional use, including by the father of medicine himself, Hippocrates. Chamomile is typically used in the form of infusions, liquid extracts, or essential oils made from the plant's fresh or dried flower heads.
Beyond potentially playing a role in thyroid-cancer prevention, chamomile, which comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, has multiple pharmacological actions, including:5
Antibacterial Antifungal Anti-inflammatory Antispasmodic Anti-ulcer Antiviral Sedative effects
In addition, chamomile may help with the following conditions:6
1. Wounds and Insect Bites
Chamomile is one of the most soothing herbs of all, whether used in a tea or applied to your skin. It is rich in the bioflavonoids apigenin, luteolin, and quercetin, and was valued by ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians as a salve for wound treatment.
Research shows rats that drank chamomile water healed faster than those who did not, possibly due to the herb's anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant effects.7 Chamomile has even been shown to cause complete wound healing faster than corticosteroids.8
Chamomile tea may be a particularly good choice for diabetics, as one animal study showed it lead to significant decreases in blood glucose levels among diabetic rats, while also lowering the risk of diabetic complications including diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage), cataracts, vision damage, and kidney damage.9
According to Molecular Medicine Reports:10
"Studies suggest that chamomile ameliorates hyperglycemia and diabetic complications by suppressing blood sugar levels… [and] increasing liver glycogen storage…"
3. Muscle Spasms, Stress, and Anxiety Relief
Chamomile tea raises your levels of glycine, which helps calm muscle spasms.11 Glycine is also a nerve relaxant, which may explain why chamomile is also effective for stress and anxiety relief.12 Traditionally, chamomile tea is also recommended for soothing menstrual cramps.
Chamomile has sedative effects that may help with sleep, which is why chamomile tea is often sipped before bed. One study found that people with insomnia who took a chamomile supplement had improvements in daytime functioning and potential benefits on sleep measures as well.13 According to Molecular Medicine Reports:14
"Chamomile is widely regarded as a mild tranquillizer and sleep-inducer. Sedative effects may be due to the flavonoid, apigenin that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain.
Studies in preclinical models have shown anticonvulsant and CNS [central nervous system] depressant effects respectively… 10 cardiac patients are reported to have immediately fallen into a deep sleep lasting for 90 minutes after drinking chamomile tea."
5. Digestive Upset
As a muscle relaxant, chamomile may help to soothe an upset stomach and may even be beneficial for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).15 Molecular Medicine Reports noted:16
"Chamomile is used traditionally for numerous gastrointestinal conditions, including digestive disorders, 'spasm' or colic, upset stomach, flatulence (gas), ulcers, and gastrointestinal irritation. Chamomile is especially helpful in dispelling gas, soothing the stomach, and relaxing the muscles that move food through the intestines."
Chamomile has powerful anti-inflammatory effects, and a chamomile ointment may help improve hemorrhoids. Chamomile can also be used in tincture form as part of a sitz bath for hemorrhoid relief.17
7. Skin Irritation
Chamomile's soothing effects don't stop at your mood. Due to its anti-inflammatory effects, chamomile is often used to treat skin irritations such as sunburn and rashes, and it may help with conditions such as eczema as well. In one eczema study, chamomile was found to be about 60 percent as effective as hydrocortisone cream.18
Is Chamomile an All-Around Health Tonic?
Chamomile is one of the most popular herbal teas worldwide. In the US alone, up to 1 million pounds of chamomile are imported each year, about 90 percent of which is used for teas.19 As is the case with most herbs, it appears chamomile is useful for a wide variety of health complaints while providing broad healing effects. In Germany, chamomile is approved for use to reduce skin swelling and stomach cramps.20
The American Botanical Council notes there are studies supporting chamomile's "use for sleep enhancement, alleviation of diarrhea in children, colic relief in infants, wound healing, reduction of mucositis in patients undergoing radiation treatment, and relief of eczema symptoms."21 Chamomile also has significant benefits for emotional and mental health, offering relief from "nervous tension… nervous excitability in children… [and] stress conditions where digestion is a problem."22 It's even been found to improve some symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in teens.23 In addition, Molecular Medicine Reports noted:24
"Chamomile has been used as an herbal medication since ancient times, is still popular today and probably will continue to be used in the future because it contains various bioactive phytochemicals that could provide therapeutic effects. Chamomile can help in improving cardiovascular conditions, stimulate immune system, and provide some protection against cancer."
Suggestions and Dosages for Chamomile Use
If you enjoy chamomile tea, it is a fine beverage to enjoy prior to bed or after a stressful day. You may also enjoy a cup after a meal. If you'd like to prepare a chamomile infusion to relieve gastrointestinal complaints, Germany's Commission E recommends the following recipe:25
"150 ml boiling water poured over approximately 3g dried flower and steeped, covered, for 5–10 minutes, 3–4 times daily between meals for gastrointestinal complaints."
The American Botanical Council also offers the following recipes for using chamomile in dried flower form for a variety of ailments:26
- Bath additive: 50g dried flower added per 10 liters (ca. 2.5 gallons) water as a bath for ano-genital inflammation [i.e. hemorrhoids]
- Gargle: 100 ml boiling water poured over 3-10g dried flower and steeped, covered, for 5-10 minutes. The tea infusion is used as a wash or gargle for inflammation of the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat.
- Inhalation: 100 ml boiling water poured over 3-10g dried flower and steeped, covered, for 5-10 min, 1-3 times daily. Steam vapor inhaled for inflammation of the upper respiratory tract.
- Poultice: Semisolid paste or plaster containing 3-10% of flower heads.
While chamomile has an excellent safety record with very few contraindications, if you are allergic to ragweed pollen, chrysanthemums, asters, yarrow flower, arnica, or marigold flower, you may also be allergic to chamomile. In addition, if you're taking blood-thinning medication such as warfarin (Coumadin), potential interactions have been reported, although this remains controversial.