Recently the office of the 14th Dalai Lama had to officially redact a statement that had been circulated as “fake” news. The statement suggested that his holiness, the Dalai Lama had proclaimed the benefit of drinking black tea in combating the corona virus. The widely shared post exposed as fake claimed that the Tibetan spiritual leader was accumulating a special mantra and that consuming black tea (??hong cha) would treat infections of the novel corona-virus, which has become a pandemic, causing widespread disruption and panic around the world.
At this current time, as we face an unprecedented pandemic, there are multitudes of “fake” news reports and statements on how to combat COVID19. What’s interesting about this one is that it should promote black tea, especially among the butter tea drinking Tibetan community.
There is no evidence that black tea has any special qualities to specifically target corona-virus, and I am not going to try and pull together some research to suggest such things, however surprisingly this bit of “fake” news might not be as bad as others I’ve encountered and drinking black tea at this time may not be a such a bad thing.
We know already that tea has a number of phyto-chemicals that help us to cope with stress and helps to make us feel “altogether better” about things. We also know that there is some substantial evidence that green tea and tea polyphenols have anti-viral properties. A study by Nakayama et al (1993) demonstrated that tea polyphenols bind to the haemagglutinin of influenza virus inhibiting its adsorption into cells, and thus blocking its infectivity. Song, Lee & Seong (2005) suggested that the antiviral effect of tea catechins on influenza virus is a result of them altering the physical properties of the viral membrane, effectively acting by altering the physical integrity of virus particles or host membrane and modifying the viral infection cycle.
There is similar encouraging evidence around other human viral pathogens such as Hepatitis (Ciesek et al 2011) and research prevails on exploring the effects of tea on Dengue virus (Mahajan et al 2020). But as of today’s date no evidence has been circulated or published around its effect on corona-virus.
As a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioner of tea medicine we understand from traditional Chinese medical perspectives that communicable diseases such as influenza, SARS and indeed corona-virus are external pathogens of wind and occur due to transition between the seasons, particularly in flu and corona-virus, between Winter and Spring. It is very important as prevention therefore to maintain our vital Qi (immunity) and avoid stagnation. One of the significant herbs in the repertoire of materia medica that helps to do this is Astragalus , but from a tea medicine perspective it is having more detail from the 5 element system or wuxing that may help.
According to wuxing the transition from Winter to Spring is the pattern of water creating wood, governed by metal and earth. To understand this better we can say that the ability for Spring to manifest in completeness is dependent on Winter to have occurred completely, but Autumn (metal) and late Summer (Earth) needed to have been also balanced. When Autumn and late Summer are disharmonious then Winter will not manifest properly leading to either an excess or deficit (yin or yang). Hence if we then understand the symptoms of corona-virus which manifests as a wind-cold external pathogen and that it impacts on the lungs (metal) we start to see a pattern of disharmony that allows us to either prevent or approach it through both TCM and tea medicine.
The pattern would suggest, as an overview, a deficit in metal and Autumn leading to a yin pathology. We would therefore approach supporting the lungs primarily and the kidney (Winter and Water) secondary. At the same time we may need to consider how we support the Liver (Wood) in flourishing and manifesting Spring fully, i.e. tonifying.
The tea medicine approach would therefore initially commence with:
- Tonifying Qi
- Increasing/supporting the Lung meridian
- Support the Kidney meridian
- Tonify the Liver
This may all seem abstract but from a TCM perspective it is more around the patterns of illness and concerns rather than an allopathic approach to a particular pathogen. We certainly know, based on current data, not everyone manifests the pathogen of corona-virus in the same way and to some extent children remain immune possibly due to their vital Qi reflecting a strong Spring, as opposed to the elderly.
A recent Chinese study (Luo et al 2020) suggested a formula including;
- Huang Qi (Milk Vetch) sweet, warm, supports the Spleen – tonifys the Qi
- Gancao (Licorice) sweet, neutral supports the lung – harmonises other herbs and tonifys the Spleen
- Fangfeng (Siler) acrid,warm, supports lung and liver – protects against wind pathogens
- Jinyinhua (Honeysuckle)sweet, cold, supports the lungs – disperses wind
- Lianqiao (Forsythia) bitter,cool, supports the lungs = clears heat and resolves fever
We can see some correspondences here both with the 5 element diagnostic above and with classic formulas such as Yupingfeng powder that fights off external pathogens and tonifys the Qi. There are both herbs to tonify the Qi and support the lungs, some of the herbs have secondary effects on liver meridian but primarily are aimed at a defensive position against the external pathogen by supporting the spleen (Earth, late summer). Therefore its approach, in regard to principles of wuxing and fang ( principles of energetics and flow as in Sheng Zhang Shou Cang –“generation, growth, contraction, storage” or Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is one of supporting and tonifying Summer to ensure a harmonious Autumn that leads to a complete Winter and harmonious Spring. It involves starting at the centre and working outwards.
To critically appraise Lui et al (2020) there is nothing wrong with this approach as a generic all-round panacea or formula for the population, however it would need to be modified with a patient or person who is not starting from Summer and is otherwise, for example starting from Autumn with for example weak lungs or Winter i.e. elderly in their years.
Therefore from a tea medicine perspective and to evaluate an approach, on the evidence currently available, we can continue to adopt a generic prescription that supports Summer through tea that is sweet and fragrant, supporting the Spleen. However as we get more prescriptive to the individual we need to consider moving towards supporting Autumn and Winter with teas such as hei cha that have both strong salty and sour profiles.
In summary, perhaps the “fake” news about black tea is not such a bad thing but from a tea medicine perspective perhaps hei cha would be a better translation to make this information more valuable and valid in the current pandemic. There is no evidence base for a particular allopathic panacea for COVID19 from either TCM or tea medicine, however there are some valuable research to suggest they both offer some hope in maintaining health in these times as well as offering a valuable and clinical reasoned approach in preventing and combating COVID19 infection.
Over the last month I have been working alongside healthcare colleagues in the community on the front line and I have to say that we all adopt a variety of practices and methods alongside PPE to keep us safe and our patients safe. Not all of these practices are thoroughly evidence based but they all give us some form of hope or support us in carrying out, what at times, might feel both frustrating and futile work. I therefore will continue to evaluate any practice that helps us remain hopeful and makes us feel more secure in such insecure times and if they at least give us hope then we can continue to take steps forward!!