Why Birch Is So Awesome – A Historical Viewpoint
Birch tea benefits us in many ways, but first lets go back in time and discover its venerable beginnings.
The Birch tree is a plant with great medicinal and historical significance. There are many different species, up to 19 being native in america and 3 growing in the UK. The most prominent and used of the Birch (scientifically ‘Betula’) genus is Silver Birch (which we will be mostly focusing on today).
In folklore, birch is found throughout much of the world, and the wisdom of our ancestors still carries on today in some cases. Most notably, Celtic and Scandinavian mythology detailed this important plant, such as its association with Frejya, a goddess associated with fertility in Norse mythology.
In a fascinating way, birch has been used as early as paleolithic times as an adhesive, and even the Neanderthals produced tar from the bark. Historically, we have made wines, shoes, boats, and medicines from birch.
It is also found in Ayurvedic medicine, which only supports its use. In Scandinavia and Russia people use it in saunas as a purifier for the skin.
That’s all well and good, but what about the tea? Birch tea benefits health in many ways, and can be made using almost any part of the plant. Most commonly, it is made with the twigs and leaves (for which I’ve shared a recipe below). It is known as great detoxifier and we will cover more of its medicinal properties in this post.
NOTE: Make sure that you read the precautions at the end of this article if you consider using Birch for yourself. Be on the safe side.
An Easy Birch Tea Recipe
In this recipe, we combine both birch twig and leaf. This creates a more versatile and flavourful brew, but know that you can make it with either of these alone. The twigs are a little sweet, with the unique spice about them.
Tools and utensils:
Ingredients (Produces 3-4 Servings):
- Birch twigs – one handful (about 2 to 3 tablepoons when powdered)
- Birch leaves – half a cup
- Water – 1 Litre
- Forage your ingredients from a country park or forest (not road-side) or buy them online and follow the instructions. We will use silver birch in this recipe, which you can learn to easily identify here. Note that Downy/Moor Birch is also usable, but silver birch is by far the most researched and used.
- Wash all of your ingredients by rinsing on the water. Pat dry.
- Preheat oven to 160°C. Break the twigs into roughly inch pieces (smaller is better, though) and add to a baking tray. Roast twigs for 30 minutes, then remove and let sit for 5-10 min to cool.
- Grind your twigs into a powder – the finer the better. Store in a tub, much like any dried herb or tea, and use when necessary.
- Bring water to a boil, add in 2-3 tbsp powder and the leaves (roughly teared). Simmer for 5-10 minutes, depending on preference.
- Serve, and enjoy!
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How To Make A Stronger Tea
First of all, you can boil the tea for longer with the ingredients to make a decoction. Another way to make this is to add boiling water to the ingredient(s) and brew for a few minutes. The longer the time, the stronger the brew.
For a stronger brew you can dry out the leaves (which preserves them, too). You can do this by hanging them somewhere with good air circulation or outside if warm. Alternatively, place them in an oven on the lowest possible setting for 1 to 2 hours, leaving the door slightly open.
What Are The Birch Tea Benefits?
So, if you read the title you may know this is a “cleansing remedy” – and it is well known as such. Different parts of the plant have some similar properties and also offer a range of nutrients and beneficial plant compounds.
According to our above recipe, we use both birch twigs and the leaves. People commonly use these two parts in birch tea, so we will be covering the benefits of them separately. The bark is also commonly used, but is found on the twigs themselves anyway. Let’s get into it!
The leaves of these plants are well known to be highly anti-inflammatory. This paired with the nutrients and other properties help to explain why it is also reportedly analgesic (pain killing). Antimicrobial and antiseptic properties of this plant, once again along with the nutrients help to boost the body’s immune system.
In the past, people dried and crumbled birch leaf before adding to water. This is an infusion which helps with inflammation. Here are some of the most impressive benefits of birch leaf!
Immune System Boosting and Anti-inflammatory
Being, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antiseptic isn’t all birch can do for our immune system! Birch leaves are good sources of vitamin C, and beneficial plant compounds like flavonoids, saponins, and also tannins.
- Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that you’ve no doubt heard of! It is one of the most important vitamins in overall health and is especially beneficial for the immune system (^). It is a powerful antioxidant, and helps to support cellular functions.
Not only this, but it is also antimicrobial. Vitamin C can help us better absorb some nutrients which benefit the immune system, including non-heme iron (^).
- Flavonoids are a group of phytonutrients found in most vegetables and fruits. These are antioxidants that help protect the body (particularly the brain) from oxidative damage and aid in healthy functioning (^).
The Beneficial ‘Antinutrients’:
- Saponins can be a “double-edged sword”, so to speak. They are classified as an antinutrient, but may offer beneficial biological actions as well (much like phytic acid found grains and seeds such as brown rice, nuts, and oats). Studies have shown that they can lower cancer risks, blood glucose response levels, and also blood lipid levels (^).
In terms of immune system functions, they’re also antimicrobial, antioxidative, and may stimulate the production of T-cells* – a type of white blood cell (^). Betulin saponins in birch may induce apoptosis (cell death) in lung cancer cells (^).
*Depending on the type. It is unclear whether this property is observed from the saponins in birch, however.
- Tannins are responsible for the bitter taste of multiple common herbs and foods. Across the world, people love tea, and even enjoy it on a daily basis sometimes! Well, it is undoubtably the largest contributor of tannins to most people’s diets. We also find tannin in high amounts in nuts (with skin), dark chocolate, and wine.
Tannins have potentially powerful biological effects in human health. They are classified technically as an antinutrient, as they may impair the absorption of certain minerals such as iron (^). However, the benefits certainly outweigh the risks in most cases due to antimicrobial, hypotensive, immunomodulatory (and more) properties (^).
Birch leaves also contain small amounts of Betulin – an extremely beneficial triterpene with potent anticancer (^), antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory (^) powers. It is most abundant in the bark and also in the sap of birch trees. We will cover details about betulin separately in this article.
The nutrients found in Birch leaves can help our health by reducing and preventing inflammation.
Inflammation is natural immune response, yet in modern times we often find it in chronic amounts due to diet, lifestyle, stress, lack of exercise, and more. By reducing this, we can prevent and aid in chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes, unnatural degeneration (fast aging) and heart disease.
Helps To Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Birch tea benefits our weight too! Research has suggested that saponins lower cancer risks and decrease blood glucose response and blood lipid levels. Because of this, we have linked them to maintaining a healthy body weight.
Saponins can inhibit lipase during digestion, which is an enzyme which helps us to breakdown and absorb dietary fat. Whilst dietary fat is important, those consuming unhealthy fats or too much may benefit from this. Additionally, many believe that this can suppress appetite.
The reduction in blood glucose response indicates hypoglycemic effects. By preventing excess amounts of sugar in the blood, we prevent it from being stored as body fat in places where it shouldn’t be.
So, drinking birch tea can certainly help your skin and hair health, but for stronger influence you can boil the ingredients for longer to make a decoction, or use the oil – which can be bought online or made.
We’ve mentioned a lot about the antimicrobial properties of birch leaves already. This means that it can fight bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Invasive microorganisms often cause skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, and infections, which leads to inflammation.
The astringent properties of birch leaves also help to detoxify the skin and tighten pores.
Vitamin C encourages collegen growth as well, which is essential for the proper strength and health of your hair. Believe it or not, flavonoids, saponins, and tannins can all help to improve hair health and texture. For example, tannins are known to help make hair smoother, whilst saponins from some herbs can help to cleanse the hair.
Traditionally, people used birch oil for the hair.
The HMPC – The Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products, part of the European Medicines Agency, recognises silver birch leaf to have medicinal properties for the urinary tract (^). This includes being diuretic, which stimulates the production of urine, thus helping to flush out toxins and impurities from the body. This aids our kidneys and liver, too, and may help in treating and preventing fluid retention.
Also, as mentioned above, it may help to cleanse the skin and hair.
Traditionally, the sap has been used as a cleansing tonic. Medicinally, Silver Birch as a whole is known to be detoxifying, acting as a cleansing remedy for the body.
First of all I would like to mention that Black / Sweet birch bark is a good source of Salicylic acid. This is also prominent in Willow bark and has shown aspirin-like qualities. This is because we actually metabolise aspirin (acetylsalacylic acid) into it!
However, it is not found in other Birches apart form Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) as far as I know. Each species will offer their own distinct benefits. Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) is native to North America, from around southern Maine to northern Georgia.
Birch tea benefits us from both the leaves and the twigs. But you know that, right? Both of these share similar beneficial properties, but not all of the same. Birch twigs naturally have birch bark, so some of its benefits come from that.
The diuretic properties of birch bark and twig improve the rate at which the kidneys remove impurities from the blood. Excess fluid can contribute to hypertension, so reducing this is another way in which it may help.
Traditionally, too, have the blood purifying properties of birch been used. People today still use it as an agent for purifying the blood; most commonly they use the sap, such as is the traditional Mongolian remedy.
It’s impressive how our ancient wisdom often carries on into modern times and becomes back by research.
The Powerful Betulin and Betulinic Acid
Betulin and betulinic acid are both found in birch – most abundantly in the bark. Betulin is classified as a triterpene, and makes up to 30% of silver birch bark in dry weight. They have been studied mostly for their anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory (^) effects. Metabolic processes produce betulinic acid more when we consume betulin.
However, groups of researchers from Portugal and Germany found very interesting results (^).
After microwaving birch outer bark at 150 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, they were left with pure betulin extracts of almost 95% of the weight! We may need more sources to confirm the true effectiveness of this.
Here are some specific benefits that we haven’t covered in detail yet.
Study has discovered that betulin targets proteins which act as transcription factors which activate gene expression involved in synthesising triglycerides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
It helps to lower the activity of these genes, meaning that it could help in metabolic diseases.
In mice, betulin reduced weight gain and increased calorie usage.
It may also increase insulin sensitivity, which for most people is favourable. This means that we need to produce less insulin to lower blood sugar levels, allowing us to keep within a healthy range. Insulin resistance is when insulin sensitivity is too low. This is one of the largest drivers of diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
However, people with type 1 diabetes might actually suffer from having too high insulin sensitivity, leading to levels of blood sugar that are too low. We will cover this under “Precautions and When Not To Have Birch”.
More than anything, betulin and betulinic acid have been researched for their anti-cancer potential (^). Almost extensive research has found that it helps to fight tumors and prevent cancer formation, as pointed out by this meta-analysis of over 80 studies!
For example, it has significantly prevented the spreading of long and central nervous system cancers in one study.
In another interesting study published by researchers from China and Poland, researchers investigating canine cancer cells found that betulinic acid and betulin both displayed antitumor activity. Two types of white blood cell cancer cells and growing cancer cells were treated with varying concentrations of each for 24, 48, and 72 hours.
The results showed that betulinic acid and betulin prevented the growth of these cancer cells. Moreover, the effect was dependent on the concentration and duration of treatment: Higher doses had a greater effect on cell growth, as did longer times.
What I find most interesting about this, is that betulinic acid had a stronger effect in all results!
As I mentioned earlier, this acid is naturally produced as we metabolise betulin anyway (but some is also found in the plant).
Betulinic acid has also exerted cytotoxic (cell-toxic) effects on tumors that are resistant to multiple drugs (^). It can do this by targeting the AMFR protein (Autocrine motility factor receptor), thereby preventing the cells from moving independently.
Precautions and When Not To Have Birch
As with any food, medicine, plant, and so on, some people should potentially be cautious about consuming or using birch. These precautions are important, so make sure that you do read them. Birch tea benefits health, but isn’t right for everyone.
Avoid Birch if any of the following apply to you:
- You are taking diuretic drugs or water pills. If you are taking these medications, it is best to avoid using birch as it could increase water loss even more. Make sure that if you have a lot of Birch you drink a lot of water with it – even mild dehydration can have negative health effects.
- You are allergic to (wild or cultivated) carrot, mugwort, celery, hazelnuts, peanuts, soybeans, apples, or some spices – see here for more. Unfortunately, some people have allergies to birch pollen. These people may develop oral allergies to other foods as well, including those just listed. This allergy is called Oral Allergy Syndrome (OAS) and you can get tested for it with a skin prick test.
Telltale symptoms include hayfever in the Spring with increasing itching or burning of the mouth. Swelling is another possible symptom. This can increase if the trigger foods are not limited in consumption. Not all foods in the previously linked list affect everyone, so it’s important to find out which do and don’t for you through allergy tests.
Birch pollen may also increase atopic eczema in these cases if applied to the skin (^).
- High blood pressure (hypertension). Due to the diuretic effects, birch may increase the amount of retained salt in the body. This means potentially higher levels of sodium, which can aggravate high blood pressure. The aforementioned hypotensive properties of tannins may not be enough to treat hypertension. We need more research to discover which tannins are actively in the plant.
- Breastfeeding or pregnant. In terms of reliable information and research, there simply isn’t enough to say that birch is safe when pregnant or breastfeeding. Err on the side of caution and avoid taking it if either of these apply to you.
What about saponins as antinutrients?
Saponins can have some negative effects in too high amounts and may be better to avoid for those with digestive issues or noticeable adverse effects when eating them, despite all of the research that promotes their positive effects. It’s always better to look at both sides of the story, and consider that almost any beneficial or natural food can have negative effects in some people or in too high amounts.
As long as you follow a varied diet and properly prepare your foods, this shouldn’t be a problem anyway, and bear in mind that the amount found in Birch will not contribute major amounts, especially if you have it less often.
There is also research to suggest that they can be bad for us when we have too much. For example, a study conducted in Egypt investigated the hemolytic (red blood cell destroying) activities of saponin-rich extracts, such as from soybean (^).
Note: By the way, this isn’t to say that soybean itself is bad. Raw soybeans and commercial products such as tofu and others containing soy are not often prepared in the traditional way. Because of this, they contain higher amounts of phytoestrogens and anti-nutrients. Fermentation and sprouting are the best preparation methods to remove these. This goes for other foods (particularly types of seeds, grains, and legumes), too. For example, I always try to ferment brown rice and at least soak nuts before eating them. This doesn’t eliminate these compounds, but lowers them to a healthy level, allowing them to benefit us, and allowing the foods to do more for our health, too!
That’s all! Time to sit back and enjoy… (Summary)
That’s it for this post everyone. I like getting to forage and make my own healthy foods as fresh as they come from the great outdoors, and birch tea is an excellent example!
I hope you learned something useful, and encourage you to make more use of what nature has given us, but always be respectful and considerate when foraging (don’t take too much from one space, either). 🙂
To summarize, birch tea benefits health in many ways, whether you use the leaf, twigs, or the bark. It – and its extracts / ingredients – has been studied for different health benefits, most particularly due to its anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. However, always remember the above precautions, and avoid birch if they apply to you.
I am sure you’ll enjoy my birch tea recipe, let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or the comments section down below if you do!
If you enjoyed this, I’m sure you enjoy my other articles and recipes! You can always read the ones above, but if you’re interested, here are some other great tea recipes using ginger. Thanks for reading.
Until next time, stay healthy