Green tea is one of many medicinal plants we've prepared as infusions — herbs steeped in water — and imbibed over the millennia.

Green tea is one of many medicinal plants we've prepared as infusions — herbs steeped in water — and imbibed over the millennia.

Many people these days go on health kicks and start drinking herbal teas, expecting to see improvement in a few weeks or days, which may not be realistic.

It's true that tea-consuming cultures appear to have "chronically" lower disease risk. They drink mildly diuretic, nutrient-rich teas that help lower blood pressure, for example, and they consume an array of polyphenols — water-soluble health-enhancing plant chemicals — and vitamin C through tea.

But our ancestors didn't start drinking chamomile, nettle, slippery elm or hawthorn-berry teas at age 45 and expect profound, health-changing effects in days, such as we've come to expect from some pharmaceuticals. They drank herbal teas and medicinal soups as young children with their grandparents and ate a wide variety of plant foods. People trekked and exercised in the process of finding and harvesting the herbs, tasks that contribute in no small way to health.

Historically speaking, people drank teas made from local herbs and ate whole, wild and minimally processed foods. We've gone far astray since then, eating processed and nutrient-poor foods.

Our ancestors acquainted themselves with toxic plants through trial and unfortunate error over centuries. They learned safe and tolerable doses of plants with clear medicinal values and passed on the information to their descendants.

Various teas strengthen respiratory and cardiovascular functions, reduce inflammation, kill harmful microbes, improve blood-sugar balance, digestion and energy output and soothe and heal tissues. Modern research regularly confirms the health benefits of various infused herbs through lab studies and clinical trials.

People knew where to gather herbs and how to combine them for best results. They learned how to select, propagate, store and prepare them: drying, frying and even soaking or fermenting herbs in wine or other media to change their medicinal qualities and extract different compounds.

Cultures passed down the building blocks of an herbal-culinary-medical tradition over millennia — with different traditions and medicinal "diets" inherent to different peoples.

Not unlike the American melting pot itself, we've united herbs from abroad with New World plants such as American ginseng, echinacea, maca, black cohosh and goldenseal to yield a novel pharmacopoeia. Herbs are still the building blocks of many of today's drugs, and the World Health Organization recently estimated that 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care.

My hope is that we keep the world's evolving herbal traditions alive and respect their subtle strengths, acknowledging that sometimes taking a few "steeps" back is better than a giant leap forward.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at