If you haven’t yet heard of pu’erh (pronounced “poo-are,” although “poo-air” is acceptable), you’re missing out on one of the most popular forms of tea in the world. Given its incredible shelf life, complex flavor profile, and ease of preparation, there’s good reason why widespread interest in this tea isn’t slowing down.
But if these reasons aren’t compelling enough—or you’re just understandably reluctant to follow the crowd—you may want to pause and reconsider. If you wait too long to give pu’erh a chance, you may come to realize that you’ve been cheating yourself of one of the healthiest teas in the world as well.
Let’s take a look at some of the exciting health-promoting benefits of pu’erh.
In 2008, researchers out of Osaka, Japan formulated a pu’erh tea extract and began to observe its effects in controlled settings.
Beginning with a study on animals, the researchers discovered that pu’erh extract was able to significantly decrease the rise in cholesterol that follows a meal; and when taken for more than 5 weeks, there was a decrease in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and fatty accumulation around the kidneys of these animals, effects that they did not observe with green tea extract.
Of course, there is a difference in the biological makeup between animals and people, and so it’s always possible these findings don’t apply to humans. Fortunately, the researchers were determined to figure this out.
In a subsequent study, this time with human subjects, the Japanese researchers administered pu’erh extract for a total of 4 months to 21 patients who were diagnosed with high cholesterol. At the end of the study, they recorded significant decreases in total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and even bodyweight!
Afterwards, the research team concluded that pu’erh looks promising in helping prevent and manage hardening of the arteries and obesity.
It may not be much of a surprise to learn that a tea promotes heart health, but did you know that pu’erh may even be good for the brain?
One of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain is known as glutamate, responsible largely for exciting neurons and causing them to communicate with one another. It is estimated that more than 90% of the synaptic connections in the brain rely on this neurotransmitter.
Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there can be too much of a good thing, and in cases where overexcitation (“excitotoxicity”) occurs, glutamate causes our precious neurons to become damaged, eventually even dying. There’s no need to worry though—this is something that only occurs in the case of disease or injury, such as Alzheimer’s or stroke.
Now, for the good news.
Researchers out of Changchun, China found that pu’erh exhibited neuroprotective effects from cellular death by interfering with the chain reaction caused by excess glutamate. In other words, these researchers believe that some important biological compounds in pu’erh can help protect our brains when we need it most.
Though brain health is obviously quite important, pu’erh also appears to be a potent prebiotic, a kind of food that the bacteria in our intestines need to survive and flourish.
While many foods act as prebiotics, such as bananas and sauerkraut, each food nourishes different kinds of intestinal bacteria, and not all of them are equal. If you’ve ever shopped for a probiotic, for example, you might notice anywhere from 5 to 12 strains or more on the label, and while probiotics can be helpful, without prebiotics to keep your microbes alive, they will only have limited use.
A couple of years ago, researchers in China noticed that pu’erh protected against and improved symptoms of diet-induced metabolic syndrome—the cluster of symptoms associated with poor dieting, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, and excess abdominal fat.
As they looked into the matter further, they discovered that pu’erh was working by remodeling the microbiome in the intestines. That’s right, pu’erh was feeding and strengthening the good bacteria!
More recently, in a collaboration between researchers in Canada, Australia, and China, it was found that pu’erh was specifically promoting the growth of Akkermansia muciniphila, one of the good guys that help in the fight against obesity, diabetes, and inflammation. We’re only starting to develop a clearer picture of exactly how pu’erh protects and promotes intestinal health.
While the above is exciting, it’s important to keep in mind that this is just a small sample of the burgeoning research on pu’erh. With so many health benefits being uncovered yearly, it’s a wonder why more people haven’t yet caught on to this amazing tea.
Fujita, H., and Yamagami, T. (2008). “Extract of black tea (pu-erh) inhibits postprandial rise in serum cholesterol in mice, and with long term use reduces serum cholesterol and low density lipoprotein levels and renal fat weight in rats,” in Phylotherapy Research 22(10), pp. 1275–81. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.2477.
Fujita, H., and Yamagami, T. (2008). “Efficacy and safety of Chinese black tea (pu-erh) extract in healthy and hypercholesterolemic subjects,” in Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism 53(1), pp. 33–42. https://doi.org/10.1159/000153006.
Li, C., et al. (2017). “Pu-erh tea protects the nervous system by inhibiting the expression of metabolic glutamate receptor 5,” in Molecular Neurobiology 54(7), pp. 5286–99. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12035-016-0064-3.