Jamaican Sorrell (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
The first time I bumped into sorrel was in the deepest recesses of Orange Bay, Jamaica. The date was sometime in the winter of 1984. I had met a Jamaican healer at an open air market and ended up at her home talking about Jamaican herbs. The woman lived and worked in a one room dwelling stacked floor to ceiling with roots, leaves, and seeds strung like beads. The only thing the shack did not contain was an air conditioning unit. It was hot outside, even hotter in the “clinic”, and I was sweating like a marathon runner. I must have looked like a drowned rat because at a point the healer produced a jug of “cooling” punch.
My host told me the punch was sorrel (SA-rell) and that the
tangy red beverage cooled a person down, whether the source of the heat was the sun, a fever, or a hot flash. She was right. The dazzling red punch quickly cooled my radiator which as I said, had been about to blow. Even better, it electrified my taste buds. The flavor was somewhere between cranberry and raspberry with a hint of pineapple. Bewitched by its flavor, I wanted to know more about sorrel. The healer quickly showed me the source of the punch.
In the back of her shack stood a stand of strong plants covered with blood red flowers. She explained that the punch was made by boiling the flowers in spring water and adding pure cane sugar to taste. She informed me that this punch was good for whatever ailed you, in her own words, a cure all. Conditions she treated with sorrel included pressure (high blood pressure), fatness(a few pounds to shed), flooenza (coughs and colds), drink(hangovers), and even cancer! I made a mental note of all these uses, but, liking a good beverage, I was more excited about the new taste sensation.
I returned to my Manhattan home a sorrel devotee. Whenever a Jamaican friend went home, I had them bring me back a supply. I would then make punch for those I deemed worthy of the sorrel experience. Suffice it to say, not everyone warranted a glass of my coveted punch! Bar none, whoever tried the sorrel, loved the sorrel. Eventually, I ran into sorrel under less exotic circumstances – as in at my supermarket. I was standing in the herb tea aisle when the deflating drama went down. Reading a label (always a mistake) I discovered that Celestial Seasonings “Red Zinger” tea was made with sorrel! Sorrel put the red and the zinger into the “Red Zinger”. So much for my rare and exotic brew!
After my initial meeting with Sorrel, it would become a regular part of my beverage life.
Sixteen years later, as in 1999, I had another sorrel encounter. At the time, I was running an herbal clinic in London and dining at an Ethiopian restaurant. I had become friendly with the proprietor and this particular night she had a surprise for me. The owner had secured a supply of her favorite Ethiopian beverage and was anxious for me to try it. When I saw the bright red juice coming my way, I knew it was “Jamaican” sorrel. Except in this case, it was “Ethiopian” sorrel! It lacked the ginger touch found in the Jamaican version but was equally delicious.
As it turns out, before sorrel was Jamaican, it was Ethiopian. Like okra, yams, peanuts, sesame, and collard greens, sorrel made its way to the colonies in the parcels of African slaves. The restaurant proprietor let me know that sorrel could be used to cool a fever, reduce blood pressure, cure a cold, or fix whatever ailed you. Déjà vu if you know what I mean.
I moved back to the states in 2001 and got busy setting up an herbal research center around a house in Washington , DC . I installed a 70 foot greenhouse to grow study subjects and decided to indulge myself. I decided to plant a few rows of sorrel. The question was where to get some seeds.
In the years I had been buying sorrel, on a rare occasion, I would find a few seeds in the bottom of the bag. Hoping to have the experience again, I headed to an African grocery store in search of dried sorrel blossoms. I walked out of the store with a five pound bag of sorrel. As I left the store, the Somali shop keeper gave me a lesson in herbal medicine. “This plant”, said the kind man, “is good for everything. Especially for curing colds”.
Sitting in the greenhouse, I sifted through the dried petals and found some seeds. Mission accomplished. As I planted the seeds, the words of the Jamaican healer, the Ethiopian restaurateur, and the Somali shop keep came back to me. More than a delicious beverage, sorrel is a powerful health stimulant.
I started thinking about sorrel’s reputation use as a cure all in Caribbean and African cultures. Knee deep in manure, I decided it was time to research sorrel. Was it a cure all? Was it a perky panacea? All I can say is this. A trip to the libraries in Washington revealed sorrel to be all that and then some. Here’s a sampler.
Free Radical Scavenger
We now know that the free radicals floating around our bodies cause heart disease, cancer, arthritis and aging in general. Five separate studies found that Protocatechuic acid(PCA) a polyphenol found in Sorrel to be a powerful free radical scavenger. In fact, more powerful a free radical neutralizer than Vitamin E. (2) Not merely a theoretic free radical scavenger, it was shown to prevent free radicals from damaging the body. (1,2)
Free radicals are associated with inflammatory conditions like eczema and rheumatoid arthritis. PCA has been shown to neutralize these free radicals and thereby act as an anti-inflammatory in chronic inflammatory conditions. (1,2)
Sorrel has been shown to have a multifaceted anti-cancer activity. Firstly, free radicals have been implicated in the conversion of normal cells into cancer cells. (1,2) Research has shown sorrel inhibits free radicals from converting normal cells into cancer cells.
In another study, sorrel was shown to inhibit mutation of colon cells into cancerous cells in rats. Colon cells, exposed to cancer causing chemicals, did not become cancerous when pretreated with sorrel. In fact, it reduced mutagenicity by 60-90%. (10) Other researchers found that skin cancer causing chemicals did not cause skin cancer when test animals were first bathed in sorrel tea! Again, the conclusion was that sorrel inhibited the transformation of normal cells into cancer cells. (13)
Even more importantly, sorrel was found to encourage apoptosis, the programmed cell death of human cells that have become cancerous! (8)
Free radicals oxidize low density lipoproteins(bad cholesterols) which in turn results in atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the leading cause of heart disease. PCA has been found to neutralize free radicals before they have a chance to oxidize LDL’s. (2)
To make matters better, sorrel tea was found to reduce blood pressure in rats. Researchers concluded it did so through acetylcholine and histamine like mechanisms as well as through direct blood vessel relaxing activity. (11) At the University of Medical Sciences and Health Services in Tehran , researchers found the same was true in human patients. 54 patients with essential hypertension experienced a reduction of both systolic(11.2%) and diastolic(10.7%) blood pressure as compared with a control while being treated with sorrel tea. ( 12)
Lastly, sorrel reduced bad cholesterol levels of test animals fed high cholesterol diets.
(19) Could it get any better? Yes. It was shown to have an inhibitory effect against many heart and blood vessel damaging enzymes(angiotensin converting enzyme, elastase, trypsin, and alpha-chemotrypsin.) (20)
Medical thinkers have come out and said products like sorrel are a realistic aid in weight loss regimes! First and foremost, it is devoid of toxicity and risks to health. Secondly, it may help people loose weight. (3) How you ask? Sorrel contains an acid which blocks the digestion and absorption of starch, a major source of calories and weight gain. ( 4) Specifically, it contains an alpha-amylase inhibitor. (7)
If you have ever drunk Rum Punch in Jamaica , you have drunk sorrel. Sorrel and ginger are key ingredients in this holiday beverage. Once again, folk medicine to the rescue. Sorrel’s famous red color is due to compounds known as Hibiscus anthocyanins. These compounds have been established to prevent liver damage in animals. Lab animals, treated with liver destroying chemicals, did not develop liver damage when pre-treated with sorrel. (9) Jamaicans say that by drinking sorrel with your rum you can avoid hangovers!
Cough and cold cure
A traditional African treatment for flu, researchers have found there is something to this use. Three polysacharides found in sorrel tea were established to boost immune activity.
(18) On top of stimulating immune function, it has been proven to reduce the fevers associated with infections. (17)
How often do you discover that you have been “accidentally” doing something healthy? In my life time that would be never. Its always the other way around! So, imagine my excitement at discovering sorrel, my beverage of choice, is as healthy as it is pleasant to drink! Having finished my little research project, I just want to tell everybody about sorrel. Again, how often do you come across something that is fun and healthy?
Earth shattering new: herbal remedy pleasant to the taste!
Sorrel is a health beverage you and your fussiest friend will enjoy. Having “prescribed” the remedy to hundreds of “patients” dining at my table, I know this for a fact. Sorrel is a total crowd pleaser. Serve it up at a dinner party and you will hear nothing but praise. Especially if you add a touch of rum. Looking for something sweet and brightly colored to give the kids? Look no further. Sorrel is as good for the kid as it is for the mommy.
The traditional way of using sorrel is perhaps the best way. Add one cup of dried sorrel blossoms to 6 cups of water. Boil the mixture for 15 minutes, add turbinado sugar to taste, strain, and refrigerate. Then pour yourself a cup of one of the healthiest, tastiest beverages ever known. Alternatively, drink regular cups of red zinger tea which is available at most grocery stores.
Getting a dime bag
10 ounce bag of sorrel $5.95. Vital Botanicals. 800-609-4326 www.vitalbotanicals.com
The problem with herbal medicine is there are lots of plants with the same common name! This is the case with sorrel. There are actually two kinds of sorrel. There is the red sorrel (Hibiscus sabdiffera) and there is green sorrel(Rumex acidosa). Despite sharing a name and a sour taste, the plants are totally unrelated.
Sorrel is an excellent source of trace minerals and other nutritional elements essential to health. It’s rich in Chromium, Copper, Manganese, Iron, Selenium, and Phosphorus. (5,6)
Sorrel comes from a very useful and medicinal tribe of plants. Close relations include okra, cotton, marshmallow, hollyhock, and Hawaiian hibiscus.
• Liu et al. In vivo protective effect of protocatechuic acid on ter-butyl hydroperoxide induced rat hepatotoxicity. Food Chem Toxicol. 2002 May; 40(5):635-41.
• Lee et al. Hibiscus protocatechuic acid or Esculentin can inhibit oxidative LDL induced by either copper Ion or nitric oxide donor. J Agric food Chem 2002 March 27; 50(7):2130-6.
• Brudnak , MA . Weight loss drugs and supplements: are there safer alternatives? Med Hypotheses 2002 Jan; 58(1):28-33.
• Hansawasdi et al. Hibiscus acid as an inhibitor of starch digestion in the Caco-2 cell model system. Biosci Biotech Biochem 2001 Sep; 65(9):2087-9.
• Wrobel et al. Determination of total aluminium, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, and nickel and their fractions leached to the infusions of black tea, green tea, hibiscus sabdarrifa, and Ilex paraguariensis. Biol.Trace Elem Res 2000 Winter; 78(1-3):271-80.
• Freiberger et al. Nutrient content of edible leaves of seven wild plants from Niger . Plant foods Hum Nutr 1998; 53(1):57-69.
• Hansawasdi et al. Alpha-amylase inhibitors from roselle(Hibiscus sabdarrifa) tea. Biosci Biotech Biochem 2000 May; 64(5):1041-3.
• Tseng et al. Induction of Apoptosis by hibiscus protocatechuic acid in human leukemia cells via reduction of retinoblastoma(RB) phosphorylation and Bel-2 expression. Biochem Pharmacol 2000 Aug 1; 60(3):307-15.
• Wang et al. Protective effect of hibiscus anthocyanins against tert-butyl hydroxyperoxide induced hepatic toxicity in rats. Food Chem Toxicol 2000 May; 38(5):411-6.
• Chewonarin et al. Effects of roselle(Hibiscus sabdarrifa) a Thai medicinal plant on the mutagenicity of various known mutagens in Salmonella typhimurium and on formation of aberrant crypt foci induced by the colon carcinogens azoxymethane and 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimadozole in F344 rats. Food Chem Toxicol 1999 Jun; 37(6):591-601.
• Adegunloye et al. Mechanisms of blood pressure lowering effect of the callyx extract of Hibiscus sabdarrifa in rats. Afr.J.Med.Sci 1996 Sep; 25(3):235-8.
• Haji Faraji M et al. The effect of sour tea(Hibiscus sabdarrifa) on essential hypertension. J.ethnopharmacol. 1999 Jun; 65(3):231-6.
• Tseng et al. Inhibitory effect of Hibiscus protocatechuic acid on tumor promotion in mouse skin. Cancer Lett 1998 Apr 24; 126(2): 1999-207.
• Tseng et al. Protective effects of dried flower extracts of Hibiscus sabdarrifa against oxidative stress in rat primary hepatocytes. Food Chem Toxicol 1997 Dec; 35(12): 1159-64.
• Tseng et al. Hibiscus protocatechuic acid protects against oxidative damage induced by tert-butyl hydroperoxide in rat primary hepatocytes. Chem.Biol Interact 1996 Aug 14; 101(2): 137-48.
• Yamasaki et al. Bleaching of the red anthocyanin induced by superoxide radical. Arch Biochem Biophys 1996 Aug 1; 332(1): 183-6.
• Dafallah et al. Investigation of the anti-inflammatory activity of Acacia nilotica and Hibiscus sabdarrifa. Am J.Chin.Med. 1996; 24(3-4): 263-9.
• Muller et al. Chemical structure and biological activity of polysacharides from Hibiscus sabdarrifa. Planta Medica 1992 Feb; 58(1): 60-7.
• El-Saadany et al. Biochemical dynamics and hypocholesterolemic action of Hibiscus sabdarrifa. Nahrun 1991; 35(6): 567-76
• Jonadet et al. In vitro enzyme inhibitory and in vivo cardioprotective activities of Hibiscus sabdarrifa. J Pharm Belg 1990 Mar-Apr; 45(2):120-4.