Pu-Erh Tea Benefits, Side Effects, History and How to Brew - Dr. Axe

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What Is Pu-Erh Tea? Plus, 9 Benefits of This Lesser-Known Tea


Pu-erh tea - Dr. Axe

Love tea? Feel like you’ve tried all types of tea? Pu-erh tea is a lesser-known variety that is loaded with flavor, history and potential pu-erh tea benefits (including improved cholesterol levels).

If you’re already a tea lover, it’s definitely a must-try. Or if you haven’t been a fan of tea in the past, this one really is different from all the rest.

While many teas go through an oxidation process, pu-erh is created by microbial fermentation as well as oxidation of tea leaves. Many people will refer to it as a black tea, but it’s actually considered a “dark tea” in China. Either way, it’s a beverage loaded with bold, earthy flavor and health-boosting antioxidants.

What Is Pu-Erh Tea?

Pu-erh tea has its roots in the Yunnan province of China during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE). Back then, pu-erh satisfied the desire for a tea that could keep well over lengthy travels, because this fermented tea didn’t spoil. In fact, it seemed to get better with age, which is why to this day, pu-erh is aged and valued in a similar fashion to wine. You can even find pu-erhs that are half a century old.

Pu-erh (pronounced poo-air and spelled many different ways) is often wrongly classified as a black tea, but it’s actually a dark tea, which means that it’s a fermented tea. Some people believe it deserves a separate category entirely, because it’s so unique.


How so? Pu-erh goes through both a fermentation process (as a result of organisms growing in the tea) as well as oxidation. This unique process creates a final product of tea that is distinctly different from other varieties.

The pu-erh tea source is a large leaf variety of Camellia sinensis called Dayeh. Ancient Dayeh bushes and trees are said to be somewhere between 500 and 1,000 years old. They have large leaves that have a golden-reddish color before and after brewing.

The optimal time for harvesting Dayeh leaves for pu-erh is mid-spring, but it’s possible to gather the leaves anytime of the year. Depending on factors such as environmental conditions, pu-erh’s flavor can vary. It’s often described as earthy or peaty, but it can also be fruity, grassy or herbaceous.

Pu-erh Tea Types

In addition to vintage year, pu-erh can be classified by: tea source or region, shape, cultivation, processing method, grade and season.

There are two pu-erh tea types: raw (sheng) and cooked/ripe (shou). This classification is determined by the amount of processing that takes place after the tea leaves are picked and withered.

Raw pu-erh is created by picking tea leaves, allowing them to wither and then putting them into piles so they can sit and have bacterial fermentation occur. It’s somewhat similar to composting. After the leaves ferment, they are pan fired just enough to stop enzyme activity, followed by some storage time to allow for gradual oxidation. Last, a pu-erh tea cake is formed (another unique aspect), or it is left as a loose leaf tea.

There’s also a cooked variety where bacterial fermentation is induced (rather than naturally occurring); oxidation occurs for up to 40 days, then the leaves are fired. This is a faster way to create pu-erh. A third variety of pu-erh is a mix of raw and cooked leaves.

Pu-erh tea prices can vary significantly depending on the age of the tea. So it can be inexpensive or pricey.

Top 9 Pu-Erh Tea Benefits

1. Boosts Digestive Health

Constipation is a common digestive health problem. Does pu-erh tea make you poop? It is known to help relieve constipation and encourage bowel movements.

Pu-erh tea can be consumed as a “functional food” that can help to ward off and overcome constipation. A study published in 2014 in the journal Molecular Medicine Reports reveals how pu-erh consumption can prevent constipation along with conventional medicines like bisacodyl.

It’s also a fermented food, so it can offer a general boost to digestive health. Some of the key microorganisms involved in pu-erh tea’s fermentation are said to include Aspergillus gloucus, Aspergillus niger, Penicillium, Rhizopus and Saccharomyces.

2. Possible Anti-Obesity Effects

In general, replacing sugary beverages like soda with zero calorie beverages like water and tea are a great idea for weight management. So are pu-erh tea weight loss benefits possible?

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study gave 59 overweight or mildly obese subjects either three grams of pu-erh extract per day or a placebo for 20 weeks. The researchers found that the tea extract was “associated with statistically significant weight loss when compared to placebo.”

Fat loss was observed in the arms, legs and the hip/belly region of subjects. Mild reductions in cholesterol were also observed in the subjects who took the pu-erh extract.

A research study highlights pu-erh tea’s catechins, caffeine and theanine as contributing to its potential weight loss benefits.


3. Decreases Stress and Anxiety

Pu-erh tea contains gamma-aminobutyric acid, more commonly referred to as GABA. Why is this significant? GABA is well-known for it’s anti-anxiety effects.

Research shows that the tea’s GABA content and neuroprotective benefits may also be beneficial to people with epilepsy.

4. Lowers Cholesterol

A research study, published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, reveals pu-erh tea’s anti-obesity and cholesterol-improving effects on animal subjects with obesity.

Over an eight week period, subjects who had their diets supplemented with moderate or high doses of pu‐erh tea extract significantly reduced their total body weight. The animal subjects also experienced reductions in their LDL “bad” cholesterol, triglyceride and total cholesterol levels.

5. Loaded with Antioxidants

Like black and green tea, pu-erh tea is loaded with beneficial antioxidants. Research shows that pu-erh specifically contains epicatechin, flavonoid, ascorbic acid, and polyphenolic compounds, which can help to protect the body from oxidative damage.

6. Anti-Cancer Properties

Pu-erh tea just may be an anti-cancer beverage. In vitro research shows it can inhibit tumor growth in human cell lines, including leukemia and stomach cancer.

7. Improves Blood Sugar Regulation

Animal research published in 2015 shows consuming pu-erh tea after a meal containing carbohydrates may keep blood glucose levels from spiking. This research points toward the possibility that pu-erh consumption may be beneficial for type 2 diabetics.

A meta-analysis published in 2018 finds that pu‐erh tea has the ability to decrease fasting blood glucose. It also highlights that a higher dose of pu‐erh may lower fasting blood glucose more significantly.

8. Bacteria Fighter

Looking for a tea that can help to protect you from problematic bacterial invaders? A 2012 study shows how pu-erh has antibacterial activities against E. coli., a food-borne bacteria that can cause nasty intestinal infections.

9. Natural Skin Aid

Don’t be surprised if you see pu-erh finding its way into more and more natural beauty products. A study published in 2016 finds a high concentration of skin boosting pholyphenols in pu-erh tea, even higher than green tea.

Pu-erh also appears to contain a specific catechin composition that can offer skin protective benefits. Catechins are known for their “potent antioxidant activity.”

This recent research also shows that pu-erh can promote skin detoxification while also protecting against elastin loss. Elastin is a protein in our skin that gives it elasticity and resilience, which becomes more and more valuable as we age.

Consumed or used topically, pu-erh can be a naturally skin-enhancing beverage.

How to Brew Pu-Erh Tea

Pu-erh teas are available as a cake of compressed tea leaves, loose tea leaves or in tea bags. For one cup of water, about one teaspoon of leaves, or one tea bag, is needed.

Traditionally, this variety of tea is made using a yixing teapot or a gawain teabowl. It’s also traditionally slurped. While this may sound strange to some, the slurping is said to enliven the flavors of the tea, so you may want to give it a try.

You can use whatever type of teapot you have on hand to brew pu-erh.

How to brew pu-erh tea:

  • Bring fresh, filtered water to a boil (212℉)
  • Place 1 teaspoon of tea leaves in a tea pot
  • Fill your teapot with boiled water, pouring the water directly over the tea leaves
  • Allow it to steep three to five minutes (depending on how strong you like it)
  • Pour a cup of tea

You can also make the tea in a mug using an infuser basket or tea ball. Whichever way you choose, the leaves can be used a few times, so you can get several cups of tea.

If you choose to make pu-erh in the traditional gonfu style (where steeping time is only around 10 seconds per brew), then you can maintain the tea’s flavor up to 10 times, or even more.

Per cup, pu-erh tea contains around 65 milligrams of caffeine. When using the same tea leaves for multiple cups of tea, the first cup will contain the majority of the tea’s caffeine content. Subsequent pours will contain significantly less caffeine. A cup of pu-erh will also contain more or less caffeine depending on steep time (a longer steep equals more caffeine). Caffeine content can also vary depending upon the tea’s age.

Risks and Side Effects

Drinking pu-erh tea is typically safe for most adults in moderate amounts (around four cups per day max). Due to the pu-erh tea caffeine content, it’s not recommended to consume this variety of tea close to bedtime.

Drinking large amounts might cause unwanted pu-erh tea side effects due to the caffeine content, including headache, nervousness, sleep problems, vomiting, diarrhea, irritability, irregular heartbeat, tremor, heartburn, dizziness, ringing in the ears, convulsions and confusion.

Recommendations on caffeine consumption for pregnant women can vary, but typically the upper limit is 150–300 milligrams per day, which can equate to up to three cups of pu-erh tea.

Limited caffeine consumption is recommended for breastfeeding women as well. Ask your healthcare provider about appropriate limits if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Check with your doctor before consuming pu-erh tea if you have a medical condition, especially any of the following:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Bleeding disorder
  • Diabetes
  • Glaucoma
  • Heart condition
  • High blood pressure
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Osteoporosis

Check with your doctor before consuming pu-erh if are taking medication, especially any of the following, which are known to potentially interact with caffeine-rich pu-erh:

  • Cimetidine (Tagamet)
  • Ephedrine
  • Adenosine (Adenocard)
  • Quinolone antibiotics
  • Clozapine (Clozaril)
  • Disulfiram (Antabuse)
  • Estrogen
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox)
  • Lithium
  • Asthma medications (beta-adrenergic agonists)
  • Medications for depression (MAOIs)
  • Anticoagulant/antiplatelet drugs
  • Pentobarbital (Nembutal)
  • Phenylpropanolamine
  • Riluzole (Rilutek)
  • Theophylline
  • Verapamil (Calan, Covera, Isoptin, Verelan)
  • Birth control pills
  • Antidiabetes medications
  • Fluconazole (Diflucan)
  • Mexiletine (Mexitil)
  • Terbinafine (Lamisil)

Final Thoughts

  • What is pu-erh tea? It’s a dark tea made from tea leaves that goes through a unique fermentation and oxidation process.
  • The microorganisms that help to ferment the tea also play a huge role in the taste, color, scent and bioactive components of the tea.
  • It’s a bold tea that is loaded with interesting flavor, most often described as earthy.
  • Unlike other teas that can lose their flavor and benefits with age, pu-erh teas are similar to fine wine and actually can get better with age (because fermentation continues during storage).
  • Potential pu-erh tea benefits include:
    • Better digestive health, including decreased likelihood of constipation
    • Improved cholesterol levels
    • Weight and fat loss
    • Anti-aging skin effects
    • Increased antioxidant intake and lowered oxidative stress
    • Anti-cancer properties
  • While pu-erh tea has many potential benefits, always check with your doctor before using it as a natural remedy for any medical condition.

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