Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension

Recently, researchers from Taiwan pitted the herbal tea hibiscus against obesity. They gave hibiscus to overweight individuals and reported that subjects showing reduced body weight. However, after 12 weeks on hibiscus subjects only lost about three pounds, only one and a half pounds over placebo. Hibiscus is clearly no magic fix for obesity.

The purported cholesterol-lowering property of hibiscus tea looked a bit more promising. Some older studies suggested as much as an 8% reduction from drinking two cups a day for a month. When all the studies are put together, though, the results are pretty much a wash. This may be because only about 50% of people respond at all to drinking the equivalent of between two to five cups a day, though those that do may get a respectable 12% drop. That’s nothing like the 30% one can get within weeks of eating a healthy, plant-based diet, though.

Hibiscus may really shine in treating high blood pressure, a disease affecting a billion people and killing millions. Up until 2010, there wasn’t sufficient high quality research to support the use of hibiscus tea to treat hypertension, but there are now randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled studies where hibiscus tea is compared to artificially colored and flavored water that looks and tastes like hibiscus tea, and the tea lowers blood pressure significantly better.

We’re still not sure how it works, but hibiscus appears to boost nitric oxide production, which could help our arteries relax and dilate better. Regardless, an updated review acknowledged that the daily consumption of hibiscus tea may indeed significantly lower blood pressures in people with hypertension.

How does hibiscus compare to other blood pressure interventions? The premier clinical trial when it comes to comprehensive lifestyle modification for blood pressure control is the PREMIER Clinical Trial. Realizing that nine out of ten Americans are going to develop hypertension, researchers from John Hopkins randomized 800 men and women with high blood pressure into one of three groups. One was the control group, the so-called “advice only group,” where patients were just told to lose weight, cut down on salt, increase exercise and eat healthier. In the two behavioral intervention groups the researchers got serious. Eighteen face-to-face sessions, groups meetings, food diaries, physical activity records, and calorie and sodium intake monitoring. One intervention group just concentrated on exercise; the other included exercise and diet. Researchers pushed the DASH diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables and low in full-fat dairy products and meat. In six months subjects achieved a 4.3 point drop in systolic blood pressure, compared to the control, slightly better than the lifestyle intervention without the diet.

A few points might not sound like a lot—that’s like someone going from a blood pressure of 150 over 90 to a blood pressure of 146 over 90—but on a population scale a five point drop in the total number could result in 14% fewer stroke deaths, 9% fewer fatal heart attacks, and 7% fewer deaths every year overall.

A cup of hibiscus tea with each meal didn’t just lower blood pressure by three, four, or five points, but by seven points, from an average of 129 down to 122. In fact, tested head-to-head against a leading blood-pressure drug, Captopril, two cups of strong hibiscus tea every morning (five tea bags for the two cups) was as effective in lowering blood pressure as a starting dose of 25mg of captopril taken twice a day.

So hibiscus tea is as good as drugs, without side-effects, and better than diet and exercise? Well, the lifestyle interventions in the PREMIER study were pretty wimpy. As public health experts noted, the PREMIER study was only asking for 30 minutes of exercise a day, whereas the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of an hour a day.

Diet-wise, the lower the animal fat intake, and the more plant sources of protein the PREMIER participants were eating, the better the diet appeared to work. This may explain why vegetarian diets appear to work even better, and the more plant-based, the lower the prevalence of hypertension.

On the DASH diet, subjects cut down on meat, but were still eating it every day, so would qualify as nonvegetarians in the Adventist 2 study (highlighted in my video Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension) which looked at 89,000 Californians. It found that those who only ate meat on a weekly basis had 23% lower rates of high blood pressure. Those who cut out all meat except fish had 38% lower rates. Those eating no meat at all, vegetarians, have less than half the rate. The vegans—cutting out all animal protein and fat—appeared to have thrown three quarters of their risk for this major killer out the window.

One sees the same kind of step-wise drop in diabetes rates as one’s diet gets more and more plant-based, and a drop in excess body weight, such that only those eating completely plant-based diets in the Adventist 2 study fell into the ideal weight category. Could that be why those eating plant-based have such great blood pressure? Maybe it’s just because they’re so skinny. I’ve previously shown how those eating plant-based just have a fraction of the diabetes risk even at the same weight. but what about hypertension?

The average American has what’s called prehypertension, which means the top number of our blood pressure is between 120 and 139. We don’t have hypertension yet, which starts at 140, but we may be well on our way. Compare that to the blood pressure of those eating whole food plant-based diets. In one study, those eating plant-based didn’t have blood pressures three points lower, four points lower, or even seen points lower, but 28 points lower. However, the group eating the standard American diet was, on average, overweight with a BMI over 26, still better than most Americans, while the vegans were a trim 21—that’s 36 pounds lighter.

Maybe the only reason those eating meat, eggs, dairy, and processed junk had such higher blood pressure was because they were overweight. Maybe the diet per se had nothing to do with it?

To solve that riddle we would have to find a group still eating the standard American diet, but as slim as vegans. To find a group that trim, researchers had to use long-distance endurance athletes, who ate the same crappy American diet, but ran an average of 48 miles per week for 21 years. Anyone who runs almost two marathons a week for 20 years can be as slim as a vegan—no matter what they eat!

How did the endurance runners compare to the couch potato vegans? It appears that if we run an average of about a thousand miles every year our blood pressures can rival some couch potato vegans. That doesn’t mean we can’t do both, but it may be easier to just eat plants.

Those who’ve been following my work for years have seen how my videos have evolved. In the past, the hibiscus results may have been the whole article or video. But thanks to everyone’s support, I’ve been able to delegate the logistics to staff and concentrate more on the content creation. This allows me to do deeper dives into the literature to put new findings into better context. The posts are a bit longer, but hopefully they’re more useful—let me know what you think!

For such a leading killer, hypertension has not gotten the coverage it deserves on NutritionFacts.org. Here’s a few videos, with more to come:

So should we all be drinking hibiscus tea every day?  This is the first of a four part series on the latest on hibiscus. Stay tuned for the next three:

For another comparison of those running marathons and those eating plants, see: Arteries of Vegans vs. Runners

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Amy / Flickr