A student making the most of tea time with a cup of proudly South African Rooibos tea. Source: Carla Visagie

Study Investigates if Rooibos can curb Obesity

Zahlé Eloff

There have been many musings on the health benefits of Rooibos, but researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) are currently doing a study to determine if these are mere speculations.

The study, led by Dr Hanél Sadie-van Gijsen, Senior Researcher at the Division of Medical Physiology at SU, is investigating whether Rooibos has the power to curb obesity.

The research study is focused on whether Rooibos can relieve oxidative stress and inflammation caused during obesity, as it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities. Oxidative stress refers to an imbalance between free radicals (oxygen-containing molecules with an uneven number of electrons) and the body’s ability to stop the damage they cause by neutralisation with antioxidants.

“Fat stem cells – adipose stem cells (ASCs) occur within fat tissue to make new fat cells, but we actually have very little information about the effects of obesity-inducing diets (high sugar or high fat) on ASCs. We do know that the development of obesity involves oxidative stress and fat tissue inflammation,” Sadie-van Gijsen said.

The study started in October 2018 and is part of a parent research project. The parent project looks at the various health aspects of Rooibos and has been going on for many years.

“I have been working on fat stem cells for years, but I was invited onto this project by collaborators who were investigating the connection between obesity and heart disease, and whether Rooibos can relieve obesity-induced heart disease,” Sadie-van Gijsen said.

According to the Global Burden of Disease study, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, 70% of South African women and almost 40% of men have been recorded to be overweight. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that this research project has gained a lot of attention, both nationally and internationally. This project will enable researchers to know more about what a high-sugar and high-fat diet effect have on the body.

Sadie-van Gijsen said that the first two phases of the project have been completed. These are the feeding study and the cell culture study. However, she says they still have a lot of samples to analyse.

“Various collaborators are working on different aspects of the study, and the speed at which results are obtained depend a lot on how much money is available, but I think some results will be available within the next twelve months.”

According to Sadie-van Gijsen the research project has been partly funded by the South African Rooibos Council.

The SA Rooibos Council announced in April that they will be ploughing R4.5m into South African studies that research the plants healing properties and Sadie-van Gijsen’s study is partly covered by the funds.

Joe Swart, SA Rooibos Council research director, said in a Times Live article that reliable data on the tea’s health benefits are essential, “since many other herbal-based treatments lack definitive evidence”.

According to Sadie-van Gijsen, supplements for weight loss currently tend to either have dangerous side-effects or they don’t work. A lot of these weight loss supplements promise to deliver, but the users are often met with disappointment. The fact that Rooibos has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities in contrast to the oxidation and inflammatory characteristics seen in obesity, could mean that it will have the desired effect on a healthy level.

“The existing supplements that are advertised to work for weight-loss have modest effects at best, and many of them simply don’t work. Also, many off-the-shelf weight-loss supplements and even prescription pharmaceutical products have unacceptable side-effects, and none of these products have even been tested in ASCs. We don’t know yet if Rooibos will be superior, but at least we are conducting proper scientific tests.”

Prof Amanda Swart, a Biochemistry lecturer at SU and a researcher interested in the health benefits of Rooibos, has been studying the benefits of Rooibos for the past two decades.

“Globally, there is a major shift toward the use of preventative and complementary supplements to promote well-being and help curb the progression of disease, which also coincides with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Traditional Medicine strategy where traditional medicines are being prioritised for the improvement of health,” Swart said in a Medical Academic article.

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