Wanted: Volunteers needed to test rooibos against allergies

Business Insider SA
Rooibos tea.
Rooibos tea.
  • A UCT professor is looking for volunteers to test whether rooibos effectively treats dust allergies by drinking the tea or squirting it up their noses.
  • House dust mites are one of the major causes of allergies. According to Allergy Foundation South Africa, a third of South Africans experience some allergic disease.
  • UCT researchers want to find out whether it is safe and effective for allergy sufferers to self-medicate with rooibos.
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About a third of South Africans suffer from allergies, many of them caused by house dust mites, according to Allergy Foundation South Africa. Professor Jonny Peter, head of allergology and immunology at the UCT Lung Institute, is looking to rooibos to offer them some home-brewed relief.

Rooibos, also known as Aspalathus linearis, is indigenous to the Western Cape and has been used for centuries to treat a multitude of ailments, ranging from insomnia to heartburn.

However, many therapeutic claims, such as its allergy-treating properties, have not been scientifically tested. The UCT team is recruiting about 80 people with dust-mite-induced nasal inflammation (called allergic rhinitis) to test whether rooibos can reduce their allergy symptoms.

First they will have to sniff a dust-mite mixture into each nostril. "It's called the nasal allergen challenge," Peter explains. "You put it into each nostril, and then measure how much snot the person produces, how much they sneeze, how much their nose gets blocked." After that, the volunteers will get two weeks of treatment – either drinking rooibos or snorting it – before testing their allergic response again.

In one study, the group will drink a set number of small cups of rooibos a day – three, six, or 12 cups, each about 120ml. In another study, the group will irrigate their noses with rooibos doses of different strength. Nasal irrigation is a common treatment for stuffy noses and cold symptoms, but usually uses salt water.

The doses are standardised and "it's not just like throwing a tea bag into water", Peter explains. Using a technique called liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry, the researchers have detailed the components of the rooibos doses. Through their study, they can determine whether rooibos actually has an effect on allergy symptoms, and if so identify the best dose and method of treatment.

Peter, whose research into rooibos is funded by the SA Rooibos Council, says he first got interested in the plant's allergy-battling properties when his small daughter got dermatitis. The nurse at the clinic told them to put damp rooibos teabags on the baby's inflamed skin. "And I thought, 'That’s an interesting idea,'" Peter says.

In a recent study, Peter and colleague Sarah Pedretti showed that rooibos fought allergy inflammation in a laboratory setting. But "there are hundreds of things that look good in cells in the lab", he says.

The current studies aim to test whether rooibos fights allergies in people. However, Peter is clear that the immediate goal of these studies is not to make a pharmaceutical product. "I want to address the question of whether I, as a lay person, can drink rooibos and have it impact my allergic disease," he says.

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