Pu’erh, The Body, and Are You Confused Yet!?

In the west, tea is annoyingly difficult to separate from its health claims. Will this help me lose weight? Will this cure cancer? blah blah blah… Due to its post-fermentation, pu’erh has its own set of purported health benefits many based off its status as a chic probiotic. Most seasoned vendors and drinkers roll their eyes at these, but most everyone has their own set of beliefs on how the different types of pu’erh can affect the body. You don’t have to look much further than a tea vendor’s FAQ to find a smorgasbord of questions and answers about the supposed health benefits of tea. This article is not intended to be a health guide, nor an advertisement or critique of any particular school of thought.

Tea Session
Tea Session.

Claim: Pu’erh will help me lose weight.

There’s a lot of press on pu’erh and weight loss. This is largely a western concoction that most intermediate and veteran pu’erh drinkers scoff at. Of course if you’re kicking a soda or sugary drink habit, you’ll lose some weight but this isn’t really because of the mystical, magical property of pu’erh. It’s because you’ve significantly reduced your caloric intake and replaced it with something without calories (tea). Duhh..

Claim: Young Pu’erh is Cooling to the Body & Fermented Pu’erh is Warming to the Body

The idea that pu’erh can be cooling or warming is more of an eastern claim and can be traced back to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Here’s a couple basics on Yin and Yang body types.. Yin is a colder body disposition. People that are Yin get cold easily and don’t usually sweat as heavily. Yang is considered a warmer constitution and is defined by more heated and aggressive qualities. Teas like ripe pu’erh would be considered warming or Yang and are considered a good balancing tea for those who are inherently cooler (yin). Conversely the colder nature of young pu’erh would be filed under the Yin type and be craved by those with Yang constitutions.

Some believe that genetically Europeans tend towards the Yang or warmer disposition, and east Asian tend to be more Yin or colder. This hypothesis would dictate that east Asians prefer more matured tea whereas westerners might be OK with the inherently coldness of young or fresh pu’erh.

Claim: The Pu’erh For You is Partially Dictated by Environment & Your Diet

When I was just about to travel to India, several people told me that it was inevitable that I’d get sick in my first few days there before my body adjusts to the diet and the climate. This claims operates under a similar concept dictated by environment and diet… In Zhang Jinghong’s Puer Tea Ancient Caravans & Urban Chic she proposes that the preferred type of pu’erh is directly tied in with the local climate and diet. A sort of synergistic relationship..

Hot and humid Hong Kong is famous for drinking boatlods of ripe and traditionally stored pu’erh. Pu’erh was traditionally consumed in Dim Sum or Yum Cha as a fermented drink to help cleanse the stomach from the copious amounts of pork fat. Their diet is also very different from the much cooler and drier Beijing where greener teas like young pu’erh and green tieguanyin are preferred. Zhang cites a couple anecdotes, where people traveled to other parts of China and initially struggling to adjust, before adopting both the diet and tea consumption.

  • What’s the ideal pu’erh to compliment our ‘Murican diet of BBQ, Pizza, and Burgers? You tell me!

Claim: Moldy Pu’erh is Bad For You

This one is pretty obvious. Most everyone agrees to some extent (tea covered in rainbow-colored mold is not good for you), but there’s several different degrees here. There are those that believe that anything stored somewhat wet is moldy and undrinkable/bad for your health. A common symptom cited is a sore throat. This view is especially prevalent many places where dry-stored and young pu’erh is predominantly consumed, i.e. Kunming and Beijing. In Zhang’s book the farmers also prefer the young, fresh tea! Naysayers of this claim will often cite inexperience with older pu’erh as the cause for unnecessary skepticism.

Another common belief is that yellow, green, or whatever mold is bad and should not be consumed but white mold is OK. After all pu’erh is supposed to be alive. It’s about that good mold! Just use a tooth brush, brush it away, and chip off a piece.

2000s Caked Tea
Trad. Hk-Stored tea or “Moldy Crap Tea” according to some.

Claim: Young Pu’erh is Bad For Your Stomach

This is best summed up by Marshaln in the post aptly titled stomach problems and in Hster’s post on tea reflections. There’s a belief especially prevalent amongst drinkers in southern China that drinking too much young pu’erh can irreversibly damage your stomach. Teas that have been fermented, like ripe pu’erh or matured sheng, have mellowed out and are more palatable and agreeable on the gut. Drinkers will also cite that it’s good to have food in your stomach before drinking young pu’erh.

Claim: Most Young Pu’erh is Bad For Your Stomach Except for Gushu

A subsection of the above claim, but arguing that there’s an exception for young gushu. They will cite the quality and purity of the base material. With lots of fake gushu flooding the market and the subjectivity of stomach trouble, this is really difficult to prove one way or the other.

  • There’s also various beliefs on if truly wild material are OK to drink.

Claim: Pu’erh can go through Awkward Stages

If you are to believe every single claim here.. You would. Avoid mold.. Avoid young tea… Now, if that’s not confusing enough… There’s those that argue that there’s an awkward stage for raw pu’erh. This awkward stage is basically a stage where a pu’erh will temporarily go into a phase where it isn’t particularly pleasant to drink. This stage is most obvious in sheng that’s aged enough to lose its fresh notes but not old enough to have developed much maturity. The tea during this phase may not be great to drink. Some believe that it may just not taste good but is OK enough to drink, but there’s also those that believe that it’s bad for you.. Blegh…. Why don’t we just give up already!

2012 Heart of the Old Tree, 2012 Impression
Young Pu’erh. Ouch my stomach?
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23 responses to “Pu’erh, The Body, and Are You Confused Yet!?”

  1. Thanks James! Interesting food for thought. My own experience is sometimes opposite of the standard claims. I’m cold natured (ie, skinny), but I prefer young raw puerh. Also, my seboritic dermatitis seems to have almost gone away when I switched from ripe to raw puerh. I wonder if there are enzymes or something in the tea that helped to balance my gut, since I believe that skin problems are often related to microbiotic imbalances in the intestines. Or perhaps gushu or wild trees add some missing nutrients to our diet. As you said, when we are drinking something natural like tea, we’re not eating or drinking other junk… and maybe that is the only benefit 🙂

    Thanks for giving us so much to think about each week.

    • Thanks for chiming in Charlie. It’s quite a complicated and confusing topic indeed. Obviously how pu’erh affects an individual is important. I just wish it were easier to figure out.

  2. I am relatively new to the world of sheng. I recently tried a ten year old tuocha and it really gave me stomach discomfort for a day or two. I felt it about halfway through my first session and stayed with me for the next couple of days. Enough so that after only my second or third taste of sheng, I have decided that it is not something I should drink. I also have Ulcerative Colitis which I am sure does not help the fact. Thanks for this article and the links found within. It was helpful to see it isn’t just me.

  3. The weight loss claim may have something to do with lightening the load in your wallet if into really good sheng.

  4. What’s the ideal pu’erh to compliment our ‘Murican diet of BBQ, Pizza, and Burgers? You tell me!

    2005 8653. ‘nough said.

  5. Hi James, it looks like either a spam link or a typo was inserted in the third paragraph (about cooling/warming). Otherwise, awesome article!

  6. I have been living in Hangzhou for over two years now. I buy my teas from a store which sources their Pu’er from Yunnan province, naturally. I have spent some time in this shop sampling varieties of Pu’er and chatting with the owners and other customers. I can assure you that the weight loss benefit is not merely a ‘Western concoction’. I have not only heard the shop owners make this claim upon my first visit, I heard plenty of reports from Chinese women, too. Some actually even showed before and after pictures. In local cafés, both 普洱茶 and 生茶 are advertised as “weightloss tea”. ShengCha, the raw variety, is said to lower blood pressure and clean the dIgestive tract. While properly aged and fermented Pu’er (at least 5 to 10 years) helps digestion through microbiotic properties, by increasing Yang in your abdomen it warms the kidneys, speeds up metabolism and helps flush out toxins and fight water retention. It also is said to prevent arteriosclerosis. To many people Pu’er and ShengCha are not even the same thing, but Chinese people will most often be heard saying ‘to each person, his or her own preference’. If you happen to speak Chinese, here is what one of the country’s leading experts on Pu’er tea has to say on its health benefits: http://m.puercn.com/zixun/p-381228.html
    This should once and for all bust the myth of weightloss being merely a Western fiction.

    • Hi Sabine,

      I suppose that’s a fair. In my experiences in Asia, I’ve heard it mentioned a few times but it’s hardly a focus. I’ll admit that Asia is a big place and it’s hard to disconnect TCM and pu’erh in certain circles. Perhaps a better argument is that the weightloss nonsense that has spawned from the western market (see Dr. Oz) is independent from TCM and the eastern veins of health benefits.


  7. I have noticed my own eyes (and some of my pu’erh peers’ eyes) having a darker cast… irises less clear, the whites more muddied. This is a change I have seen since I started drinking regular shou. I am curious if anyone else has observed this, and has thoughts about why.

  8. I don’t get why people keep bashing young sheng, I drink it every day in the morning, on an empty stomach, no negative effects for me (also, my favourite type of tea). Obviously, everybody’s body is different, and some people might be more sensitive to young sheng, but it’s not the fault of the tea type itself!

    • I will say that most people that do eventually have a hard time with young sheng started out fine and the stomach issues seemed to build with time. Obviously this is not the case for everyone, but just because you can drink something now doesn’t mean it’ll always be that way!

  9. Does it really have to do with puerh or is it just tea in general? My stomache often has a hard time with Indian teas, usually Darjeelings. Including organic products, so it’s unlikely to be the pesticides. Doing gong fu sessions of black tea is not easy on my stomache either. Maybe the brits learned to drink tea with milk to avoid the stomache irritation?

    I think the same goes for coffee which may even be worse. Yerba I haven’t had for a while but don’t recall it being a problem.

    • Of course there’s a lot of claims about tea and its impact on the body. This article is focused on pu’erh specifically.

  10. It saddnes me that tea, like so many other things, is being marketed as a weight loss aid or other health fad. Yes, tea can have some benefits to the drinker, but since we all have different genetic dispositions, health issues, metabolic dispositions, stress levels ect., so it is just best to try a variety of pu’erh tea and see what suits you best both in the short term and long term. As some one who has cliniclally elevated cortisol, hypothyrodism, and kidney disease, I find most health claims attached to most food groups and beverages akin to snake oil becuase each individual’s endocrine system is so different, and often changes wtih age and other health and stress related issues. …that as a result is impossible to claim that tea will impact each person in the same manner. Having said that, I do enjoy people’s feedback as to whether a pu’erh is calming or energizing…understanding that my experience may be different. I find the observations of my fellow tea drinkers more helpful than any dubiously motivated ‘health claim’.

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