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12 May

Yerba Mate: Miracle Tea or Just Another Caffeine Kick?

yerbamateYerba mate (YERB-ah mah-TAY). Ever heard of it? It is an herb with a storied history as an alternative to traditional teas for the inhabitants of its native South America. I’ve received numerous emails recently asking about its properties and its role in the Primal Blueprint eating plan. Let’s dive straight in.

Yerba mate tea is prepared by steeping the dried leaves and twigs of the mate plant in hot water (not boiling water, which can make the tea bitter). It has an herbal, almost grassy, taste, with some varieties somewhat reminiscent of certain types of green tea. Traditionally, yerba mate is drunk communally from a hollow gourd with a metal straw, but a coffee mug works just as well (you know, for when your gourd is in the dishwasher). Like many teas and coffees, yerba mate is imbued with an impressive amount of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins and vitamin C. Minerals include manganese, potassium, and zinc, and the antioxidants include quercetin, theobromine, and theophylline.

But the big draw for most yerba mate enthusiasts is the promise of a “clean” caffeine-like buzz, free of jitters and unpleasantness, which yerba mate is said to provide. Drinkers report being in control of their wakefulness; they can stay up for hours, alert and on their game, but sleep is always right around the corner – if they want it. Basically, yerba mate is supposed to give you energy without the negative side effects. A common claim is that yerba mate is actually completely free of caffeine and that its stimulating effects come from a mysterious compound called mateine. Mateine, they say, is a stereoisomer of caffeine, thus giving it the stimulating qualities with none of the downfalls.

Mateine is actually caffeine. It’s just a synonym, possibly derived from the word “mate” itself. In fact, the caffeine content of dry mate leaves is similar to that of dried coffee beans and tea leaves (though brewed yerba mate tends to have lower levels). How do we then explain away all the anecdotal evidence of jitter-free wakefulness?

Well, there’s more to yerba mate than just caffeine/mateine. Take theobromine, for example. Theobromine, best known for being the primary alkaloid in cacao and highly toxic to dogs, exerts a smoother, longer-lasting stimulatory effect. Whereas caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, theobromine is an effective vasodilator, relaxing the smooth muscle in blood vessels and allowing better blood flow. It’s present in varying amounts in each variety of yerba mate, some with caffeine/theobromine ratios of 10:1 and others with ratios of 2:1, and can actually lower blood pressure in hypertensive individuals. Pure caffeine has the tendency to increase blood pressure. It’s plausible, then, that various ratios of theobromine and caffeine have different effects paired together than either do alone.

Still, as Jamie over at That Paleo Guy points out, the effect of caffeine on glucose tolerance and blood sugar control is somewhat troublesome. It can impair insulin sensitivity, even in healthy individuals. But is this actually a problem for healthy Primal eaters? Probably not, as long as you’re reasonable about your caffeine intake. Don’t live on a pot a day and avoid eating sugary baked goods with your coffee, and you’ll be fine. And remember – yerba mate is not coffee, and it’s not just caffeine. In fact, yerba mate extract has been shown to restore insulin sensitivity in obese rats. Even without that study, the yerba mate we drink has less caffeine than coffee, and about the same amount as most teas, which are linked with improved insulin sensitivity despite the caffeine content. The caffeine in yerba mate most likely isn’t an issue.

There’s also been some mildly troubling research into a possible link between yerba mate and certain cancers. Although this is purely epidemiological, researchers studying hot yerba mate drinkers in South America have noticed a positive correlation between hot mate intake and oral cancer in several studies. Similar correlations exist with other hot drinks too, though, so it could be a temperature issue. Yerba mate intake has also been associated – however weakly – with increased incidence of bladder, head and neck, and esophageal cancers. Hot temperatures probably can’t explain all of this (if there is any causation going on), but this study might shed some light: researchers found high levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in multiple varieties of yerba mate, perhaps from processing of the raw mate leaves (higher than in cigarette smoke).

I don’t mean to scare you away from yerba mate. I’ve had it, and it’s a very pleasant, mildly stimulating beverage. The antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals are nothing to scoff at, and it certainly feels less taxing on the body than the daily pots of coffee most people rely on. Tim Ferriss credits it for helping him write, and there are numerous other anecdotes from those that prefer it to coffee. And so, sneaky caffeine content and troubling cancer studies aside, I think yerba mate can be integrated into a healthy Primal eating strategy. Just don’t drink it scalding hot or by the liter (which appears to be an “excessive” dose). The occasional, even daily cup is probably fine. Grok on!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. I used to live in central and northern chile. I had my gourd and my silver straw for mate, though more popular in the winter time (September to April). people used it in their homes to sip on while also visiting and commenting on familial stuff. They sell ground mate by the kilo, up to 5 kilos, and you can get it just about anywhere.

    I knew of some people getting a spasm when a door was opened and the cold wind blew in. It was just a normal drink, even to mormons.

    In the US desert areas, I used to install drywall and do concrete formwork outside in dead heat. By drinking Yerba Mate once or twice a day, the effect messes up your internal thermostat. The body ‘thinks’ that the ambient hot temperature is cooler than it is, allowing you to work and not suffer as much from extreme heat. You don’t get any spasms, but then again, you make the preparation using a tea ball and a gallon or two of water in a jug (room temperature); maybe 3 tablespoons of sugar. It’s not an instant change. It takes a couple of weeks to kick in. Lento, and not really noticeable until you realise that you could take the heat better and still be sort of refreshed.

    Charlie Tuna wrote on October 11th, 2011
  2. Hi, I’m Alejandro. I’m from Argentina, I work in an office and I drink mate all day long, I generally don’t have any breakfast at all. I get to work at about 8 am, drink mate non stop until about 12, and I mean like over 1,5 or 2 liters on daily basis. I eat, wait an hour or so, and then drink another half liter or liter at the afternoon before going back home. I’m never constipated and always well filled with energy, and I don’t drink it looking for an effect, just my way of keeping hidrated and I like the taste. Mate is so common here that the company I work for always fills the kitchens with like, sugar, coffe, milk, etc, and mate. They have to put a lot of kilos of mate daily is the most consumed good.

    If you don’t drink mate in Argentina you are an alien, or unhuman.

    I’m not worried about overdosing it, there are people that practically live on yerba mate. My grandmother is from Uruguay, mate is like a religion to them, all of her ancestors lived over 100 years, she is 86 and she is filled with life and completely lucid.

    Alejandro wrote on October 27th, 2011
  3. The esophageal cancer study turned out to be linked not to yerba mate` but to drawing boiling water into the throat through a straw, which explains why the stats come mainly or only from a region where drinkers obviously add the water too hot. Use warm water and relax. cheers, Steve from Montreal.

    Steve wrote on October 31st, 2011
  4. Just started primal a little over 2 weeks ago, have lost about 5 pounds of fat, and added about 4 pounds of muscle, or somthing close to that. Have been taking fat% test with my electronic fat analyzer, same time every morning. LOVE THIS LIFE STYLE(Never go Hungry)!!!
    Excellent info on the effects on insulin from mate, now being a true Argentinian(living in the US):) ,I can go back to drinking my mate. Traditional Mate drinking is, relaxing, invigorating, and
    goes hand and hand with the primal life style, I think the part of enjoying it with friends as a social drinks, adds even more healthfull benefits:) But please try it the traditional way and not in tea bags, in my opinion that defeats the purpose.
    Salud

    Leandro wrote on November 1st, 2011
  5. I am from Guatemala, I read about Mate consumption in south american novels and it wasn’t until this Christmas I got my first taste of it, thanks to a gringa friend who loves the stuff. I started to drink it, warm as well as cold and I enjoy it both ways.
    I knew about the richness of antioxidants of this beverage and I was very happy to drink 2-3 cups a day because I recently was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
    Above remarks raise a particular concern for me. I will continue to drink it, but reducing it to one cup a day.
    This is a great export stuff from my argentinean hermanos!

    New Primal wrote on January 11th, 2012
  6. I have read about mate consumption in argentinean novels and it was until a couple of weeks ago I drank my first cup. I was introduced to it by a gringa friend of mine who is a devotee.
    I loved it and started to drink 2-3 cups a day both warm and cold after learning about a mate high content of antioxidants.
    A concern raised now that I read about a possible relation between some form of cancer and mate. I recently was diagnosed with bladder cancer and I don’t want to aggravate my condition.
    I am reducing now my mate intake to one cup a day, just in case.
    I love the taste of it and the energy I get from it. Great export product from my argentinean hermanos!

    guatemalanprimal wrote on January 11th, 2012
    • If you have bladder cancer the first thing you should do is stop smoking anything. at all.
      You should of course follow your urologists advice and procedures as it is almost completely manageable but never cured.
      Other that smoking which is obvious and well known any foreign substance in your body is suspect. So you should quit all exotic weird teas drugs as well. And of course all cured or burnt or barbecued food or smoked meat or fish or cheese.
      I would also quit all antioxidants vitamins and xanthines including coffee tea cocoe and yerba mate of course. Also any antioxidants. The only exception would be any vitamin in which you are deficient.
      I would quit all processed junk food eating only fruit vegetables fish wild game mushrooms.
      But all this is availbale information as to what might cause and prevent cancer.

      But the overwhelming issue is quitting smoking.

      The kidneys filter blood and concentrate all toxic substances. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which just means several six sided hexagonical carbon rings are stuck together and mimic DNA and RNA and as such cause cancer.
      PAH are in tobacco smoke and yerba mate.

      Alexander Jablanczy wrote on March 23rd, 2013
  7. I just started consuming Yerba mate, it makes me feel fantastic. I was wondering if the cancer study checked out the water to see if it contributed to the incidence of cancer ? Are they going to do more studies on it? I drink at least 6 cups a day.

    Catherine Esposito wrote on February 16th, 2012
  8. Just started getting into Yerba mate and really love it. Great taste. Use raw honey to lightly sweeten it. Make a pot in the morning and drink it thru the day.

    Increased energy and high much different then coffee. noticed right away that my sleep is uninterupted and i am alert and awake until I all of a sudden become tired and am able to fall asleep alot quicker. All within a few days of drinking it. BOOYAH!

    Brian wrote on February 19th, 2012
  9. playadito is my favorite. The prices on yerba went up in Argentina this year so don’t be surprised if they rise elsewhere as well. 1/2 kilo of playadito is currently 13 pesos or so depending on where you shop. I always drink mate while I’m working :-)

    Ross Hunter wrote on June 26th, 2012
  10. I drank that stuff constantly when I was in Argentina – all day long and I felt super jittery. And I got diarrea. It may have helped me lose weight (which I did not need to do). I enjoyed it – it’s an acquired taste but I don’t know that I recommend it for health benefits… but that’s based on my experience…

    Alissa wrote on July 20th, 2012
  11. I am new to drinking mate and I have fallen in love with it. I wanted to say that everytime there is a natural product that has very high health benefits, pharmaceutical companies do studies to discredit it in someway, I have noticed. Very strange they dont publish the horrendous side effects of unnatural pharmaceuticals.

    ara wrote on October 24th, 2012
    • The Greek word for drugs and poisons is the same farmakon pharmakon φαρμακον.
      Yes drugs are poisons and poisons are drugs. But it matters not that they are synthetic or natural.
      Many poisons are natural substances such as the hemlock by which Socrates committed suicide. There are thousands of lethally poisonous plants and animals and venomous snakes spiders molluscs insects and of course mushrooms. In Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet they are killed by poisons. So did Lucretia Borgia kill many by poisons.
      All these were natural substances as there was no synthetic poison until the last century.
      Cocaine itself is natural.
      Yerba mate is a poison as is nicotine in tobacco and caffein in coffee.

      Alexander Jablanczy wrote on March 23rd, 2013
  12. Forty or more yars ago I drank it for a while then I read it can cause hemorrhagic nephritis so I quit it immediately. But that was a Jamaican herb tea though called yerba maté..
    The story is very complicated. Xanthines are related to one of the nucleic bases of DNA called guanine which is what a coincidence! comes from guano the excrement of South American birds. So are theophylline (tea) theobromine (cocoa) uric acid from purine as well as caffeine. All are very high in N nitrogen which makes them basic as O oxygen would make them acidic. Because they are analogues of nucleic acids or bases it is not surprising that every five years there is a report out that they cause cancer of some sort then that they prevent cancers. Even antioxidants usually trumpeted as anti cancer chemicals are now suspected of actually causing or promoting cancers.
    This has to do with epigenetics smallRNA heritable acquired characteristics which of course is Lamarckian and blows Darwin out of the waters of Galapagos and Rio de le Plata.

    Be that as it may the new subspecialty of science or medicine or biology that is addictology is getting a boost from all this new cellular and molecular knowledge.

    It is clear now that our bodies make millions of chemicals and thousands of enzymes and receptors and transmitters of which one is CART cocaine and amphetamine regulated transcript through which all stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine and all xanthines work as neurotransmitters. So prehistoric man has been using what the French call stupéfiants mind altering substances which make us stupid and stooped and stupefied.
    Marihuana is not the entry drug but cocoa coffee tea and nicotine in tobacco.
    Also of course the narcotics of which the original is opium and of course alcohol. All these destroy the receptors they stimulate and cause most of our diseases cancers liver and kidney and heart failure.
    It is quite a chore to get rid of these addictions in our life as they have become deeply embedded in our cultures.
    Clearly yerba mate is the second cult weed of South America after Cocoa and cocaine.
    The ancient Mexicans and Peuvians had gods for these plants just as the Romans had Bacchus and the Greeks Dionysius as the gods of wine and alcohol though they didnt know it but they knew of its inebriating qualities.
    Zen Buddhist Japanese have a veritable cult of their green tea as its seventh cup transports one into an altered state.
    We have degraded these quasi religious mystical uses to drugs of abuse and addiction.

    The joke is that they are all unnecessary as we make adrenalin dopamine GABA endorphin enkephalin dynorphin endoaccanbinoids and CART which are as potent as caffeine or yerba mate or tea or alcohol or morphine or cannabis or even cocaine or amphetamine and hallicinogens more potent than LSD or muscarine .

    We can get high or mystical or pain relief or stimulated or sedated or becoime insane by the resources of our own bodies own natural products and processes without exogenous garbage
    by means of art music science poetry exercise sports meditation prayer books writing painting wood carving dancing singing playing musical instuments and so on. No need for any of these exogenous stupéfiants.

    GPCR is not great proletarian cultural revolution but G protein coupled receptor which serves as the main super receptor of our bodies and handles 5O% of all drugs chemicals neurotransmitters. Quite a trip to get familiar with it. I also recomend the best website on the net the BRAIN FROM TOP TO BOTTOM a McGill website which is not thoroughly cleansed of modern mans addiction to addiction but it gives a good start at any level of knowledge and ignorance the latter of the two being more in evidence as always.

    No sane person would consume any of this stuff nor an ethical MD ever prescribe any of it if they had the faintest clue about organic and biochemistry physiology but above all molecular biology and cell biology.

    You can see uncontacted Brazilian Indians already smoking some weed. Maybe we are not Homo sapiens but animals in search of addiciting mind altering substances.

    f

    Alexander Jablanczy wrote on March 22nd, 2013
  13. I found your post insulting to Uruguayans and other South American peoples. Making fun of their use of a gourd to drink out of only shows ignorance. Please do some solid research before making a page and posting incorrect information on it. This is not good information nor is it respectful to those who consume this tea.

    Goddess wrote on March 30th, 2013
  14. Im from Argentina, and i was wondering what people from the north were saying about the yerba mate. i’ve been drinking yerba mate since i was a 10 years old, and sometimes i drink a full thermo… and sincerely i never heard of any cancer victims associated with yerba mate intake. i drink it in the morning, and in the evening, and i never thought about omg it has caffeine or keeps me awake or anything, until my nort american boyfriend started drinking it and actually end up giving up coffee for mate… he drinks less than me though.
    Yerba mate is great, but i never even attempted to buy a brand that is not from argentina. And since i dont like bitter things… i always put a teaspoon of sugar in the water… so much better!!! Enjoy!!

    Nadia wrote on April 6th, 2013
  15. If you haven’t tried mate’s sister plant (also a holly) from the United States, you should give it a try. It’s the only caffeinated plant in North America…..yaupon holly.

    Maridel wrote on May 13th, 2013
  16. I have a friend who has enjoyed Mate all of her life, and is always in the best of health. After reading about the many health benefits, along with my friend’s endorsement, I started drinking a cup in the morning for the past two months now, however, I’m not seeing any of the benefits I read about. I understand that it may take longer, but I think I should be seeing some kind of benefit by now. No increased energy, mental clarity, weight loss, better immunity, etc. (I can just hear some of you out there saying that it might take allot more than a cup of tea!) Anyway, I’ve tried two different kinds/brands of Yerba Mate, one that is dried and smoked, and another that is “fresh green” (non-smoked). I read that the smoked type may contain carcinogenics, so I’ve mostly been drinking the fresh green type. I’m not particular about the taste, so, which of these two processes has the better health benefits? Thanks!

    Newbie wrote on July 27th, 2013
  17. There are two plants related to Yerba Mate which are also consumed as tea. One is Guayusa which is consumed in central and south America.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilex_guayusa

    The other is called Yaupon and is found in the southern U.S in states such as Texas and Florida.

    http://www.yauponasitea.com/yaupon-news-research/

    As with Yerba Mate, Gayusa and Yaupon were consumed by the Native people of South, Central and North America.

    Acteon wrote on August 24th, 2013
  18. I been paleo for 2 months and my girlfriend who is from Buenos Aries Argentina recently introduced me to mate, i drink cruz de malta brand, had to visit a argentinian shop with her to get what i needed, anyone living in london uk give casa argentina a try will get more when i run out, its now a daily ritual for me to have mate, it is worth drinking mate as i have felt better in myself physically since i started drinking it

    Thomas Gordon wrote on September 8th, 2013
  19. I am drinking my first Yerba Mate Guyaki Pure Empower Mint right at this moment. Picked it up at a health food store in Dallas, not realizing it wasn’t actually tea. It’s bottled and I’m drinking it cold. I’ve been really lazy today so I thought this might pep me up a little and get me out the door. It’s a little sweet for my taste – I usually drink unsweetened iced green teas (coffee almost never cause if makes me crazy and upsets my tummy) – and now I see this mate blend has 9gs of organic cane sugar in it. Dang! I also get a sort-of smoky flavor aftertaste which I suppose is an acquired taste; not sure if I like it yet. Halfway through the bottle now, and I do feel more energetic, in a different sort of way than with green tea. And maybe a little headache for which I blame the cane sugar. Why must they always sneak so much sugar into supposedly healthy drinks! Not gonna finish the bottle now because it’s a two serving container and more is not always better :)

    Cat wrote on September 29th, 2013
  20. I buy Yerbe Mate Royale (made by Wisdom of the Ancients) from Vitacost.com. It is instant tea so I drink it cold before working out. I just put it in a couple of ounces of water & drink with a straw as I don’t care too much for tea. Helps my focus & endurance but I’m the type who gets the afternoon crash because of caffeine. When I was vegan for 10 years I never needed caffeine but now after turning 40, having a special needs son & eating more meat I find I need it. Meat seems to help my workout recovery & muscle gain, yet makes me feel sluggish. I am grain free but I love my sweet potatoes & squash!
    Blessings!!

    Train insane or remain the same!

    Keri wrote on January 6th, 2014
  21. As for the correlation between drinking yerba mate and cancer, the researchers neglected to note the even stronger correlation between those drinking yerba mate, and heavy smokers which just might have something to do with why so many of those drinking yerba mate have cancer!??

    James wrote on February 11th, 2014
  22. The Mate (the hollow gourd) should never go into the dishwasher!!!

    Daniele Napolitano wrote on March 14th, 2014
  23. I really love mate and I drink it every day. One of the things I love most is the whole mate culture. There is all sorts of folk songs and legends that go together with mate, but are rarely know outside the mate regions of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

    Celso wrote on June 15th, 2014
  24. I’m personally a fan of yerba maté.
    I spend some time in Paraguay and got hooked very easy.

    Now, I think to open the discussion on yerba maté and caffeine, you have to make a difference between drinking it the traditional way (you know with the gourd, which I don’t advice you to put in the dishwasher by the way, especially if yours is wooden or from vegetal origins like mine ;-) or as an instant powder or pre-bottled.
    Because, while it’s true that most yerba contains about the same amount of caffeine as say coffee: by pouring water over it over and over again, you are able to extract a lot more of it (I’m guessing drinking it hot or cold also will have an influence, although strangely enough I get more caffeine-effect from the cold terere).
    and whether you are drinking alone or in a group (as it was traditionally meant: sharin the buzz :p).

    For me personally I prefer mate over coffee, but I too can testify to its nerve-wrecking effects when you ‘overdose’ so to speak :). So try a smaller gourd or drink in company (some people avoid drinking the first few sips, because they contain the most caffeine and are also more bitter in taste). I guess as with coffee it’s also something you will get used to.

    As to it’s addictiveness: if you drink mate for a while on the same time of day and then you stop for a day you will get a headache not long after your usual ‘mate-time’. So I would definetely say it has some kind of addictive features.

    In my personal opinion, if you are not already hooked on caffeine, it’s better to avoid it all together, but if you are looking for something to switch it up a little, yerba mate might be a good alternative!

    About the relation with cancers, be aware that in south-american countries maté is also shared by drinking from the same straw (whereas at least here in Europe, we like to each have our own glass for hygienic purposes). I’ve always wondered, whether that wouldn’t be an easy way for diseases or virusses to spread around, regardless of the drink itself.

    Veerle wrote on June 30th, 2014
  25. I’ve only started drinking Yerba Mate within the last two months and I’m now a firm believer that coffee, tea and mate effect everyone differently. I love a good cup of cappuccino but it makes me gitty and jittery and once the sugar and caffeine wears off, I come crashing down like a house of cards. I can’t say that I’m a big fan of green tea but I switched to green tea for the health benefits and less caffeine. I never felt jittery or gitty with green tea but what I did often experience was irritability regardless of whether I had one cup or three in a day. So I switched to drinking herbal teas like rooibos. I’m a sipper, so I’m always looking for something warm and flavorful to enjoy. I got curious about Yerba Mate and gave it a try. The taste reminded me of green tea but upon my first experience of drinking mate, I felt this relaxed euphoria. I don’t know if that’s typical for others that drink mate but for me that was the biggest difference in relation to coffee and tea. I experience a sense of sustained energy when I workout without any jitters, irritability or crashing. For me these results are based upon me drinking only one cup of mate a day. I experimented and took to having three cups a day for three days and experienced the most freaked out state I have ever experienced. I was gitty and paranoid at the same time and it took me all most a week to get back to feeling normal again. That’s when I realized that for me, how much caffeine and the caffeine source has a lot to do with how caffeine effects me. As long as I have one 8oz cup of warm steeped loose leaf (1.5 tsp) or one bag of Yerba Mate in the afternoon I get sustained energy with a relaxing peaceful sense of well being without ever experiencing sleeplessness, irritability, jitters, gittiness or crashing. But this is just my experience. Others may be different. I now prefer mate over green tea but I still like a cappuccino every now and then.

    Raimi wrote on September 24th, 2014

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