Yerba Mate: A Closer Look

Also known as Ilex paraguariensis, yerba mate has a long history of use in South America. 16th century explorers recorded the Guarani Indians of Paraguay brewing the tea to “produce exhilaration and relief from fatigue.” Modern nutritional science can identify the nutritional makeup of the plant in more detail.

Part of the holly family, the yerba mate plant displays leaves that share the same stiff and leathery texture. Widely cultivated, it grows well at between 1,500 and 2,000 feet above sea level in the rainforests of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil and Paraguay. Although normally consumed as a tea, some South Americans chew the leaves of the plant to obtain the energy boost associated with the plant. It is these leaves in which most of the nutritional compounds reside.

Yerba mate leaves contain 196 chemicals known to play an active role in the human body. These include the B vitamins, but also vitamins A, C and E. Various minerals exist in the leaves also, including calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and selenium.The powerful anti-oxidant action can be attributed to the 11 polyphenol compounds present in the plant. Perhaps the most attention centres on the mateine, a xanthine compound chemically similar to caffeine.

Most of the effects noted by drinkers of yerba mate refer to the mateine content of the drink, which can stimulate the central nervous system and provide feelings of increased energy. Despite the claims of some advocates, mateine does contain caffeine. Mateine exists as caffeine bound to naturally occuring sugars, tannins and phenols. However, these differences do change the physiological effects of mateine; while it shares some similarities to caffeine, important differences remains.

Of most interest is that mateine does not disrupt normal sleeping patterns. This makes it an excellent candidate to replace coffee in the daily routines of those who just ‘cannot do without’. On top of this, yerba mate consumption can help relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure. The herbal beverage can also reduce pain and inflammation by inhibiting the lipoxygenase enzyme that plays a role in such processes. Yerba may also help improve mood by increasing the availability of certain neurotransmitters in the brain.

Many South Americans continue to drink yerba mate as part of their daily regime. To drink yerba mate tea, you should use between two and four grams of the leaves. Teabags offer a similar amount and both are prepared with hot water. Many manufacturers now offer the product in capsule form; standardized extracts should provide all the same benefits as the tea.

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