Yerba Maté: An Ancient Brew Loaded With Nutrients

Yerba Maté: An Ancient Brew Loaded With Nutrients

Yerba mate is an ancient brew that has shown some impressive traits within the laboratory. Check out its long list of potential health benefits, and how to make it yourself using traditional methods.

WHAT IS YERBA MATE?

Yerba mate, known by its scientific name Ilex paraguariensis, is a plant belonging to the holly genus that is native to South America. The plant is made into a tea known simply as mate. This herbal beverage is primarily enjoyed in Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile. The tea is also now found in the Western world where it is marketed and sold as a health food.

The herb is found in various energy drinks due to its relatively high level of caffeine. Mate is also sometimes used as a coffee substitute that provides a more subtle and gentle stimulating effect. Whereas a cup of coffee contains approximately 95–200mg of caffeine per cup, yerba mate contains only 30–40mg.

Unlike traditional tea, which grows into a bush, yerba mate begins life as a shrub, but soon after gains some serious size, erupting to massive heights of 15 metres. The leaves, which are later dried before being consumed as tea, feature a serrated edge, a length of 7–110mm and a width of 30–55mm. The plant is primarily grown in South America for commercial reasons, with Brazil being the biggest producer of the plant.

After harvest, the leaves are dried next to a wood fire, which infuses them with a pleasant smoky flavour. The strength of yerba mate tea is largely dependent of the gender of the plant used. Male plants tend to produce leaves with a stronger taste and more caffeine, whereas female leaves are more subtle in both flavour and effect.

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HEALTH BENEFITS OF YERBA MATE

The leaves of this interesting plant are primarily used as a tea, however, researchers have probed its chemical constituents to some degree and have found some medicinal potential. Although some of the studies cited in the following section refer to research conducted on animals, they still serve as a potential indicator of what further research within humans may discover.

  • HIGH IN PHYTONUTRIENTS AND ANTIOXIDANTS

Saponins are one chemical group within this plant species that have been shown to have anti inflammatory and cholesterollowering properties. A research paper1 published within the journal BioFactors indicates the ability of yerba mate saponins to prevent chronic inflammation within rat models. Considering that chronic inflammation may be the common factor within many forms of disease, further study of these compounds in vivo (on humans) could yield interesting results.

Two particularly intriguing groups of antioxidants within yerba mate are caffeoyl derivatives and polyphenols. Antioxidant molecules have become huge buzzwords within the worlds of health and nutrition due to their ability to reduce free radical damage by neutralising these harmful compounds.

Within the body, oxygen splits into single atoms that roam the body in search of electrons to pair with. This action can contribute towards the damage of cells, DNA, and proteins. Antioxidants help to protect against these issues by terminating this damaging reaction.

Green tea has long been known for its high levels of antioxidants. However, yerba mate may dethrone the much-loved beverage in this domain. A paper2 published within the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry shows yerba mate to be a superior source of antioxidants.

  • MAY BOLSTER IMMUNE DEFENCE

Yerba mate is a good source of micronutrients vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and vitamin C. Vitamin C may contribute to immunity, as deficiency of this micronutrient results in immune defect, as stated by a 1983 publication3 within the journal Gerontology.

All of these substances also act as antioxidants within the body. As well as assisting in the critical battle of neutralising free radicals, these molecules can help to boost the immune system. Antioxidant supplementation can reverse numerous age-associated immune deficiencies and boost white blood cell numbers.

  • MAY ASSIST WEIGHT LOSS

It’s no secret that cases of obesity are reaching huge numbers. The modern Western lifestyle doesn't always make it easy to set aside time for exercise, and many jobs involve sitting down for long periods of the day. Though exercise and nutrition are the king and queen of weight loss, certain supplements such as yerba mate may help facilitate the process.

The journal Laboratory Animal Research published an article4 that documents the effects of yerba mate on weight loss in mice. It appears that supplementation of the herb assisted weight loss through reduction of appetite and by boosting the metabolism.

Human studies have also been carried out, giving a glimpse into the effects of yerba mate on weight loss. One piece of research5 showed that yerba mate has the ability to assist fat oxidation and energy expenditure during exercise.

Another research paper6 tested the effects of the herb on fat loss over a 12-week period. The randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study measured participants’ body mass index and waist-hip ratio. One group of 15 individuals was given oral yerba mate supplements in the form of capsules for a 12-week period, for a total dosage of 3g per day.

Statistically significant decreases in body fat mass, body fat percentage, and waist-hip ratio were observed compared to a placebo group. The authors of the paper concluded that yerba mate supplementation may be effective for treating obese individuals.

  • BOOSTS ALERTNESS AND ENERGY

A cup of yerba mate has similar effects to coffee in that it can boost focus and make an individual more engaged in the task at hand. These similar effects are because of yerba mate’s caffeine content. However, users of the herb state that the effects are somewhat different, claiming that the stimulation induced by yerba mate is more gentle and doesn’t come with the consequence of an energy crash when the caffeine wears off.

Try a cup of yerba mate next time you sit down to write an assignment or read a book. After all, caffeine has been shown by science7 to improve alertness and short-term recall.

  • SHOWS PROMISE AGAINST DIFFERENT FORMS OF INFECTION

Yerba mate may have the ability to fend off certain types of infection from bacteria to parasites, although more detailed research is needed in humans to determine these effects. Yerba mate has been shown to act as a natural antimicrobial agent against E. coli, a form of bacteria that causes food poisoning symptoms such as diarrhoea. The researchers8 who made this observation suggest that commercial yerba mate has potential to be used as an antimicrobial in foods and beverages to act against the pathogen.

It’s not just E. coli that yerba mate may be of use against. The herb has also displayed9 antifungal activity against Malassezia furfur, a fungus that causes dandruff and dermatitis in humans. The activity of the herb was found to be equivalent to current antifungal medication, leading researchers to suggest the use of topical yerba mate extract as an alternative antifungal agent.

Yerba mate may also protect against a slightly larger invasive organism in the form of intestinal parasites. These lifeforms can cause symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, gas, nausea, and vomiting, and can enter the body through consumption of contaminated water. The saponins within the plant have exhibited10 anti-parasitic properties.

  • MAY BE GOOD FOR HEART HEALTH

Yerba mate may be good for heart health by lowering the risk of heart disease. The chemical cocktail found within the leaves of the plant species, such as antioxidants, polyphenols, and caffeoyl derivatives, may act to protect against the potentially fatal condition.

A paper11 published in the journal Clinical Nutrition examined the cardioprotective effects of yerba mate on rats and found that administration of the herb reduced myocardial dysfunction provoked by ischemia (inadequate blood supply) and reperfusion (tissue damage that occurs when blood returns to a tissue).

Human trials exploring yerba mate and heart health have also been conducted. A 2009 paper12 published within the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry documents a study that observed the effects of daily yerba mate infusion ingestion in subjects over a 40-day period.

It was found that the infusion improved the lipid parameters within some subjects and also reduced levels of LDL cholesterol, a type of cholesterol associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease.

HOW TO MAKE YERBA MATE TEA?

Yerba mate can be brewed in multiple different ways, depending on how dedicated you are to the cause, and how traditional you want to get with your methods.

The simplest and easiest way to make yerba mate tea is by simply purchasing tea bags, or putting the loose leaf into a strainer and drinking the brew once it has infused.

Alternatively, you can make yerba mate the traditional way using a gourd, a type of cup. The fluid is then consumed using a metal straw with a filter in it known as a bombilla. The gourd is usually filled about ⅓ full with dried leaves and then topped up with cold water, and often infused with lemon juice, sugar, or milk. The beverage is traditionally served both hot and cold, depending on preference.

IS YERBA MATE HEALTHIER THAN COFFEE?

Both of these beverages have their own advantages and disadvantages. The term “health” is hard to quantify, and comparing how each of these herbs adds or detracts from it isn’t an easy assessment. Both drinks provide good amounts of micronutrients and antioxidants. However, for coffee drinkers looking to reduce their caffeine intake, yerba mate could be a great choice to still keep up a comforting ritual whilst greatly reducing the caffeine content of each cup.

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SAFETY AND SIDE EFFECTS

Yerba mate is thought to be safe when occasionally consumed by healthy adults. However, research13 shows frequent usage to be associated with numerous risks and side effects. Although more research is needed to draw conclusions, yerba mate has been linked to cancers of the esophagus, larynx, and oral cavity.

This could be due to the herb containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens. This link could also be attributed to the hot temperature of the beverage when consumed. In contrast, some of the chemical constituents of the herb have been shown to possibly protect against some types of cancer.

Caffeine itself also has side effects. Taking too much caffeine can result in headaches and high blood pressure.

Certain chemicals within yerba mate act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Those taking MAOI drugs should use the herb with caution and consult with their physician before consuming it.

Additionally, yerba mate is not safe to consume during pregnancy.

HISTORY OF YERBA MATE

Yerba mate has an intriguing and ancient history. It was first ingested by the indigenous Guarani people of Paraguay, and then spread to other groups such as the Tupi people of Southern Brazil. The use of the herb became much more widespread as it rode the wave of European colonisation of the Americas, which saw it spread to neighbouring regions and overseas. This vast increase in consumption made it Paraguay’s main commodity for a period of time, even above tobacco.