The Yerba Mate Mystery

Is the South American super tea all it’s cracked up to be?

Perhaps you’ve heard of yerba mate, a South American plant which, when made into tea, is purported to have numerous medicinal qualities. Mate, as the drink is commonly known, has made its way to the shelves of health food stores all over America, with proponents singing its praises as an antidepressant, appetite suppressant and energy booster.

Yet, not much is truly known about how mate affects the human body. Though a lot of hype is brewing around mate as a powerful weight loss supplement, research so far has indicated that it could have both positive and adverse effects. Before you go rushing to complement your medical weight loss program with mate, here’s the lowdown on what we know about it so far. And of course, you should always talk to Dr. Altschuler before adding any kind of herbal supplement to your diet.


Effects on Weight Loss

Preliminary research on mice and humans has suggested that mate does have some propensity for combating obesity. In one study, mice who were administered mate experienced a reduction in cholesterol and triglycerides and a normalization of glucose levels. In another study, human participants took yerba mate for 40 days and experienced lowered levels of bad cholesterol, but had unaffected levels of triglycerides. This shows some promise for mate, but research is ongoing as to whether or not it is the miracle weight loss supplement it is claimed to be.


Effects on Energy Level

Caffeine is the component of mate that affects the human body most obviously. Mate is often touted for its ability to provide heightened energy, alertness and mood in many people. Yet, mate has a significantly lower level of caffeine than coffee, meaning that it may be slightly exaggerated as a dynamic energy supplement. Still, many people looking for a milder pick-me-up may find mate appealing, as its caffeine levels are just slightly higher than most other teas.


Effects on Cancer

One study of yerba mate leaves found that they contained phytochemicals called dicaffeoylquinic acids (diCQAs), which proved to be effective against human colon cancer cells in subsequent tests. This research suggests that yerba mate could one day be used in producing drugs to combat cancer or inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Mate also contains ursolic acid, which studies have indicated as an antitumor agent.

However, other studies have found high amounts of carcinogenic compounds in yerba mate and suggest that the drink may be linked to cancer in the throat, mouth, esophagus and bladder. The temperature that the tea is consumed at may have some connection to its carcinogenic properties, and researchers note that its usage in conjunction with alcohol and tobacco may also contribute. Occasional yerba mate use appears to be fine for healthy adults, but for maximum safety the tea should be steeped with water beneath the boiling point to minimize the exposure and absorption of carcinogens.


The Takeaway

Though its many supposed benefits may make you want to rush right into a mate-a-day habit, some of the research on its carcinogenic effects is quite troubling. It is possible that mate possesses all of the fantastic qualities that enthusiasts claim it does, but without more research, we really can’t be sure how much it helps or hurts. My advice is to avoid mate until we know definitively that the rewards outweigh the risks.

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