Health benefits of yerba mate: the ultimate guide

Billions of people start the day with a hot cup of coffee or tea. But in some parts of the world, people wake up with a drink you may not be familiar with — Yerba mate. This is a guide to the health benefits of Yerba mate.

Yerba mate is a traditional South American brew that’s been said to offer the “strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate” all in one beverage.

It was called “the drink of the gods” by many indigenous South Americans and later “the green gold of the Indios” by European settlers.

First, let’s take a look at the many evidence-based benefits of yerba mate. Then we’ll explore how to prepare and drink yerba mate tea for maximum health and enjoyment, and the fewest side effects.

What Is Yerba Mate?

Yerba mate is a traditional drink made from the dried leaves of an evergreen holly, Ilex paraguariensis, a native plant of South America.

This plant is found in the wild but is also cultivated on plantations similarly to familiar kinds of tea. In countries where yerba mate is widely consumed, it assumes the cultural importance exemplified by coffee cafés and Japanese tea ceremonies.

Drinking yerba mate tea is often a social event. Sharing this drink from a traditional gourd is a sign of friendship and bonding. Mate drinking has its own vocabulary, not unlike ordering a coffee at Starbucks!

It’s wildly popular in Uruguay, where it’s not unusual to see people walking down the street sipping mate while carrying a thermos of hot water to refresh their drink. It’s officially the national drink of Argentina where 500 million dollars worth of it is consumed every year. According to one survey, it’s consumed in 92% of all Argentinian households.

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Pope Francis, the first pope from Argentina, has been photographed sharing mate with his followers.

If you haven’t tried it, the best way to describe the taste is grassy and similar to green tea. If you weren’t raised on it, you might find it an acquired taste.

But even if you don’t love it, you may want to drink it anyway. Yerba mate consumption is increasing in many parts of the world, but not because of the way it tastes.

It’s gaining in popularity because of the way it improves how people feel.

Ten Health Benefits of Yerba Mate

The obvious and immediate benefits of yerba mate are increased energy and enhanced mental clarity, alertness, focus, and concentration.

Some of the health benefits that follow are less widely known, at least to those of us not living in a mate-drinking part of the world.

1. Yerba mate provides a smooth increase in energy

Yerba mate is well known for providing an energy boost that’s been described as gentle, clean, and calm.

Compared to the other most commonly used stimulants in the world — coffee, tea, kola nut, cocoa, and guarana — yerba mate reportedly delivers the most balanced energy boost.

Yerba mate drinkers experience a state of alert wakefulness similar to that of coffee, but without coffee’s side effects.

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It rarely interferes with sleep and doesn’t cause caffeine jitters.

Athletes use it to enhance physical performance.

It’s useful for people suffering from mental or physical fatigue, or from chronic fatigue syndrome.

You may have come across the claim that yerba mate contains no caffeine, but this is not true.

It contains 85 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup, which is more than tea but less than coffee.

You may hear that yerba mate contains mateine instead of caffeine.

While the caffeine-like effect of yerba mate may feel different than that of coffee, a unique compound has not yet been discovered. One theory is that mateine is probably just caffeine bound to a tannin or phenol in the raw leaf. At least for now, mateine is simply another name for caffeine.

2. Yerba mate boosts mental functions of all kinds

Everyone wants to be as smart, productive, focused, and creative as possible and yerba mate may just help you do that.

Yerba mate contains a moderate amount of caffeine, the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world.

The brain enhancing benefits of caffeine are commonly known.

It enhances memory, mood, and alertness.

It makes you more motivated and productive by stimulating production of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

But besides caffeine, yerba mate contains two related compounds, theobromine and theophylline.

These three alkaloids work together to provide unique, mild stimulant effects, as they also do in coffee, chocolate, and tea.

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Yerba mate has found a niche following among brain hackers seeking to optimize mental performance with anything that gives them an edge.

Bestselling author Tim Ferriss is among the most famous biohackers.

He admits he’s experimented extensively with brain enhancing substances of all kinds, including smart drugs.

And, in the end, his all-time favorite brain enhancing substance is yerba mate.

He prefers it over coffee since he experiences no crash and finds it non-addictive.

And unlike smart drugs, it has no “payback time.”

He makes a special brew of yerba mate with ginger and turmeric that he calls “titanium tea.”

On his blog The Tim Ferriss Show, he reveals that yerba mate is part of his personal recipe for creativity on demand and that his favorite brand by far is Cruz De Malta Yerba Mate.

3. Yerba mate is a nutritional powerhouse loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants

Yerba mate is so loaded with nutrition that it contains practically all the micronutrients needed to sustain life.

Each serving of mate contains the following vitamins and high concentration of these minerals: (

  • vitamin A
  • vitamins B1, B2, B3, and B5
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E
  • calcium
  • iron
  • magnesium
  • manganese
  • phosphorus
  • potassium
  • selenium
  • sodium
  • sulfur
  • zinc

It also contains other beneficial phytonutrients such as tannins, trace minerals, chlorophyll, flavonoids, and 15 amino acids.

Yerba mate contains 11 polyphenols and exhibits more antioxidant power than any other tea-based drink.

4. Yerba mate has a long history of traditional medicinal uses

illustration of yerba mate plant
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. Leslie Taylor is an herbalist and naturopath who has dedicated her life to exploring the healing properties of native, medicinal plants of the Amazon rainforest.

In her book The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs, she lists dozens of uses for yerba mate including:

  • as a stimulant
  • an overall tonic and digestive aid
  • as part of a weight loss regime
  • for allergies and sinusitis
  • and as a general nerve tonic for pain, fatigue, and depression

You can learn more about traditional yerba mate benefits and uses in her tropical plant database.

There you’ll find close to 100 scientific references to studies that support the health claims of traditional yerba mate.

5. Yerba mate can boost the immune system

Yerba mate is high in compounds called saponins.

Saponins are natural emulsifiers that boost the immune system and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Yerba mate also contains potent antioxidants known as polyphenols.

These plant-based compounds modulate the overactive immune response which contributes to seasonal allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes.

6. Yerba mate tea can help you lose weight

Yerba mate got a big boost in awareness as a weight loss aid after Dr. Oz included it in a segment on his TV show about teas that can help you lose weight.

But can it really help you lose weight?

There’s some evidence that yerba mate can aid weight loss by reducing appetite, increasing energy expenditure, improving insulin sensitivity, and burning stored fat.

7. Yerba mate has a long history as a digestive and elimination tonic

One traditional yerba mate benefit is for treating constipation, diarrhea, and indigestion.

It’s naturally antibacterial against E. coli, one of the most common causes of food poisoning.

At least one saponin found in yerba mate destroys intestinal parasites.

It’s also useful for both preventing and treating urinary tract infections and bladder and kidney stones.

8. Yerba mate can build strong bones, even without exercise

Drinking yerba mate tea increases bone density, even in people who don’t exercise.

This was a somewhat surprising discovery since caffeine is associated with bone mineral loss and exercise is deemed critical for building strong bones.

This study found that post menopausal women, a group particularly at risk for osteoporosis, who regularly drank mate had almost 10% greater bone density in their spines than women who didn’t drink it.

Neither group of women exercised.

9. Yerba mate helps keep your heart healthy

Yerba mate is useful for heart-related conditions including heart failure, irregular heartbeat, and low blood pressure.

Its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties protect the heart and cardiovascular system.

The theobromine in mate relaxes blood vessels allowing for better blood flow.

10. Yerba mate extract kills cancer cells

We’ve saved this benefit for last since it’s the most controversial.

Yerba mate contains several known anti-cancer compounds such as saponins, ursolic acid, rutin, tannin, chlorogenic acid, and chlorophyll.

When yerba mate extract is added to human colon cancer cells in a test tube, the cancer cells self-destruct.

Conversely, there’s some concern that yerba mate may cause some kinds of cancer, mainly esophagus, lungs, mouth, pharynx, and larynx.

However, there’s evidence that the real cause is that mate is traditionally consumed scalding hot.

Frequent exposure to extremely hot liquids is known to cause these kinds of cancers.

Another theory is that mate drinkers in certain areas of South America often smoke tobacco and drink alcohol in excess which may be contributing factors.

How to Prepare Yerba Mate Tea

There are many ways to prepare yerba mate that range from super simple to a little more involved.

To start, you might want to prepare it in a way that requires no special equipment.

The easiest way is to brew it like tea using yerba mate tea bags.

yerba mate gourdThere’s no need to feel guilty that you’re taking a modern shortcut.

Kids in mate-drinking countries are introduced to it this way since mate made with tea bags is less potent.

You can also make it from loose mate leaves just like you would any loose tea using a strainer or infuser.

If you’ve got a French press, you can make yerba mate in it just as you would coffee.

When you are ready for a more authentic experience, you can upgrade to drinking yerba mate from a gourd (calabash) with a silver straw (bombilla).

If you’d like a visual demonstration, there are many videos online that show how to brew yerba mate in various ways.

Here’s a short video that shows how it’s traditionally brewed.

A Look at Yerba Mate Drinks in Bottles and Cans

Unlike coffee or tea, yerba mate is not readily available in most parts of the world. So if you’re a fan, you may be tempted to try a canned or bottled yerba mate drink. Here’s a quick look at what’s right — and wrong — about these drinks.

Yerba mate purists would shudder at popping open a bottle or can and taking a swig of a sugar-laden, fruity “mate drink.” But if you are trying for a healthy upgrade from soda or typical energy drinks, these drinks could be a step in the right direction.

If you are concerned about sugar or caffeine, read all labels carefully. The amount of both in these drinks varies greatly. The most popular brand of prepared yerba mate drinks in the United States is Guayaki.

Here’s a quick look at what you can expect to find in some of their drinks. Guayaki Energy Shot contains 140 mg of caffeine per 2-ounce shot. This is less than the 200 mg in a 2-ounce Regular Strength 5-hour Energy shot. Guayaki’s bottled teas contain 140 mg of caffeine per 16-ounce bottle compared to 80 mg in an 8-ounce can of Red Bull.

The exception is the peach flavor (Peach Terere) which contains only 80 mg.

Both the lemon mint and hibiscus lime bottled teas are unsweetened, while Guayaki canned drinks (a can is 15.5 ounces) contain about 28 grams of sugar per can.

If you want the convenience and the health benefits of Yerba mate ready-made drinks but don’t want sugar or flavorings, another option is to add Yerba mate liquid extract or powder to hot water to make instant Yerba mate when you are on the go.

Yerba Mate Side Effects

Just because people in South America drink mate all day long doesn’t mean you should!

Some people may experience the typical symptoms of excess caffeine — anxiety, nervousness, heart palpitations, and insomnia. And since it’s great at keeping you regular, too much can have a laxative effect.

Due to its caffeine content, yerba mate is not recommended if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have anxiety issues.

And keep in mind that if you smoke or drink alcohol heavily, these combined with mate might increase your risk for certain cancers.

One comprehensive study conducted in Argentina found an increased risk of bladder cancer in yerba mate drinkers, but only in those who also smoked.

There are several medications that should not mix with yerba mate. These include drugs used to treat heart disease, asthma, cancer, depression, diabetes, or any drugs that work by stimulating the nervous system.

In almost every case, the problem is not unique to yerba mate but is due to ingesting moderate amounts of caffeine. It’s not just a matter of overstimulation —  in some cases caffeine can alter a drug’s effectiveness.

If you regularly consume other caffeinated drinks with no problem, you should have no problem with yerba mate. But if you have any doubt, talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

In the meantime, you can check RxList.com to see if your prescription is on a list of drugs contraindicated with yerba mate.

Yerba Mate Benefits: The Bottom Line

The health benefits of yerba mate make it one of the healthiest drinks in the world.

It provides an energy and productivity boost similar to coffee, but with less caffeine and more nutrients.

It is generally less stimulating than coffee and rarely causes caffeine jitters or insomnia.

Yerba mate offers a multitude of health benefits, from improved cognition to stronger bones.

As a healthy replacement for caffeine-laden energy drinks or soda or just a change of pace from coffee, yerba mate is an excellent alternative.

By First published in Be Brain Fit