By Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D.
Yerba Mate, or Mate as it is often called, is a South American herb that has won many admirers in wide-ranging parts of the world.
In the search for a natural stimulant devoid of side effects and toxicity, Mate currently holds the most hope.
An invigorator of the mind and body, a natural source of nutrition, and a health promoter par excellence, Mate deserves the attention of every person interested in optimum health. Yerba Mate was introduced to colonizing and modern civilizations by the primitive Guarani Indians of Paraguay and Argentina.
It has seemingly always been the most common ingredient in household cures of the Guarani.
In modern Argentina and Paraguay, however, Mate tea has become almost pathologically ritualized in a manner reminiscent of coffee and tea abuse in Western and Eastern countries. Among the native Guarani, on the other hand, the natural use of Mate for healthful purposes has persisted.
They use it to boost immunity, cleanse and detoxify the blood, tone the nervous system, restore youthful hair color, retard aging, combat fatigue, stimulate the mind, control the appetite, reduce the effects of debilitating disease, reduce stress, and eliminate insomnia.
Mate (flex paraguariensis) is an evergreen member of the holly family.
It grows wild in Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil, but is most abundant in Paraguay where it is also cultivated. The plant is classified vaguely, according to Western herbal medicine, as aromatic, stimulant, bitter, aperient (laxative), astringent, diuretic, purgative, sudorific (sweat inducing), and febrifuge (fever reducing).
Mate contains numerous vitamins and minerals.
There is the usual array of resins, fiber, volatile oil, and tannins that characterize many plant substances.
And there is also carotene; vitamins A. C, E, B-1, B-2 and B-complex; riboflavin; nicotinic acid; pantothenic acid; biotin; magnesium; calcium; iron; sodium; potassium; manganese; silicon; phosphates; sulfur; hydrochloric acid; chlorophyll; choline; and inositol. In 1964 one group of investigators from the Pasteur Institute and the Paris Scientific Society concluded that Mate contains practically all of the vitamins necessary to sustain life.
In addition to the regular nutrients, Mate contains a substance belonging to a specialized class of chemical compounds called xanthines.
Though only small amounts of these substances occur in Mate, their presence has generated a huge amount of attention.
The primary xanthine in Yerba Mate is called Mateine.
The substance probably contributes little, if anything, to the overall activity of the plant, but has drawn a disproportionate share of speculation. Some xanthines are obviously less desirable, such as caffeine. Others, such as theophylline and theobromine, have specialized action and a characteristic set of side effects.
Although the xanthines have similar chemistries, each has a unique set of properties. Researchers at the Free Hygienic Institute of Hamburg, Germany, concluded that even if there were caffeine in Mate, the amount would be so tiny that it would take 100 tea bags of Mate in a 6-ounce cup of water to equal the caffeine in a 6-ounce serving of regular coffee. Consequently, the active principle in Yerba Mate is not caffeine!
There is only one effect that seems to be shared by all xanthines:
smooth muscle relaxation. It is this action that makes them (with the exception of caffeine, in which smooth muscle relaxant effects are diminished by other side effects) good clinical dilators of the bronchi and hence useful in the treatment of asthma.
Mateine appears, then, to possess the best combination of xanthine properties possible. For example, like other xanthines, it stimulates the central nervous system; but unlike most, it is not habituating or addicting.
Likewise, unlike caffeine, it induces better, not worse, attributes of sleep.
It is a mild, not a strong, diuretic, as are many xanthines. It relaxes peripheral blood vessels, thereby reducing blood pressure, without the strong effects on the medulla oblongata (end part of the brain connecting to the spine) and heart exhibited by some xanthines.
We also know that it improves psychomotor performance without the typical xanthine-induced depressant after effects.
Dr. Jose Martin, Director of the National Institute of Technology in Paraguay, writes, "New research and better technology have shown that while Mateine has a chemical constituency similar to caffeine, the molecular binding is different. Mateine has none of the ill effects of caffeine." And Horacio Conesa, professor at the University of Buenos Aires Medical School, states, "There is not a single medical contraindication" for ingesting Mate.
Clinical studies show, in fact, that even individuals with caffeine sensitivities can ingest Mate without adverse reactions.
Perhaps the main area to benefit from Mate is the gastrointestinal tract.
Reported effects range from immediate improvement in digestion to the ability to repair damaged and diseased gastrointestinal tissues. Constipation, acute or chronic, can easily be overcome through the use of Mate. Mate appears to work mainly by softening the fecal mass, but it also appears to stimulate normal movement of the intestines to some degree.
EFFECTS ON THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Better than any other xanthine alkaloid, Mate has the ability to increase mental alertness and acuity and to do it without any side effects such as nervousness and jitters.
It seems to act like a tonic, stimulating a weakened and depressed nervous system and sedating an overexcited one. Our knowledge of Mate's effects is currently limited to observations of behavior changes such as more energy and vitality; better ability to concentrate; less nervousness, agitation, and anxiety; and increased resistance to both physical and mental fatigue.
Improvement in mood, especially in cases of depression, often follows drinking the tea.
This may be a direct or indirect result of increased energy.
One of the remarkable aspects of Mate is that it does not interfere with sleep cycles; in fact, it has a tendency to balance the cycles, inducing more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep when necessary, or increasing the amount of time spent in delta states (deep sleep).
Heart Ailments of all kinds have been treated or prevented through Yerba Mate use. Yerba Mate supplies many of the nutrients required by the heart for growth and repair.
In addition, it increases the supply of oxygen to the heart, especially during periods of stress or exercise. Mate has become a favorite of body builders and anyone interested in the health benefits of exercise.
The metabolic effects of Mate appear to include the ability to maintain aerobic glycolysis (breakdown of carbohydrates) during exercise for longer periods of time.
This results in burning more calories, increasing cardiac efficiency, and delaying anaerobic glycolysis and the resulting buildup of lactic acid during exercise.
Reports of Mate reducing blood pressure are not uncommon.
EFFECTS ON THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
A consistent observation in most South American literature on Mate is that it increases the immune response of the body, stimulating natural resistance to disease.
This results in a nourishing and strengthening effect on the ill person, both during the course of the illness and during convalescence, sometimes dramatically accelerating recovery times.
Exact mechanisms of Mate's action have not been worked out, but they involve both a direct action against infectious organisms, and an effect on overall resistance to disease.
The nutritional content of the plant probably plays a major role here, but it is also probable that other constituents contribute to the action by stimulating the activity of white blood cells.
The interaction of the many nutrients in Mate have never been systematically studied. But the stories surrounding the nutritional application of Mate tea are nothing short of amazing.
Mate is often used as a staple food, sometimes substituting for such important foods as bread and vegetables.
It easily eliminates the sensation of hunger and can impart as much invigoration as a full meal, according to the well-known Chilean herbalists J. Zin and R. Weiss.
Peace Corps workers have reported cases in which large groups of natives remain in good health for extended periods of drought and famine, even though they eat only one small meal per day.
How so? By drinking copious amounts of Yerba Mate tea.
Some natives spend their entire lives on such a diet and live to very advanced ages, sometimes in excess of 100 years. South American governments have adopted the practice of encouraging mothers, especially in the poorer regions, to include Yerba Mate in the diet of their school-age children.