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Yerba Mate, its History, Biochemistry, and 11 Incredible Qualities

A thirteen-year long love affair with yerba mate and a different kind of caffeine before bed

It’s 8 p.m. I’m sitting at my computer, listening to music. I’m writing an article about what literally inspires me every day – the yerba mate plant. I’ve used this plant for thirteen years, and it’s time to share my experiences with you.

In about three hours, I will be going to bed, but I’ve just downed a full cup of mate, which is rich in caffeine. When I go to bed, I will fall asleep in 1-3 minutes, and the heavily toning tea will not disturb my sleep.

How is that possible?

The strange qualities of mate, and the fight with coffee

Yerba mate (in Latin, Ilex paraguariensis) is a Spanish name for the evergreen bush that grows in South America. The shape of this plant resembles a shrub while it’s young; when it’s fully grown, it becomes a tree, which often reaches 15 meters in height. Yerba mate usually grows in subtropic forests: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.

The herb has long been used to prepare tea with therapeutic qualities. Mate is a national drink of Argentina and Uruguay. It is so popular in Uruguay, where it’s called calabaza (or simply mate), that people of all ages walk down the streets holding cups of it. This herb was used before South America was colonized by Europeans. There is a legend that mate was given to the South Americans by the gods as a reward for living well.

Mate is a strange tea, not only because of its unique but delicious taste, but also because of its effect. Yerba mate herb leaves are rich in caffeine (0.7-1.7% of dried leaf mass, in comparison to the 3.2% of coffee beans – less than coffee, but not significantly). However, the tea tones bodies and minds very differently than coffee. This is one of the most prominent reasons coffee drinkers should consider switching to mate, especially if the caffeine’s effects, not the coffee flavor, are the primary reason for drinking coffee.

When I drink a cup of strong mate, my memory and concentration are significantly improved, the state of my consciousness changes and my brain switches over to working mode. Even if I drink three more cups of mate, my mental state remains just as active yet calm as it was before, and as the day goes on, I never feel any sudden drops or caffeine crashes.

Even though I really like coffee and consider it to be a superfood, coffee functions in a completely different way... After the first cup of coffee, a perceptible wave of energy hits. However, this energy begins to decline in about 20 minutes. If in an hour or two you drink another cup of coffee (because you want your brain to stay in active working mode), another wave of energy comes in, which then rapidly declines again, leaving your body exhausted. And what happens when you drink three or more cups of coffee the same day? Even people who are less sensitive may get shaky hands, and the brain has trouble focusing on current tasks. The next day, you feel sluggish and miserable, which you may try to treat with even more coffee. If this ritual keeps going, you won’t even notice how exhausted and miserable you are all the time – it starts to seem normal.

Mate is different from coffee in that it functions strongly and gently at the same time. If you drink a cup of mate, its effects last for half of the day. If you decide to do an experiment and drink 5-7 cups a day (like an Argentinean or Uruguayan who drinks mate all day every day), you may notice the active functioning of your body and mind remains well into the evening. Despite this, it doesn’t disturb your sleep, and you won’t feel tired the next day.

Of course, caffeine itself does not contain energy. Toning drinks simply make it easier for you to access the energy resources already in your body; that’s why you shouldn’t overuse energy drinks. I recommend that you watch yourself and determine the amount of mate that’s right for you on each particular day since it’s different for everyone. Make sure to also take regular breaks from drinking any toning beverage, the same way you take breaks from work at least one day a week. Everyone’s situation is different, and only you know what’s best for you and your body.

Theobromine – the food of gods, and a unique interplay of three components

Even though mate contains the same caffeine as coffee (despite being called mateine instead for a long time because of mate’s unique effects), mate’s differences are influenced by the combination of caffeine and two additional components, theobromine, and theophylline.

Theobromine (in Greek, theo means god, broma means food; food of gods) is a well-known material that can be found in cocoa beans and chocolate. It is a work-stimulating alkaloid for the brain, and, like caffeine, is technically a toxic substance. Theophylline is another alkaloid that is also found in both tea and cocoa beans.

The unique combination of caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline in yerba mate has a long-term and gentle toning effect and improves brain work. That’s why drinking mate all day doesn’t give you insomnia at night (unlike drinking a cup of coffee in the evening).

What’s interesting is that, despite technically containing toxins, mate’s combined components promote cleansing and detoxification in the body! This is why mate is considered to be a healthy food and is sold in health food shops across Europe and Asia.

Mate refreshes and cleans the body at the same time. Moreover, if you know about acid-alkaline balances, here’s some more good news for you: mate is one of the most alkalizing teas on Earth. Its only serious competitor is mint.

Mate is a product for people who, at least in the next few years, are planning to lead an intensive, interesting, creative, and wild life.

The 11 extraordinary qualities of mate that you should pay attention to

1. Mate promotes weight loss. In 1999, Swiss scientists discovered that mate activates food-burning processes in the body. It also reduces the appetite and prevents you from feeling hunger (although coffee lasts longer as an appetite-reducer).

2. Mate reduces depression and anxiety. For a long time, it has been used for exactly this purpose. According to various studies, mate influences a 40-50% reduction of monoamine oxidase, which cures not only depression and mood changes but also Parkinson’s disease.

3. Mate reduces allergies.

4. Mate is a source of antioxidants.

5. Mate stimulates the body and mind because of its unique ratio of caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline.

6. Mate strengthens the immune system and increases body resistance to diseases because it contains saponins, which stimulate the immune system.

7. Mate strengthens the heart because it contains theophylline, which, in medicine, is used to stimulate the cardiac muscle.

8. Mate improves digestion by activating biliary excretion.

9. Mate treats inflammation.

10. Mate lowers blood pressure, relaxing the smooth muscles and letting veins extend.

11. Mate improves memory and concentration. For this purpose, it is used more widely in South America than in Europe, North America, or Australia.  

Moreover, mate contains high doses of vitamins C, B1, and B2, as well carotene, magnesium, and potassium.

Three precautions for people considering mate

1. The consumption of very hot drinks is one of the causes of oral cavity cancers, so mate, just like any other tea or coffee, should be consumed at a slightly lower temperature – warm, not boiling hot.

2. Mate is not a panacea, and caffeine is not holy. Even though mate contains less caffeine than coffee, this substance should not be overused. Moderation is key.

3. Mate slightly affects the eyesight, sometimes causing certain colors to become blazingly bright. Objects can seem brighter and more visible. This might be a good quality, however, if you’re driving a car or hunting mammoths. :)

How to prepare mate at home

Mate is traditionally consumed from a cup made of a pumpkin, which is called a calabaza, and using a special metal straw, which is called a bombilla (see the picture above). These goods can be found many gourmet tea shops, but these supplies are not necessary. What is essential is the tea itself, which can be found even in large chain supermarkets, though I personally like to buy bigger packets (from 500 grams to 1 kilo) from Argentina, which can be found on the shelves of specialty tea shops.

In South America, mate is usually sipped with friends, turning the calabaza around and talking. But drinking mate alone is also interesting, and if you’re working and enjoying the creative process, it becomes a completely unique experience.