Yerba Mate Tea May Help You Focus Better Than Coffee—Here's Why
Coffee is far from the only beverage that can help energize you and increase alertness. Other caffeine-containing drinks, including tea, are excellent for stimulating those looking to put some extra pep in their step. And one tea that's growing in popularity due to its purported brain health benefits is yerba mate, a widely consumed beverage in parts of South America.
Yerba mate has also been shown to have high antioxidant content, enhance physical performance, aid in weight loss, and help control blood sugar. And with the likes of neuroscientist and podcaster Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., advocating the consumption of mate for its health benefits, it's easy to see why this energizing beverage has been steadily growing in popularity.
So, is yerba mate a healthy beverage that can help you focus? Is it better for your focus, productivity, and mental cognition compared to coffee, or should you avoid it and opt for something else? To help filter through the online noise, we spoke with registered dietitians to compare the health benefits and risks of yerba mate to determine whether it's better than coffee for helping you focus. Here's what you need to know.
The health benefits associated with yerba mate
Yerba mate is an herbal tea made from the leaves and stems of the evergreen shrub-tree Ilex paraguariensis and boasts a wealth of health benefits.
"Yerba mate is high in antioxidants, and could even help with blood sugar control," says Kelsey Kunik, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness. "Research shows that drinking one liter of mate daily can significantly decrease fasting blood sugar, A1C, and LDL cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes. However, more research is needed on this compound's ability to lower blood sugar."
If you're looking for an alternative to coffee to enhance focus and boost brain health, yerba mate might be the beverage for you.
"The stimulant impact of yerba mate may improve alertness and mental clarity," Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of the 2-Day Diabetes Diet, tells Eat This, Not That!
This is partially due to the fact that this drink is caffeinated, and as such, stimulates certain signaling molecules in your brain which can temporarily increase mental focus and productivity. In fact, research shows that a single dose of caffeine between 40–300 milligrams can improve cognitive performance by increasing attention, alertness, and reaction time in the short term.
While the caffeine content of a cup of coffee is around 80 mg per cup, the amount of caffeine in a cup of yerba mate can reportedly range anywhere between 25–175 mg/g, according to research published via Nutrients. The extent of the caffeine content in yerba mate is contingent on how it's brewed. Although a cup of yerba mate might not exceed the amount of energy you can also get from a hot cup of joe, some credit yerba mate with sustained periods of alertness and a reduced likelihood of energy crashes—but without experiencing the jittery side effects often associated with coffee. However, it's important to note that thus far, these claims have been considered anecdotal and have yet to be scientifically proven.
Yerba mate also contains two other stimulating organic compounds that can be beneficial for mental focus, theobromine and theophylline, which are also found in coffee as well as chocolate. Combined with caffeine, these compounds work together to vitalize and support mental focus while improving cognition.
The potential risks associated with drinking yerba mate
According to a study from Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the primary health concern of drinking yerba mate daily is that it's potentially carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and is associated with several types of cancer, including esophagus, oropharynx, larynx, lung, kidney, and bladder. Yerba mate's association with cancer is because it contains a class of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are known carcinogens. However, the INYM noted that PAHs aren't found in the composition of yerba mate leaves or stems and aren't harmful when consumed as a tea.
"Research has found that this substance isn't water-soluble, meaning it's not effectively transferred from the plant to water," explains Kunik. "Researchers tested this with hot and cold infusions, and found that the levels of PAHs in the infusions were less than what the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe."
"Drinking large amounts of yerba mate daily (one to two liters) for a long time could potentially increase the risk of certain cancers because of the PAHs, and this risk is increased in people who smoke or drink alcohol, she advises."
So, is it safe to drink yerba mate?
"Yerba mate contains antioxidants, which may help to fight free radical damage in the cells," says Palinski-Wade.
Given its reputation for purportedly having less jittery side effects, it's understandable why this antioxidant-rich tea might be someone's choice beverage over a morning cup of joe, especially if their hope was to enhance focus and alertness. Also, the studies suggest that drinking yerba mate may benefit the brain with positive effects on mental health. Medical News Today even linked this tea to potentially lowering one's risk for Alzheimer's and dementia. However, yerba mate's energizing effects are only temporary.
"The mechanism behind caffeine is the inhibition of adenosine receptors in the brain," explains Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian at Bucket List Tummy. "True energy comes from calories from ingesting food. Therefore, yerba mate shouldn't be relied upon exclusively for energy production in the body."
Yerba mate makes for a great coffee substitute since it contains natural caffeine and adaptogenic properties that help prevent elevated cortisol levels. Conversely, the caffeine in coffee stimulates the 'fight or flight' stress response that can lead to adrenal fatigue.
"Due to yerba mate's high caffeine content, only one to two cups a day may be tolerated by some people," says Kunik.
At the end of the day, drinking yerba mate is a healthy way to kickstart your day and consume antioxidants. Just don't rely on it as your primary energy source. Also, avoid consuming it in excess to help prevent any negative health consequences and reduce your cancer risk.
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