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Tea from this South American tree sharpens your mind ... and does much more.

When my mother turned 90, she noticed her mind was not as clear as it had been. Fuzzy thinking, she called it. Names and thoughts were just slightly out of reach. This disturbed her more than any other aspect of aging. She had always prided herself on having a sharp mind.

It was also difficult for her to wake up in the morning and get moving. Mother had long stopped drinking coffee. It was too acidic and kept her awake at night. And it made her jittery. I suggested she drink a cup of green tea each morning, and it helped her fatigue. But it didn't wipe the cobwebs from her mind.

I wish I had known more then about a popular South American herb tea. It's even more nutritious than green tea, and even though it contains some caffeine, it lets most people sleep at night. What's more, it clears the mind and helps people think more clearly. And I'll bet as you get older, you want to keep a clear, sharp mind as long as possible, just like I do.

This tea, made from the leaves of an evergreen tree native to South America, is packed with valuable nutrients as well. It contains anti-cancer antioxidants called polyphenols and saponins, chemicals that strengthen the immune system. No wonder it's more popular in many South American countries than coffee or tea. The beverage I'm talking about is yerba mate. You can find it in health food stores, but it may not be in your supermarket yet. Hopefully, it will be eventually.

Here's how I compare the effects of coffee, green tea, and yerba mate. Coffee wakes me up and gives me a little energy buzz. I used to like this buzz. Now I'd just as soon feel more alert without it. Green tea takes away my fatigue without any buzz. This feels more natural to me. Yerba mate has a similar effect with one addition: It sharpens my mind. I like that extra mental clarity a lot? I also like some of the health benefits associated with mate.

Mate, cancer, and heart disease

Antioxidants protect against heart disease and cancer. Yerba mate is high in antioxidants. In fact, it has as much free-radical activity as green tea. And its antioxidants are even more potent that those in ascorbic acid (vitamin C). That's what the studies say.

Mate can significantly lower cholesterol and triglycerides, which makes it an excellent addition to a low-saturated fat, healthy heart diet. I've explained before that high cholesterol itself isn't as much of a problem as oxidized (spoiled) cholesterol. Well, mate slows down LDL oxidation.

A cup of mate contains about 100 mg of caffeine--half the amount as a cup of coffee, and less than a cup of black tea. Some of its beneficial effects, like weight loss and a diuretic action can be attributed to the caffeine. But mate is considered to be good for the heart and lungs because it contains small amounts of theophylline, a chemical that's used medically for asthma and chronic lung problems. Because theophylline has a slight stimulating effect on the heart, mate is considered to be a heart tonic. It could also help you lose weight. When mate was compared to 12 other plant preparations, it helped burn more fat than any of the other herbs tested.

Poor studies gave mate bad press

A few years ago, some studies found that people who drank mate were at an increased risk for getting esophageal cancer. What they really found was that people who drank at least a liter per day of very, very hot mate through a metal straw (commonly used in South America) had an increased risk for getting cancer of the esophagus over those who drank smaller amounts of warm or normally hot tea. Repeatedly scalding of the esophagus was not even considered to be a factor.

Other studies found that people who drank mate along with large quantities of alcohol, and who smoked cigarettes, had an increased risk for esophageal cancer. A previous study of this same population found an association between eating barbecued meat every day anda higher incidence of cancer. I mean, come on? If you ate barbecued meat every day, drank a lot of alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and scalded your throat with exceptionally hot mate, you would increase your risk for esophageal cancer too?

So is mate safe?

Let me tell you how safe mate is--it's safe enough for pregnant women to drink. You can't get much safer than this. A study of over 5,000 Brazilian women found no harmful effects on the size or weight of their babies, or any other negative side effects.

I like mate's taste and its effects. I find it a perfect pick-me-up drink, especially for those times when I want to think more clearly. Like many beneficial substances, it shouldn't be abused. But a cup or two a day appears to be completely safe.

Give it a try. You'll find plain yerba mate tea, as well as mate combined with other flavorings from ginger to peppermint and even organic chocolate. You can final it in the tea and bottled drink sections of your natural food stores.

Fabiana, L., et al. "Vascular responses to extractable fractions of Ilex paraguariensis in rats fed standard and high-cholesterol diets," Biol Res for Nursing, 2005.

Gugliucci, A., and A.J. Stahl. "Low density lipoprotein oxidation is inhibited by extracts of Ilex paraguariensis," Biochem Mol Biol Int, 35, 1995.

Martinet, A., et al. "Thermogenic effects of commercially available plant preparations aimed at treating human obesity," Phytomedicine, 1999.

Santas, I.S., et al. "Mate drinking during pregnancy and risk of preterm and small for gestational age birth," Journ Nutr, vol. 135, 2005.

Sewram, V., et al. "Mate consumption and the risk of squamous cell esophageal cancer in Uruguay," Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 2003.
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Publication:Women's Health Letter
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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