Yerba Maté Cuts Breast Cancer Risk in New Study
Yerba maté is a tea made from the leaves of the tree Ilex paraguariensis A. St.-Hilaire. It's widely consumed in South America, particularly in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The leaves are extremely rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants such as chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, quercetin and rutin. But few people realize just how powerful this tea really is. Consider that the typical daily dose of one liter (which uses about 20 grams of leaves) contains the polyphenol equivalent of over one pound (480 grams) of blueberries! Not surprisingly, a recent study showed that maté is one of the main contributors of antioxidants to the diet of Brazilians—bringing considerably more than acai berries. The tea is traditionally made in the shell of a gourd by infusing with hot (but not quite boiling) water. Its caffeine content is moderate: ounce for ounce it contains about half the caffeine as standard coffee, and the same as a standard latté. This means that one liter (four cups) of the infusion is roughly equivalent to a fully caffeinated "grande" sized filter coffee, or two "grande" sized lattés.
Breast Cancer Risk Reduced by 60%: How Maté Much is Needed?
Researchers have already shown that drinking maté tea brings multiple health benefits, and have suspected that it may also decrease cancer risk due to its very high level of antioxidants. To test this theory, a study was carried out recently in Uruguay—home to the most prolific maté drinkers in the world. In the basic analysis, researchers found that women drinking at least one liter daily had 60% less breast cancer risk compared to those drinking little or none. Interestingly, former maté drinkers had the same level of protection as current drinkers, and drinking the infusion for many years did not provide added benefits over ten years of consumption. This suggests that the protection from this drink “kicks in” moderately quickly and may be long-lasting.
Extra Breast Cancer Protection for Some Women
But digging deeper into the data brought a few surprises to the researchers in this study. Because among those women drinking high amounts of maté, some specific groups seemed to benefit much more than the others. For example, women who also drank one cup daily of traditional black tea had a 78% reduced risk of breast cancer compared to low consumers of both drinks. Likewise, women eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables had a 65% reduced risk, and fared better than those eating few fruit and vegetables. The researchers suggested that there might be an additive effect in which the protective effects expected from drinking black tea or eating fruit and vegetables literally “added on” to the protective effects of maté. Intriguingly, women with a family history of breast cancer had the best benefit of all, with 85% reduced risk of breast cancer. Overweight women also benefitted more than average from drinking the beverage, with 71% less risk of breast cancer compared to non-consumers.
A Long List of Established Health Benefits
Maté isn’t just for reducing cancer risk. The cocktail of powerful antioxidants in the tea provide many other benefits that are being proven out in population studies and even clinical trials. Some examples:
- Antioxidant Status: One liter daily for 90 days significantly improved antioxidant levels in adults’ blood, including an impressive 22% increase in circulating glutathione levels.
- Bone Mineral Density: Women in Argentina who have been drinking one liter daily for at least four years were found to have bone mineral density 9.7% higher in the lumbar spine and 6% higher in the femoral neck compared to non-drinkers.
- Weight Loss: 3,000 mg of maté extract (in pill form) daily for 12 weeks was shown to significantly decrease body fat mass, percent body fat and waist-to-hip ratio in obese adults.
- Cholesterol & Blood Sugar in Adults with Type II Diabetes: One liter of the tea daily for 60 days lowered LDL cholesterol and fasting blood glucose in adults with type II diabetes and also pre-diabetics.
- LDL Cholesterol in Adults with High Cholesterol: One liter daily for 40 days was shown to lower LDL cholesterol by almost 9% in both healthy adults and those with elevated cholesterol levels. Interestingly, those taking statins saw an even greater benefit, with a 13% reduction in LDL cholesterol after 40 days. Also of interest is that apolipoprotein B levels dropped by 6%, which is expected to reduce heart disease risk in the long term.
- Micro-Circulation: Five grams daily of maté tea (roughly equal to one 250 ml cup) for 6 weeks brought a significant improvement in microcirculation and platelet aggregation factor in adults with “thick” blood (high blood viscosity).
Note that for most of these studies, significant health benefits were realized with a dose of about one liter of tea per day, or about four cups.
What About Those Past Studies Showing Maté May Increase Cancer Risk?
It’s true that some limited past studies have shown a possible link between maté consumption and increased cancer risk—but these were virtually all for the case of people consuming the beverage while still hot, rather than warm. Habitual use of hot drinks is very well known to increase cancer risk (no matter what the drink is) due to long-term accumulating damage in certain areas like the larynx and throat. So simply by letting the infusion cool down to a reasonable temperature, this danger is greatly diminished if not completely avoided.
Another very important consideration which was shown in a recent large study is that the tea drinkers who got cancer were also much heavier smokers and alcohol drinkers than the “controls” who were cancer-free. It’s very difficult to accurately separate out the extra cancer risk from smoking and drinking in studies like this, so researchers may be assuming that cancer was caused by drinking maté when in fact it was due to smoking or drinking alcohol. The take away here? Don’t smoke, and drink only in careful moderation (current official recommendations are for maximum one drink daily for both men and women). As for safety, maté continues to be consumed by millions on a daily basis. It’s sold throughout North America in health food retailers, and is still subject to intense research to clarify its full potential for human health.
Traditional Drink Becomes Super-Tea
Science has now shown that this traditional drink from South America may well be a super-tea for many different aspects of health—and researchers are still uncovering all that this super-tea has to offer! In the meantime, so many health benefits have been established by proper clinical trials, it is worth considering maté as a part of any serious health regimen. For those wishing to replicate that amazing protection from breast cancer risk seen in Uruguay, take note that the optimal intake level was rather high, at one liter of the infusion per day. This carries with it about 330 mg of caffeine, which may be a problem for many. So you may also want to consider maté extract pills, which concentrate the beneficial antioxidants but leave out some or most of the caffeine. No herbal supplement is without potential side effects and interactions, so as always check with your doctor before trying.
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