Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is a tea-like beverage traditionally consumed in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. The tea is made from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex plant. These ingredients are distilled in hot water, though never boiling water, since that can make the tea too bitter.
Yerba mate has an herbal, grassy taste reminiscent of green tea in certain brands, and a green colour. Traditionally, the leaves are dried, shredded, and aged for one year before being sold as yerba mate tea leaves. The South American tradition is to drink the yerba mate tea from a hollow gourd with a metal straw; sharing the straw is a sign of friendship.
For decades it was confined to South America, but now, yerba mate tea has exploded onto the worldwide market and achieved popularity as a healthy beverage. It’s said to contain B vitamins, vitamin C, manganese, potassium, and zinc. In 1964 the Pasteur institute even claimed that yerba mate contains practically all the vitamins needed to sustain life.
However, yerba mate is the most widely used by far as a coffee and caffeine alternative. Yerba mate can apparently stimulate the brain and enhance cognition and alertness, all without the jitteriness and inability to sleep. Importantly for acne, caffeine and coffee are reported to cause pimple outbreaks in many.
Is yerba mate tea a great way to get the performance enhancing benefits of traditional coffee without risking pimples, acne, and inflammation? Or should you just stick with coffee?
The truth about caffeine in yerba mate tea
Here’s how the main story goes. Essentially, yerba mate is said to provide all the benefits of caffeine without actually containing caffeine. Drink a cup of yerba mate tea and you will achieve a caffeine buzz, a heightened mental performance, and a burning desire to work hard, all without the jitteriness and pumping heartbeat.
Many life hackers have declared yerba mate to be the next big advancement. Reportedly, you can drink yerba mate and enter a heightened state of being, but keep the option to sleep whenever you want. There’s no traditional coffee trade off.
The implications for acne would be great; the caffeine in coffee is the number one drug consumed in the US, but many report pimple outbreaks after drinking it. Yerba mate tea could be what every coffee-loving acne patient is looking for, particularly if it tastes good.
The stimulating properties of yerba mate tea are said to be down to mateine. It’s said to be a chemical analog of caffeine with virtually identical psychoactive properties, but no side effects.
Is yerba mate tea a revolutionary drink, allowing you to work like a demon but have the clear skin of a Kitavan islander?
No, because there’s a small problem – mateine is the exact same thing as caffeine.
Mateine is just a synonym for caffeine. It was derived from the “mate” in the yerba mate name. Yerba mate contains just as much caffeine as coffee does, and that’s why it works as a stimulant. The story of the fabled mateine is one of the great health myths of the times. Adverts boast of it, people on forums recommend it avidly, normal people get misled by it.
Where did the story originate? It could have been a shrewd marketing campaign. It could have been a misunderstanding; maybe an avid researcher once saw the word mateine in a paper on yerba mate, enjoyed significantly reduced side effects from yerba mate tea later, and had a brainwave.
Regardless, caffeine and mateine are the exact same thing. Analysis of common yerba mate teas reveal an average caffeine content which is very similar to coffee.
The glowing testimonials of life hackers still stand, and they could be explained by the presence of theobromine and theophylline. Those compounds are xanthine plant stimulants found most heavily in chocolate, which are in the same family as caffeine and hence have similar properties to caffeine.
Theobromine, in particular, has subtle to moderate differences in its stimulant properties, providing a smoother and longer lasting increase in alertness. Theobromine has less side effects related to heartbeat and sleep deprivation compared to caffeine.
Depending on the brand, the caffeine to theobromine ratio of yerba mate tea varies from 10:1 to 2:1. It’s very possible that the theobromine counteracts the alterations in neurotransmitters from caffeine, thus improving sleep. Interestingly, this study confirmed it: “caffeine intake may lead to insomnia whereas theobromine intake seems to favor sleep”.
If you drink coffee, and enjoy a bar of 85% dark chocolate as well, you’ll know that both pump up your mental performance. Nevertheless, the caffeine and theobromine which are responsible are very different.
With almost complete certainty, the theobromine explains the advantages that some brands of yerba mate tea have over coffee, not the mateine (which doesn’t exist!).
The caffeine connection to acne
Yerba mate is healthy, but a similar proposition to coffee when it comes to acne. If you’re Argentinian or Uruguayan or a health food shop visitor who simply loves the taste of yerba mate, then the biggest problem is the cortisol spike. Caffeine can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 52% according to this study. Too much cortisol is the reason why anxiety triggers acne, specifically through digestive problems and slower wound healing. A cup of coffee per day is no problem, but five cups is another story.
What’s more, your skin might be extra sensitive to coffee if you have the CYP1A2 gene, which extends the half-life of caffeine in the human body to ten hours. This gene is why some acne patients are adamantly against coffee whereas others don’t mind it.
Then there’s the power of caffeine to lower vitamin B6 and magnesium levels. Caffeine may affect insulin sensitivity as well.
The point is that if your skin has ever broken out after drinking six cups of coffee on an all-night work bender, yerba mate is not a miracle alternative.
If you can tolerate caffeine, then you’re good to go. How does yerba mate compare to coffee for acne overall? Keep reading and learn…
The coffee comparison – antioxidants
Coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the Western diet. It isn’t close to the richest food, but thanks to its abundance of lignans, polyphenols, and flavonoids, and the fact that workers everywhere love it, coffee supplies the most antioxidants to the average man and woman.
Meanwhile, yerba mate also contains a fair supply. This study found that yerba mate contained at least the following antioxidant compounds: rutin, quercetin, kaempferol, chlorogenic acid, and melanoidins.
This study concluded that the antioxidant content of yerba mate tea was slightly higher than green tea. That’s very promising, because green tea is extremely rich in antioxidants, being hailed for that reason. This study called yerba mate “a strong free radical scavenger”; this one found that yerba mate could reduce oxidative stress in the hippocampus of rats.
Yerba mate is at least a good source of antioxidants, which prevent acne by preventing clogged pores and keeping skin cells strong. However, the ORAC score of coffee is much higher on average. Medium roast brewed Arabica coffee scores 2780 (per 100 grams) while brewed dark roast Arabica bean coffee scores 2690.
Yerba mate tea, on the other hand, scores 1704. I haven’t seen any truly stand out results in studies, no specific pimple-kicking antioxidants like resveratrol in red grapes or pterostilbene in blueberries. Yerba mate is moderately inferior to coffee as an acne-friendly antioxidant supply.
The coffee comparison – inflammation
Inflammation is easily the area where yerba mate tea is most promising for acne. Coffee itself is highly anti-inflammatory thanks to its abundance of natural compounds, and yerba mate seems to at least match it:
STUDY ONE – this study observed that derivatives of caffeoylquinic acid found in yerba mate tea were able to treat human colon cancer. When exposed to active compounds from one cup of the beverage, the colon cancer cells died. The higher the concentration, the more cancer cells were wiped out. Importantly for us, the yerba mate extract also reduced important biomarkers of inflammation.
STUDY TWO – some scientists wanted to know why yerba mate tea was so frequently used to treat inflammation in traditional medicine. After applying an extract to various cells, they observed substantial decreases in pro-inflammatory chemicals and an increase in the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10. The conclusion: “use of this plant as a beverage can protect against… inflammatory diseases”. Acne is an inflammatory disease.
STUDY THREE – this study was especially interesting, as consuming yerba mate extract had a direct impact upon inflammation in the skin. Mice with swollen patches of skin called oedemas were used.
Applying yerba mate topically reduced inflammatory swelling by 63%. Taking yerba mate internally lowered one pro-inflammatory chemical by 43%. There was a reduction in “dermis with mild inflammation”, or skin with mild inflammation.
The conclusion was promising for acne: “mate is endowed with in vivo preventative or therapeutic anti-inflammatory effects in both local and systemic inflammatory processes”. For acne, this is easily the best yerba mate study I’ve seen.
STUDY FOUR – this mini review of yerba mate tea found that animal interventions with yerba mate had shown a variety of anti-inflammatory effects. The scientists were waiting patiently for the first double blind studies on humans.
Chronic inflammation is the biggest reason why a pimple swells, reddens and exists at all.
If you have acne, then the anti-inflammatory properties are the best reason to drink yerba mate tea, apart from being addicted to the taste or keeping the tradition strong.
The coffee comparison – vitamins and minerals
Coffee and yerba mate have both been claimed to be rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. It’s true that they contain them, but do they contain enough to affect acne? Not even close. The basic nutrients are never why you should drink coffee anyway; for acne, antioxidants are the attraction.
A cup of coffee contains magnesium, manganese and potassium, but only at levels of 2%, 3%, and 3% of the RDA respectively. Similarly, yerba mate tea contains B-vitamins, vitamin C, manganese, zinc, and potassium. It’s said to contain 7 out of the 9 essential amino acids. Once again, however, yerba mate has the nutrients but not enough of them.
A more significant phenomenon for acne is the inhibition of nutrient absorption. Coffee can block iron absorption through the gut by 70%, and vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 by smaller amounts. Does the effect occur in yerba mate tea? Possibly, because caffeine is the culprit.
Caffeine is also a potent diuretic, and in response to the increase in blood pressure triggered by the dehydration, your kidneys release magnesium. Hence, your overall stores of magnesium drop, and magnesium is a vital acne mineral. Both coffee and yerba mate tea have this problem.
Both yerba mate and coffee are more than just caffeine however. Coffee was also demonstrated in this study to somehow increase blood vitamin D levels when drunk regularly by Saudi Arabians. Whether this occurs in yerba mate is unknown. However, the two beverages share strangely similar nutritional profiles, whether it’s the caffeine or the healthy plant compound chlorogenic acid.
In impacting your essential acne nutrients, yerba mate is identical to coffee – mostly a non-entity.
The strategies are exactly the same. Because of the magnesium factor you need to limit your intake to two cups per day. Because of the iron and vitamin B6 factor you have to drink coffee and yerba mate tea between meals.
The coffee comparison – hidden toxins
If you have a compromised immune system, then mycotoxins produced by moulds on coffee beans are a great reason to banish coffee. However, yerba mate has a contaminating acne villain of its own – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Also found in the top notch acne treatment grapeseed oil, PAHs are potential carcinogens which are found in other beverages, including coffee. In many commercial yerba mate brands the leaves and twigs are dried and smoked using burning wood, for a whole day. This increases PAH levels 5 fold compared to traditional air drying techniques.
PAHs may cause cancer, but importantly for acne, they are strongly linked to antioxidant depletion and inflammation. Are they a threat? Only if you buy a dodgy brand. The main requirement is to buy hot air dried yerba mate, and avoid smoke dried yerba mate.
Another claim against yerba mate tea is several studies linking it to esophageal and oral cancers, but this is explained by the temperature at which the beverage is commonly served. The phenomenon has been observed with hot beverages in general, whether its coffee or other types of tea.
Coffee, meanwhile, has PAHs and an acne villain of its own – mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are inflammatory natural toxins churned out by moulds growing on the coffee bean plant. Types of mycotoxins include ochratoxin and aflatoxin.
Alongside cocoa beans, beer and nuts, coffee beans are the most notorious source of mycotoxins. However, they only cause acne in people with severe sensitivities and what’s more, higher quality coffee brands contain less and less contamination these days as consumer awareness slowly spreads. Coffee beans are roasted to kill the moulds which produce mycotoxins. They’re also wet processed to do the same.
Nowadays, it’s mostly cheap brands with improperly stored beans that remain completely and utterly contaminated. The big exception is decaffeinated coffee. Caffeine is actually a natural bactericide designed to ward off moulds on the coffee bean; that’s its true purpose in life, not to make stock traders billions. What’s more, the poorer quality beans are constantly relegated to decaf duty, as an industry policy.
With both coffee and yerba mate tea it’s a case of pick your poison. Luckily, with either beverage the acne threat can be removed with ease.
It’s like in many areas of acne; if you don’t know about the threat it’s probably killing you. If you do, then it’s the most harmless thing in existence.
Yerba mate is not the saviour of your skin. It isn’t a healthier version of coffee, with all the performance enhancement and none of the side effects. It isn’t even the most nutritious beverage for acne; coffee has more antioxidants.
Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of yerba mate and its taste, then drinking two cups per day won’t give you acne unless you have a sensitivity to caffeine. Almost all the acne rules are similar to coffee – limit your intake and buy a quality brand.
Overall, yerba mate is a moderately healthy beverage for your skin. It has no exceptional powers or compounds, but is yet another good avenue for lowering inflammation and getting the antioxidants you need.
Thanks for reading!