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Guayusa: from God of fertility to energy drink

February 7, 2020

Guayusa is a tree, 4 to 10 meters tall, with a DBH of 50 to 80 cm, with evergreen leaves, native to the Amazon region, distributed in Ecuador , Peru and Colombia .


Guayusa cultivation

It is currently cultivated organically in the Amazonian provinces of Ecuador: Napo, Orellana, Sucumbíos and Pastaza, between 400 and 600 meters above sea level, at a temperature of 18 to 26 °C, in well-drained clay-sand loam soils with abundant organic material.

Guayusa tree photo. Source: own work Author: I $ore9515 (CCby3.0)

The plant is not usually found wild, but rather is cultivated, as it was apparently domesticated by the indigenous Kichwa population, and in particular by the Jibaro-Achuar ethnic group (Lewis et al, 1991).

The most used part of the plant is its leaves , which are 15 to 21 cm long and 5 to 7 cm wide (Loizeau and Barriera 2007).

The collection of the leaves begins from the third year, with two harvests a year.

Guayusa leaves Ilex_guayusa
Shrub of Ilex guayus a. The infusion prepared with the leaves of this plant is used as a stimulant to treat depression and nerve problems. It is also used for stomach pains and there are those who speak of its power as an aphrodisiac and revitalizing.
Used by Kichwas from the Amazon of Ecuador. Called waysa or guayusa. Source: Mauricio Caceres Vega [ CC BY-SA ]

Advantages of your exploitation

Some specialists, like Krauzet et al (2017), have stated that its cultivation can be An alternative to diversify Amazonian agroforestry systems, while preserving environmental sustainability, since its leaves, and their harvesting, are an activity that demands large amounts of labor, and offers good conditions for export to supply the world market for energy drinks and, consequently, for the foreign exchange generation .

The guayusa in history

A historical review carried out by Wise and Negrín (2017) indicates that guayusa has been cultivated for centuries to use its leaves for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.


Guayusa leaves were probably the object of commercial exchange with other areas, since they were found in indigenous tombs in the highlands of Bolivia , probably used as part of funerary attire, at least in the year 355 BC (Phagan 1974).

Patiño (1968) pointed out that there is a mention of guayusa in a letter from the Granada Jesuit Juan Lorenzo Lucero , dated August 23, 1683, addressed to the Viceroy of Peru.

In that letter, Lucero recounts having found the use of guayusa in 1682, by the Jíbaro Indians in the basin of the Santiago or Parossa River, a tributary on the left bank of the Marañón River.

Guayusa in Amazonian mythology

There are several myths originating from the Amazon about the guayusa plant.

According to a Kichwa myth , the guayusa was, before being a plant, a divine being that was in charge of giving people courage.

Another myth relates that before all this, after becoming a divine being, becoming a tree and being a sacred plant, he had enormous strength and great physical resistance, and was responsible for stimulating libido and preserving female fertility .

A tradition tells that a person, under the effects of guayusa, aroused his intelligence and remained in a state of alert, or vigil, throughout the night (Naranjo 2012: 99)

psychoactive substances

Alkaloids are psychoactive substances (Kvist and Moraes 2006).

The most consumed alkaloid legally in the world is caffeine, which is present in many beverages for universal consumption, generally prepared as decoctions, coffee, or infusions, tea.

The main alkaloid present in both is caffeine. It is the same case of guayusa, although not as well known as the previous ones.


The caffeine content in guayusa is 3%, a proportion similar to that of coffee or tea, but with a greater amount of antioxidants, reducers of free radicals, providing a more gradual and balanced energy , without the nervous shock that they produce other energy drinks.

In addition to caffeine, guayusa contains the alkaloid theobromine, and the amino acid L-theanine, which is analogous to glutamic acid, which produces a feeling of relaxation, increasing the activity of alpha waves in our brain .

The combination of caffeine with L-theanine is not very common, and is found in tea and guayusa leaves. This combination increases the concentration capacity of the individual , without raising his state of nervousness.

Sheets sold on the road near the city of Tena, in central Ecuador. The species is found mainly in that country and the leaves are used to make a tea similar to Yerba Mate.
Font Dick Culbert from Gibsons, BC, Canada [ CC BY ]

folk medicine

Guayusa is a drink that has been used for at least 4,000 years for several Amazonian indigenous groups , mainly from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia (Dickau et al 2013, Shoemaker 2014, Bennet and Alarcón 2015), being consumed as a frequent drink among members of the indigenous communities of the central Amazon (Crespo 2013, Kvist and Moraes 2006).

Guayusa for fertility

In popular medicine, guayusa is recommended by healers or shamans as a stimulant, emetic and purgative , to treat infertility problems in women (Villacís-Chiriboga 2017¸Chirif 2016), as an antidiabetic and anti-inflammatory , especially of the prostate .

As an insect repellent , antitussive and to calm muscle pain (Dueñas et al 2016).

Its most frequent use is to reduce fatigue and maintain alertness and concentration in people, and increase hunting skills (Bennet and Alarcón 2015).

Certain indications have been reported, derived from experimental tests, that the infusion of guayusa leaves can offer improvement in diabetic patients and in people suffering from cellulite (Carpintero Salvador and Salazar Enríquez 2014).

sacred plant

In the indigenous Amazonian cosmogony there are, as in all cosmogony, some sacred plants or master plants.

A master plant is a plant that teaches and predisposes to the discovery and understanding of states of spiritual consciousness to communicate with all living beings, allowing us to access the different levels of the cosmos.

Generally, these are concoctions prepared by expert shamans or healers to provoke in consumers, under expert guidance, healing or lucidity processes at a high level of sensory perception.

Several of these plants are used in the Amazon basin , generally of a psychoactive nature. Among them, coca, powdered tobacco, ojé ( Ficus spp.) , ayahuasca , guayusa.


However, the effects of guayusa are mild, as they stimulate the consumer without producing hallucinations.

guayusa poisoning

The guayusa drink is commonly used among the indigenous people of the Jíbaro-Achuar groups of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

It is said that it is a drink that is consumed at dawn, while the elders communicate their traditional knowledge to the young people and tell them their myths of origin and other stories.

Melo (2014, citing Schultes 1979) points out that a cup of guayusa contains 3.3 mg of caffeine, and that in indigenous communities accustomed to its consumption they drink 2.2 liters / adult person / per day, which is equivalent to the consumption of 690 mg of caffeine, that is to say to eight cups of coffee a day, which can cause poisoning.

Purge with guayusa

Therefore, they learn to induce vomiting to cleanse their body. Guarnizo and Martínez (2009) point out that a daily consumption of caffeine between 400 and 600 mg per day, for more than two weeks, causes harmful effects to the body, such as insomnia, irritability, palpitations, anxiety.

Guayusa is used by these indigenous groups to “cleanse” the body, along with severe caloric restriction, fasting, salt restriction, to eliminate urine and other bodily secretions (Sanz-Bizet and Cañigueral 2013).

They practice the guayusa tea ceremony to teach Achuar youth to vomit to cleanse toxins from the body (Villacis-Chiriboga 2017: 83, Lewis et al 1991).

The nutritional value of guayusa

Guayusa is a plant still unknown in many aspects, such as agronomic aspects (Krauze et al 2017) and the biochemical characteristics of its components (Villacis-Chiriboga 2017). Villacis-Chiriboga et al 2017) points out that the nutritional and biochemical value of the tender leaves of guayusa is greater, because its content is reduced as the leaf matures.

Many laboratory tests have been done, the results of which diverge.

In some cases it is said that it is rich in vitamins and minerals, or that it has high proportions of caffeine and theobromine, or that it has L-theanine and chlorogenic acids (which benefit cardiovascular health).

However, in other registries, the components and their proportions are imprecise (Wise and Negrín 2019, Crespo-Calva 2018, Melo 2014, Fabara and Melo-Gallegos 2014, Radice and Vidari 2007).

caffeine content

Despite the contradictory values found in laboratory tests, it can be said that guayusa has a caffeine content of 1.7 to 3.5% of the dry weight, lower than that of the guarana leaf (Paullinia cupana ), from 2.5 to 5.0%, and that of tea (Camellia sinensis ), from 2.0 to 5%, and almost equal to that of the robusta coffee bean (Coffea canephora ), from 2.2 to 3%, and higher than that of the yerba mate leaf (Ilex paraguariensis ), which is 0.5 to 2.2%, and that of the Arabica coffee bean (Coffea arabica), from 1.0 to 1.5% (Barriga-Coronel 2017: 9).

Barriga-Coronel (2017: 10) presents a summary table on the values of three species of energy plants: guarana , guayusa and yerba mate, in units of mg/g.

SpeciesCaffeinetheobromineTotal polyphenolsChlorogenic acidChap. antioxidant(+)
Guarana 39,50,308,43—    3,56
Guayusa 26,00,5654,8624,101,54
yerba mate19,274,8413,4628,001,50
(+) Measured in mM Trolox units/g.

Laboratory tests carried out by Fabara and Melo-Gallegos (2014) using fresh guayusa leaves resulted in a caffeine content of 16.64 mg/g of weight, and 0.56 mg/g of theobromine.

The researcher Villacís-Chiriboga, in an interview with the Quito newspaper El Comercio, points out that guayusa is low in fat, protein and dietary fiber, and contains 50 kcal per 100 g of dry weight, 12 g of carbohydrates, and low vitamin C, calcium and iron content.

An unattractive culinary ingredient

The tests that have been done in order to apply the extract of guayusa leaves for culinary purposes have not been very promising.

Marchán-Navas and Fuentes-Santana (2015) found, after their experience, that guayusa leaves are an ingredient that has a “very low level” aroma and flavor.

They made several culinary preparations that they submitted to tasting, which resulted in “a product with non-conformity”, and its aroma and flavor are lost in the dishes.

What does guayusa taste like?

The organoleptic profile of the guayusa leaf reflects that it has almost no odor, just a slight citrus note.

Its flavor is light and slightly sweet.

Its color is yellowish green, and its final sensation is stimulating.

The preparation of guayusa

Guayusa tea is prepared with freshly harvested leaves, in an infusion. The leaves are submerged in water heated almost to the boiling point, at an average of five leaves per cup, and allowed to stand for a few minutes (Melo 2014). The proportions are, in fact, variable, since the domestic preparation of the drink in the province of Morona Santiago is made at the rate of 4 leaves per liter of water.


The consumption of guayusa drink is contraindicated for pregnant women and nursing mothers.

The Peruvian vayoosa

The candoshi , indigenous group of the Peruvian Amazon , great takers of masato de yucca fermented in the masateadas, occasions in which it is customary to consume as much masato as possible, they usually take infusions of guayusa , which they call vayoosa, for emetic purposes, to stimulate nausea and cleanse the body (Surrallés 2007: 321).

The world market for energy drinks

Energy drinks do not contain alcohol, but rather stimulating substances, which are appreciated for reducing fatigue and increasing mental concentration and physical endurance. Its release on the market in the United States occurred in the 1990s.

It is a promising market worldwide, and with good growth, although it is highly controlled by multinational companies, with their brands very well positioned, offering a wide portfolio of products to a segment of consumers aged between 18 and 40 years of age ( Guzmán-Guevara and Samaniego-Pilay 2017).

The market leaders are Red Bull and Monster, and the countries with the highest consumption are mainly the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Vietnam (Barriga-Coronel 2017, Zenith International 2012).

The raw materials of the most successful companies in this market are caffeine, guarana, taurine and ginseng, and now guayusa , rich in caffeine. This market is relatively new, and more so in Latin America, where it began to develop in 2001.

Guayusa in Ecuador

Guayusa has been used in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest for centuries, but it has only recently attracted the attention of researchers.

The first article on guayusa was published in Ecuador, in 1968. Since then, most of the articles on the subject touch on aspects related to the plant and its role in sustainable development and its applications in medicine (Sadali, Morocho and Garrido-Pérez 2016, Lema et al 2017, Science Daily 2014).

One of the countries that stands out in the production and export of guayusa is Ecuador .

Its first export was made in 2016, destined for the United States, Germany and the Czech Republic, from the plantations located in Archidona, Tena and Arosemena, in the province of Napo, in the Ecuadorian Amazon , where some 3,000 producers who cultivate some 6,000 hectares , with other associated crops (Villacís-Chiriboga 2017).

In the region there has been interest, for several years, in developing the production and export of the product, evidenced by the development of research for the establishment of processing companies for guayusa leaves (Montilla-Brito 2013).

What is the country that produces the most guayusa in the world?

Ecuador is currently the largest producer and exporter of guayusa in the world, although it is a marginal market, even within the energy drinks sector. In 2015, Ecuador exported 1.11 million USD, almost entirely to the US market (Barriga-Coronel 2017).

Guayusa in the Amazon context

Food is essential for life and is, basically, a total social fact, which includes the consumption, in different scenarios, occasions and motivations, of solid foods and beverages , which are edible from a biological and cultural point of view, as a result of a culturally determined choice.

In this context, drinking plays a fundamental role in social life, not only in the daily and private sphere, but also in the public sphere on different special, festive and ceremonial occasions.

The most common drinks among indigenous native communities of the Amazon basin , apart from water, there are three: masato or chicha, a fermented drink made with cassava, corn, banana or palm drupes; guayusa, a stimulating, energetic drink, resulting from the infusion of guayusa leaves; and the ayahuasca or yagé, a decoction prepared from the bark of a vine.

The three can be classified as psychoactive drinks, because they produce, when ingested, alterations in the normal functioning of the central nervous system of a person, and may cause some degree of psychological dependence.

In the urban contexts of the Amazon basin, as well as outside of it, other beverages containing alkaloids are used (nitrogenous substances from certain plants that produce physiological and psychological effects, and constitute natural stimulants), among which the best known are coffee, the tea, the cocoa , cola, mate, guayusa and guarana.


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