Coca leaves are derived from the Erythroxylum coca plant and although they are the source of cocaine, they should not be confused with the drug. Chewing coca leaves is a traditional habit of South Americans and a local remedy for altitude sickness, stomach pains, hunger relief, and anesthesia. Read on to find out whether these coca benefits are supported by science.
What is the Coca Plant?
Archaeological evidence shows that coca has been cultivated in the region for at least 3,000 years [R].
It was a sacred plant for the Incas and, according to legend, it could increase strength and vigor, while decreasing pain and suffering.
The potential benefits of coca are difficult to fully assess, given the lack of research and medical interest after the isolation of cocaine. To this day, science still focuses on understanding cocaine, rather than the many other active compounds found in coca [R].
- Minerals (iron, phosphorus, calcium, zinc, magnesium)
- Vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin B2, vitamin D, vitamin E)
Mechanism of Action
Coca may decrease appetite by:
- Increasing glucose levels in the blood, because it prevents its use as an energy source (glycolysis) [R, R, R, R].
- This helps reduce the feeling of hunger, and also results in a decrease of blood insulin levels [R].
Coca may improve endurance/physical performance by:
- Increasing the levels of free fatty acids and their use as an energy source [R, R].
- Increasing adrenaline and noradrenaline levels [R, R].
- Decreasing blood volume, thereby increasing the percentage of red blood cells (hematocrit) and hemoglobin levels [R, R, R].
- This can improve endurance. However, the decrease in blood volume also causes increases in heart rate and blood pressure [R, R, R].
Coca may improve mood:
- The alkaloids in the coca plant, including cocaine (which affects the neurons in the brain) act as a natural antidepressant, as they improve the mood [R].
- Cocaine blocks the normal signal transmission of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, causing them to build up in the brain, leading to improved mood [R].
Coca may help against altitude sickness because the alkaloids in the coca plant, including cocaine, suppress the symptoms of increased red blood cells levels (polycythemia), which occur at high altitude. Symptoms of high red blood cell levels include dizziness, headache, fatigue, and hunger [R].
Health Benefits of Coca
1) Coca May Help Against Altitude Sickness
A 12-day, placebo-controlled study of 24 high altitude trekkers en route to the Mt. Everest base camp (ascent from 2400 m/8,000 ft/ to 5400 m/17,600 ft) showed that coca leaves reduced subjective altitudes sickness symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, and difficulty breathing. Oxygen saturation also improved [R].
A 2,5-hour pilot study of 10 adults subjected to exercise at 2,700 m showed that chewing coca leaves increased glucose levels in the blood. It appears their bodies had switched from using glucose (glycolysis) to using fatty acids, which may improve physical performance at a high altitude [R].
One of the adaptations to high altitude is the increase in red blood cell levels (polycythemia) in response to the lower oxygen supply. This can cause dizziness, headache, fatigue, and hunger. The alkaloids in the coca plant, including cocaine, suppress these symptoms, which occur at high altitude. Moreover, it seems that cocaine can actually decrease the production of blood cells [R, R].
In a study done in the 1970s, 14 men chewed coca leaves as they were exposed to a mild cold stress (15 degrees Celsius) for 2 hours. When compared to their own responses without coca, they had a more gradual decline in core temperature. This increase in heat conservation could also help against altitude sickness [R].
2) Coca May Decrease Hunger
The coca leaves contain alkaloids, which cause a temporary lack of appetite [R].
Cocaine is known to produce a feeling of fullness, which is controlled by dopamine actions in different parts of the brain (nucleus accumbens core) [R].
3) Coca May Enhance Physical Performance
Coca leaves can be used as an energizer for physical activity [R].
However, studies found conflicting results, both regarding their effectiveness, and their mode of action.
A 2,5 hour-pilot study of 14 adults showed that chewing coca caused the body to switch from using glucose (glycolysis) to fat breakdown (lipolysis), which provided benefits during and after physical activity [R].
Another 1-hour pilot study showed that coca chewers during exercise had increased adrenaline levels in the blood, used more fat, and their oxygen uptake increased slower than in non-chewers. This could explain their higher endurance [R].
A 1-hour study of 21 adults showed that coca leaves increased the levels of free fatty acids, which can improve physical performance. However, there was no increase in exercise efficiency nor capacity [R].
In an experiment among 23 men, chewing coca increased heart rate, and decreased oxygen use by muscles while exercising. Although there were some improvements compared to the control group, the results were not conclusive [R].
A 1-hour study among 12 coca-chewing adults and 12 non-chewers showed that coca chewing decreased blood volume at rest, but increased the heart rate and blood pressure during exercise [R].
Similarly, a 1-month randomized trial of 16 adults showed that coca chewing before exercise reduced blood volume, but increased heart rate during exercise [R].
4) Coca May Relieve Pain
In an animal study, cocaine, as well as other coca leaf alkaloids, caused local anesthesia in rats [R].
In fact, cocaine is sometimes used as an anesthetic for surgical procedures.
The benefits below have been brought up in literature, but there are no scientific studies about them:
- Coca leaves may be used instead of coffee as a stimulant and energizer [R].
- They may be used as a tonic for vocal cords, especially among professional singers and public speakers. Coca was used in ancient times by Incas to anesthetize their throats and prevent a sore throat from dust [R, R].
- Coca leaves may act as an antidepressant and improve mood [R].
Safety and Side Effects
Chewing coca leaves could cause [R]:
- Tingling lips
- Stomach pain
- Bad mood
In contrast to other chewing habits, such as tobacco, coca leaves do not cause DNA damage. They do, however, cause some different types of cell damage. This was shown in a study of cells obtained from 45 habitual coca leaf chewers and 23 controls [R].
Coca Users Test Positive for Cocaine Use
Coca tea contains cocaine and cocaine-related alkaloids. Thus, people who consume coca tea may test positive for cocaine [R].
A 36-hour study with 5 adults also showed that coca tea consumption resulted in urine results positive for cocaine [R].
Coca Paste Is Addictive and Dangerous
Coca leaves and their extracts are illegal in the US and in most other Western countries [R].
Coca tea is legal in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Chile.
The tea is legal in the US only if it becomes decocainized (cocaine is removed).
Limitations and Caveats
There is a limited number of studies about the benefits of the coca plant and many of these are based on personal notes and historical documents, rather than clinical trials.
Furthermore, the few clinical trials were carried out with a small number of participants, and some of their findings are debatable. They are also, most of them, decades old.
Further research on the benefits and side effects of coca is needed.
Coca leaf typically contains 0.1% to 0.9% of cocaine [R].
There is an average of 4 mg of cocaine in a cup of coca tea [R].
“I suffered a significant concussion 5 years ago. Now I suffer neck pain and grogginess that nothing seems to fix. I chew 4 tea bags of coca mate 3 to 4 times a day and it has helped me to overcome the migraines, grogginess and neck pain stiffness. I sleep better at night and I am able to live a fully functional life. Must say I have benefited greatly from the use of coca leaves. First tried it while in Cusco Peru for altitude sickness. I cannot say enough good things about coca leaf chewing.”
“I use coca as a caffeine alternative, appetite suppressant, and general tonic. Also used it to treat altitude sickness while living in the Utah mountains.”
“I had coca tea while suffering from Altitude sickness in Bolivia. Coca tea made me feel healthy and took away my nausea.”
“After experiencing complete healing from high blood pressure and angina after chewing coca leaves in Peru for several weeks I decided to research this remarkable cure.”
“I’ve been using coca tea for several months now as an alternative to coffee. I will never switch back. I first (a few years ago) used the coca leaf in the Andes for altitude sickness, energy boost, and stomach issues, both chewing and drinking methods. The coca leaf helped all. I would highly recommend trying the tea as a coffee substitute to anyone.”
“Coca leaf made me feel energized and balanced. I wasn’t tired afterward, like I sometimes am with caffeine, and I feel confident in my decision to use coca in my daily regimen.”
“I drink coca tea several times a day to treat for altitude sickness, and I did not notice an improvement.”