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?
NOTE : Raw coca leaves are illegal in the United States, but decocainized coca leaf tea is legal and generally recognized as safe by the FDA. We strongly recommend against the use of raw leaves.
Erythroxylum coca , commonly known as the coca plant, grows wild across South America, including Bolivia and Peru [ 1 , 2 ].
Archaeological evidence shows that coca has been cultivated in the region for at least 3,000 years [ 3 ].
It was a sacred plant for the Incas and, according to legend, it could increase strength and vigor, while decreasing pain and suffering. Coca is still an integral part of the Andean culture today, mainly used to increase work capacity, decrease fatigue, and to alleviate thirst and hunger [ 3 ].
Undoubtedly, its most famous active compound is cocaine [ 4 ].
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 [ 3 ].
However, there is some evidence that other compounds in coca leaves may be helpful with altitude sickness , decrease hunger , and ease pain [ 5 , 4 , 6 ]. Components
Cocaine is the main alkaloid found in coca plants. On average, whole coca contains 0.6% cocaine in its dried leaves [ 3 , 4 , 7 ].
However, there are over a dozen other alkaloids, such as benzoylecgonine, ecgonine, tropacocaine, hygrine, cuscohygrine, and nicotine , that exist within this plant [ 3 , 7 ].
Apart from alkaloids, coca leaves also contain [ 8 , 9 ]:
Unaltered coca leaves and their extracts are illegal in the US and in most other Western countries [ 4 ].
Coca tea is legal in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, and Chile.
The tea is legal in the US only if it is decocainized (if the cocaine is removed). We recommend strongly against using raw coca leaves. Mechanism of Action
Researchers have observed the mechanisms of coca’s action in cell and animal studies. These may or may not apply to humans, but they provide ideas for how best to study coca in humans. We have collected some of this research below.
Coca may decrease appetite by: Increasing glucose levels in the blood, because it prevents its use as an energy source (glycolysis) [ 10 , 11 , 12 , 13 ].
This helps reduce the feeling of hunger, and also results in a decrease of blood insulin levels [ 10 ].
Coca may improve endurance/physical performance by: Increasing the levels of free fatty acids and their use as an energy source [ 14 , 10 ].
Decreasing blood volume, thereby increasing the percentage of red blood cells ( hematocrit ) and hemoglobin levels [ 15 ].
This can improve endurance. However, the decrease in blood volume also causes increases in heart rate and blood pressure [ 16 , 12 , 15 ].
Coca may improve mood because: 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 [ 5 ].
Cocaine blocks the normal signal transmission of dopamine , serotonin , and norepinephrine , causing them to build up in the brain, leading to improved mood [ 3 ].
Coca may help against altitude sickness because the alkaloids in the coca plant, including cocaine, suppress the symptoms of increased red blood cell levels (polycythemia), which occur at high altitudes. Symptoms of high red blood cell levels include dizziness, headache , fatigue, and hunger [ 17 ]. Potential Benefits of Coca
Coca leaf tea and supplements have not been approved by the FDA for medical use and generally lack solid clinical research. Furthermore, only decocainized coca leaf tea is legal in the United States.
Regulations set manufacturing standards for decocainized tea but don’t guarantee that it is safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before supplementing.
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of coca leaf for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before taking coca leaf, and never use it in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes. 1) Altitude Sickness Traditionally, coca leaves have been used to reduce the side effects of high altitudes , such as lack of oxygen , low body temperature , headaches , fatigue , and hunger [ 18 , 19 , 20 , 3 ].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 5,400 m/17,600 ft) showed that coca leaves reduced subjective altitudes sickness symptoms, such as nausea, headaches, and difficulty breathing. Oxygen saturation also improved [ 21 ].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 [ 22 ].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 altitudes. Moreover, it seems that cocaine can actually decrease the production of blood cells [ 17 , 23 ].In a study done in the 1970s, 14 men chewed […]