Coca leaf tea is used in South America as a folk medicine and stimulating drink. In high elevations, South Americans drink coca leaf tea the way Americans drink coffee. The tea has some beneficial effects, but also some drawbacks.
Altitude Sickness Remedy
In South America, coca tea is widely used to treat altitude sickness, known as soroche in Peru. Altitude sickness, experienced in the first few days of your body acclimatizing to a higher elevation, can cause nausea, vomiting and headaches. Sarah Bush, an NPR News reporter, says that coca leaves have been chewed since 3,000 B.C.E. and used as a remedy for altitude sickness and minor stomach upset at least since then. According to Bush, the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia even recommends coca tea as an altitude sickness treatment. James A. Duke, Ph.D. and author of "The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook," notes that when he had a cup of coca tea during a bout of altitude sickness while on a Peruvian visit, it energized him the same way as a cup of coffee. He says coca tea is his "three-star recommendation" for altitude sickness relief.
Is Coca Tea Harmful?
Cocaine can be derived from the leaves of the coca plant, but the way cocaine is processed and the effects of cocaine are much stronger than the coca plant tea. The PregnantTraveler.com, a website devoted to giving advice to pregnant travelers, notes that the process used to make coca tea is quite different than the method used to make cocaine and that a cup of coca tea is "harmless," though its effects may not relieve altitude sickness so much as relax the imbiber.
Drug Testing and Coca Tea
An article written by members of The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute for health notes that ingesting a cup of coca tea, whether it's from Bolivia or Peru, produces cocaine metabolites in the urine. The PregnantTraveler also notes that if you take a drug test within a few days after having coca tea, you will test positive for cocaine.
Legality in the United States
Though some argue that coca tea bears no more resemblance to cocaine than poppy seeds do to heroine, coca leaf teas are illegal to bring into the United States. If you have a cup during a South American visit, leave the tea behind when you return. NPR News's Sarah Bush notes that Bolivia's new President, Evo Morales, is a former coca farmer who wants to legalize export uses for coca leaves, including as a soap ingredient and in teas.
Alternative Ways to Treat Altitude Sickness
If you do not wish to have coca tea, James A. Duke, Ph.D. and author of "The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook," recommends drinking plain water and juice and eating lots of vegetable soups to help alleviate altitude sickness. A ginkgo biloba supplement of 60 to 240 mg daily is said to help with blood flow to the brain. Drinking a tea made of cloves, allspice, bayleaf, marjoram, celery seed and cinnamon will also help. Eating a soup made with a lot of garlic, hot peppers and onions will help thin the blood. Teas made from mints help settle the stomach. In Asian mountains like Tibet, high mountain climbers eat a mushroom called reishi that is purported to help with altitude sickness.