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Prevents drowsiness, reduces risk of heart attack

With a healthy population of poisonous spiders, plants and snakes as neighbors, the folks who live in the Amazon Basin need all the help they can get to stay alert and on their toes. And they get a major assist from guarana, a woody vine native to that region of the world.

"A cup of the beverage made from guarana has three times more caffeine than a cup of coffee," says William J. Keller, Ph.D., professor and head of the Division of Medicinal Chemistry and Pharmaceutics at the Northeast Louisiana University School of Pharmacy in Monroe. "People in South America either chew a spoonful of the seeds or crush the seeds with a mortar and pestle, add a sprinkle of water and mix up a paste. The dried paste is then used to make a hot beverage like coffee.

"Back in the 1970s, the dried paste was made into tablet form and sold under the name 'Zoom!' " he adds. "One tablet had the caffeine equivalent of four or five tablets of No-Doz."

Other than keeping you moving in a dangerous environment, guarana may also have the ability to keep your red blood cells moving when they have a tendency to clump together and trigger a heart attack.

In a laboratory study conducted at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, researchers found that guarana extract reduces the clumping of red blood cells in rabbits anywhere from 27 to 37%.

Does it do the same in humans? Nobody knows for sure, the researchers report. They're still trying to figure out exactly what it is that keeps the blood cells from clumping together. While guarana may hold potential as a heart protector, it's still too soon to recommend it.

What about using guarana to stay awake? While you can still purchase the herb at health food stores, you might want to reach for a cup of coffee instead. Guarana packs a mighty potent dose of caffeine — enough to give many people the jitters.

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