Many of us love a hot cup of cocoa. If you’re like me, you may even take your coffee with cocoa regularly as a mocha preparation. But what is cocoa exactly and where does it come from? Cocoa is made from the Cacao Tree (Latin name: Theobroma cacao; theobroma means “food of the gods.”)
FTC Required Disclosure: I'm an Amazon Associate and an affiliate of eBay and other shopping sites. Any purchase through links in this post may earn me commissions at no extra cost to you.
In the Amazon, where this tree is native, Indians often drink cacao upon waking up in the morning. That is understandable since cacao contains substances which act as stimulants (“uppers”), promoting wakefulness, stimulation, and euphoria.
Cacao “beans” are actually seeds of the Cacao Tree.
The cocoa bean is made of 50% or even more fat, cocoa butter, which has topical, but also psychoactive uses.
In the Afro-American Santeria cult, a sacred liquid known as omiero is drunk at the initiation of a new cult member.
Omiero should consist of 101 herbs, representing all of the orishas (Yoruba gods or energies that represent the different aspects of nature), and includes cocoa butter for stimulant or mild psychoactive effects.
What’s in Cocoa Powder?
When the cocoa butter is separated from the seeds, an alkaloid-rich, high-protein dry powder is left: cocoa powder.
Nutritionally, this removal of the fat from cacao beans to make cocoa powder is desirable because cocoa butter is a saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease.
Cocoa powder contains:
Purine alkaloids (methylxanthines)
Methylxanthines are among the most widely consumed psychoactive substances in the world.
At least three methylxanthines can be found in cacao: caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline. All of these have stimulating effects on the central nervous system.
In general, the effects of these substances include increased concentration and attention, as well as vasodilation with consequent increase in production of urine.
Theobromine, a compound similar to caffeine, makes up 1-3% of the weight of the cocoa bean.
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder contain more theobromine than milk chocolate and chocolate syrup.
Cocoa powder contains 2057 mg of theobromine per 100 g.
Unlike caffeine (in coffee, tea, maté, guarana, and kola) and theophylline (in tea and guarana), theobromine has only a mild stimulating effect on the central nervous system and heart. It is also a vasodilator (therefore it lowers blood pressure) and a smooth muscle relaxant, and is used as a diuretic and bronchial muscle relaxant.
Theobromine slowly increases after oral administration, with peak concentration about 2-3 hours after.
Its half life is 6-12 hours.
Theobromine promotes wakefulness by acting at adenosine receptors as antagonists, and at some receptors, it may be at least as potent as caffeine.
Some studies found that contrary to caffeine, theobromine does not disrupt sleep, but actually improves it. Remember, however, that cocoa contains caffeine too, which does disrupt sleep.
Other plants with theobromine include:
- tea leaves (Camellia sinensis; 0.05%)
- coffee (slight concentrations)
- kola (Cola acuminata)
- holly (Ilex aquifolium)
- Cassina Tree (Ilex cassine) leaves
- Ilex guayasa used to make guayusa, a drink with potent stimulating effects (0.003-0.12%)
- Ilex paraguariensis used to make maté, a stimulating and invigorating drink (0.3-0.45%)
- Ilex vomitoria used to make yaupon, a mild stimulating drink (0.04%)
- Paullinia cupana, the Guaraná Vine (up to 1.2%)
There’s only approximately 0.05–0.7% caffeine, a well‐known psychostimulant, in the cocoa bean (in comparison to 1.2% in dry coffee beans).
Cocoa powder contains the highest amount of caffeine of all cocoa products (230 mg of caffeine per 100 g).
Caffeine is rapidly absorbed and peak plasma concentration occurs in about 30 minutes. However, if ingested in chocolate, the absorption of caffeine is delayed and peaks approximately up to 2 hours later and less is absorbed.
Caffeine is metabolized in the body into:
- paraxanthine – promotes wakefulness even more than caffeine (and comparably to modafinil) and reduces deep sleep and REM sleep (at least in mice),
- and theophylline – another CNS stimulant:
Theophylline is said to increase the ability to concentrate. It also helps the lungs dilate, the airways relax, and decreases inflammation.
Cocoa powder contains several minerals including calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and zinc.
Cocoa may have the highest magnesium levels of any food besides seaweed. Getting enough magnesium is associated with lower risk of diabetes, healthy blood pressure, strong bones, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and healthy nervous system activity.
If you crave chocolate, you may have a magnesium-poor diet though phenethylamine and anandamide may also play a role in chocolate addiction.
Starches and sugars together form 13–25% of the weight of the cocoa bean.
Cocoa is an excellent sources of fiber (33%) and contains some protein (~20%).
Cacao is a rich source of potent polyphenolic flavanol antioxidants (flavan-3-ols, specifically epicatechin and catechin) and other flavonoids, like those found in red grapes, though they are reduced if the cocoa is subjected to acid-reducing alkalization used in Dutch-process cocoa powder.
A teaspoon of natural cocoa powder corresponds to a tablespoon or more of Dutch cocoa, which is darker and more mellow in flavor than raw cocoa.
The effects of the antioxidants include:
- lower blood pressure
- reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
- increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol
- reduce the risk of heart attack by slowing blood clotting in vessels
- increase chances of surviving a heart attack
- mild inhibitors of platelet activity, thinning blood in an action similar to that of aspirin.
- neuroprotective; improve various types of cognitive and visual tasks
- positive effects on mood
- lower the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and stroke
- reverse age-related memory decline
The highest levels of antioxidants are found in raw cocoa and to a lesser extent, dark chocolate.
Antioxidants, such as clovamide, have also been found in cocoa, which have potential neuroprotective effects.
Anandamide (also known as arachidonylethanolamide) is an endogenous THC analog and neurotransmitter, which binds to THC or cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The name is derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning “bliss.”
It plays a role in pain, depression, appetite, memory, and mood, and may be partly responsible for the sense of euphoria and satisfaction felt after consuming chocolate.
Generally, the body can create anandamide from arachaidonic acid found in meat and eggs. However, if your health is important to you and you don’t consume animal products, then just add cocoa powder to your diet.
Two substances in cocoa which are similar to anandamide, N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine, inhibit the metabolism of anandamide, and may potentiate its effects, potentially making up for the low amounts of anandamide.
However, if you’re hoping to replicate the effects of THC, then you’d have to also reduce levels of the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), which breaks anandamide down rapidly. Inhibiting FAAH may be done naturally at least in vitro by kaempferol, a flavonoid found in kale, beans, tea, spinach, and broccoli.
So might adding cocoa powder to your Kale & Matcha Smoothie get you high?
Only one way to find out… recipe below.
Cocoa contains compounds with potential biological activity (limited by breakdown by monoamine oxidase in the small intestine, liver, and kidneys), including:
- serotonin (and when eaten as low-protein chocolate, the carbohydrates could also lead to an increase in serotonin production in the brain) – serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood, and in high amount, may make a person feel euphoric.
- tryptophan – an essential amino acid and precursor to serotonin (and may therefore have an anxiolytic effect.)
- phenethylamine (PEA), a molecule with a structure similar to amphetamines (and is regarded as an “endogenous amphetamine” or “love drug“) may activate brain receptors, inducing the uptake and release of norepinephrine, dopamine, acetylcholine, and serotonin. Low levels of PEA may be associated with depression, while high levels with elevated mood, sexual arousal and pleasure, higher energy levels, even mania.
Chocolate is rich in oxalic acid, which can inhibit calcium absorption. This is one reason to limit its consumption. (Other reasons may be found below, in the Adverse Effects section.)
Salsolinol and tetrahydro-b-carbolines
Salsolinol (SAL) and tetrahydro-b-carbolines (THBCs) are morphine-like alkaloids, which may play a role in why alcohol is addictive. They are also present in chocolate.
Moreover, THBCs also act as mild MAO inhibitors.
Traditional Uses of Cacao
Ancient American civilizations (Maya, Olmec, Toltec, and Aztec) had been using cacao as a sacrament, offering, incense, medicine, food, inebriant, and stimulant for thousands of years.
A sacrament was made by mixing ground cacao seeds with water, chili peppers, and cornmeal. They consumed it during rituals and offered it to the gods.
Other common additions to cacao included honey, vanilla, allspice, almonds, pistachios, musk, nutmeg, cloves, and cacao flowers (Quararibea funebris).
Cacao was often combined with other psychoactive plants and fungi. The Aztec for example combined cacao with Psilocybe mexicana and other mushrooms containing psilocybin.
While not much is known about the ancient uses of cacao as a sacrament, nowadays modern cacao ceremonies are becoming more and more popular. Cacao is once again respected as a plant medicine, which can open the spiritual “heart,” expanding insight and awareness.
Every cacao ceremony is different. Other than sharing a cacao drink, they may involve:
- guided meditation
- sound journey
- group processes
The cacao drink used in ceremonies, 100% ceremonial grade pure cacao (in a water base), should be of high quality and grown, handled, and processed with great care and proper intention.
Dose: 30-42 grams in 150 ml (10 fl. oz.) 70°C (158°F) water. An optional second round is sometimes offered.
Sometimes spices are added, such as chili or cayenne pepper, as well as a sweetener and/or a dash of plant-based milk. A sweetener may trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s endogenous opiates, reducing the drinkers’ sensitivity to pain.
This divine drink, which builds up resistance, and fights fatigue. A cup of permits people to walk for a whole day without food. – Moctezuma II (Aztec ruler, 16th century)
Traditionally, cacao was used as a tonic and aphrodisiac, to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings, as a diuretic, in cases of kidney infections, and externally as an antiseptic.
Cocoa powder itself may have beneficial effects in a number of chronic conditions, including heart disease.
It unstiffens the arteries, regulates cholesterol levels, boosts the immune system, and may even combat the effects of aging.
However, sugar-free cocoa improves arterial function better than the same amount of cocoa with sugar added.
Chronic fatigue syndrome
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial found that eating cocoa solids significantly improves symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome.
A medicinal dose for this purpose is 2.5 tablespoons of cocoa powder (38 grams) per day.
Hysteroid dysphoria an affective disorder characterized by an attention-seeking behavior and depressed mood in response to feeling rejected.
Often, sufferers crave the food that can ease their condition: chocolate.
Psychoactive Effects of Cocoa
The psychoactive effects of cacao include:
- Stimulation and arousal
- Euphoria, happiness, contentment, and mood enhancement
- Mild feelings of openness
- Mild empathy and affection
- Muscle relaxation
- Focus, concentration
Like coffee, cocoa is regarded as a rajasic food according to Yoga, which is a food that destroys the mind-body equilibrium. Too much rajasic food overstimulates the body and excites the passions, making the mind restless and uncontrollable.
However, some people report that it aids in their meditation, helping them remain alert and focused, yet relaxed.
What causes the psychoactive effects of cocoa?
While phenethylamine and other amines may induce feelings of euphoria and other psychoactive effects, the effects are inhibited by the monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzyme.
Anandamide is present in very low amounts, so it is probably not the main active ingredient in cocoa.
Methylxanthines, such as theobromine and caffeine, are probably the most psychoactive ingredients in cocoa. As we’ve seen, they reach the brain where they act as adenosine receptors antagonists, thereby exerting effects on mood, cognition, and behavior.
Even if cocoa contains only small amounts of psychoactive ingredients, taken together, they may work synergistically to influence the mind.
For stronger psychoactive effects, use raw cocoa instead of dutch-processed.
Cacao trip report
Many interesting trip reports can be found on Erowid.org. Here’s one example:
So cacao can be a “real” drug, with visions and everything, if I take it raw. 40 grams on an empty stomach or after a very light meal, prepared with water or soy milk, a teaspoon of ginger powder to prevent nausea, and sweetener to taste. The liquid can be warm but not too hot, […] If I want it to taste good I prepare this dose with 600 ml soy milk. If I want to consume it fast I can have it in just one cup of liquid […] I usually take cacao together with my partner. We darken the room, light candles and incense, say our intentions, drink the cacao, meditate then lay down. Cacao comes up about half an hour after I take it. I notice it as a warm feeling in my body and a slightly altered mental state. I sort of meditate into the warm feeling, and sometimes also use meditative awareness to delve into any feelings in my body I might be interested in processing. I try to relax almost to the point of sleep but not quite. […] Sometimes visions come up. Sometimes I have an awareness of the “cacao spirit” and I’ve found it useful to ask her to guide me, and allow my awareness to go where she wants it to go. At other times I have no visions at all, but I always feel more connected to my body and my emotions, and it’s much easier to talk about my emotions, and hence, to process. […] The warmth, comfort, and ease of emotional expression of cacao reminds me a bit of MDMA, if gentler.
Apparently, cocoa may have interesting effects on dreaming, which is not surprising given that it is a stimulant. When stimulants are used during sleep, often they affect dreaming.
For example, one person reports:
I started by sucking on the bean husk tucked between my cheek and gums, as to not chew it directly. The skin hydrates and it becomes chewy and the bitter extract from the bean starts to leach out. Once all the extract leaves the bean the core becomes soft and has the texture and taste of a nut. I repeat this until I have consumed five or more. Then it is off to bed. The Waking dreams last all night long. They are 3D, color, texture, interactive with others. People, places, cars, bikes, food, as if I am in a separate but parallel world. The entertaining part of this is the dreams are different each night, but are a continuation often of a prior dream. Much like being awake. To add a kick to the process 70% organic chocolate is eaten often with the organic beans. no dairy. […] Close friends have also tried this with equal success! We use mouth guards to keep from grinding teeth as we sleep.
However, be careful with dosing to avoid an experience such as the following in which the person took 10 grams of 25x full spectrum Theobroma cacao extract:
About 45 minutes after consumption, I began to feel very light, as if I had lost 50 pounds. Along with this sensation came a pronounced feeling of euphoria, and a pleasant amount of stimulation. […] I woke a few times during the night, after having disturbing dreams […] I felt slightly hung over the next morning, with a headache that lasted most of the following day.
How to use Cacao?
Eat Cocoa Powder
The best part of the cacao bean is the cocoa powder, especially when consumed raw and without sugar or dairy.
If you cannot bare the taste of natural cacao, then use dutch (alkali-processed) cocoa.
Healthy Chocolate Ice Cream Recipe
Blend in a high-speed blender:
- (Optional: 1-2 cups of kale,)
- Frozen bananas and/or berries,
- Cocoa powder,
- (Optional: Japanese matcha powder,)
- (Optional: black pepper, which contains guineensine, an alkaloid which appears to be a relatively potent Anandamide reuptake inhibitor, thus increasing its physiological effects.)
- (optional: almond butter,)
- non-dairy milk (dairy may block some of the positive effects of cocoa),
- vanilla extract,
- and some erythritol or pitted dates.
An Old Cacao Recipe
This recipe was brought to Spain from America in 1528:
- 700 grams cacao
- 750 grams white sugar
- 56 grams “cinnamon” (Canella winterana)
- 14 Mexican peppercorns (Capsicum spp.)
- 3 vanilla pods
- 1 handful “anise” (Tagetes lucida)
- 1 hazelnut
- gray amber
- orange blossom water
(Source: The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants.)
If you prefer to smoke your psychoactives, then know that cocoa can be smoked although since it’s a powder, you would probably need to either use a pipe or to mix it with a smokable herb.
How does it feel to smoke cocoa? One person reports:
nestle’s powdered cacao […] smokes better than any herbal alternative to marijuana that I have tried…also…the effects are just as strong if not stronger than sinicuichi, dagga, etc…highly recommended.
Insufflating Cocoa Powder
According to PsychonautWiki, snorted cocoa is a popular party drug in Europe, usually as a legal and subtle replacement for MDMA or cocaine.
A common dose is 0.5-2 grams (0.25-1 tsp).
Onset: 10-120 seconds
Total time: 10-30 minutes
Effects may include:
- Thought acceleration
- Cognitive euphoria
- Motivation enhancement
- Novelty enhancement
Side effects may include:
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Increased perspiration
- Pupil dilation
The aftereffects of cocoa powder may include:
- Cognitive fatigue
- Motivation suppression
- Thought deceleration
One person reports:
I tried sniffing cocoa to get high on a night out and it was surprisingly good. The bathroom walls were pulsating with energy. As I stepped back into the bar, the music seemed louder and the lights were brighter. I was seized by the irresistible urge to join strangers’ conversations. [… I] found myself behaving completely out of character: organising and directing everyone to the club. I could feel an intense, weirdly nice throbbing behind my eyes like a heartbeat. […] at one point I joined a dance off between two strangers. It didn’t seem strange. I felt invincible. The only downside was the messiness. My nostrils were blocked with clumps of cocoa and my pockets were filled with brown dust. I would definitely use cocoa again in the future but more likely as a stimulant rather than as a party drug, by which it is making a name for itself. The powerful concentration and energy it seemed to give me made it more comparable to caffeine or study drug Modafinil.
Someone else reports that while he usually snorts 100 mg instead of a cup of coffee, he tried 312 mg: “The effects with a dose this much just makes me feel pumped up as if I just had 3 cups of coffee but the effects last around an hour or two.”
In the Amazon rain forest, where cacao (both Theobroma cacao and other species) is native, there are many other psychoactive uses for the tree. Following are a few examples.
The shells of the cacao fruit can be brewed to make a tea. Normal dosage is 2-4 grams per cup of water.
The ashes of the fruit of Theobroma cacao and Theobroma grandiflorum are used as a coca (Erythroxylum coca) additive when it is chewed.
The active ingredient in Theobroma grandiflorum is theacrine. It is also used for making cacao wine.
Ambíl or chimó (tobacco syrup) is stored in the fruit shells of a wild cacao species (Theobroma glaucum); they believe that this improves the taste considerably.
In Amazonia, tobacco sniffing is usually recreational, although it is also sometimes done ritualistically. During ayahuasca ceremonies, for instance, many Indians in the western Amazon region sniff great quantities of tobacco powder mixed with the powdered bark of a wild cacao species (Theobroma subincanum), sometimes also mixed with ground chili pods. This may induce hallucinogenic effects.
An amazonian snuff is made by mixing finely ground, dried green tobacco leaves in equal parts with the ashes of a wild cacao species (Theobroma subinacanum).
Paullinia cupana (Guaraná Vine) – the traditional method of preparing the seeds is to manufacture guaraná bread, which sometimes contain cacao.
Shinã / Tsinã – this snuff powder is produced by the Jamamadis and Denís of the Brazilian Amazon. It consists of equal parts of roasted tobacco leaves and ashes from the bark of plants such as:
- Theobroma subinacanum
- Theobroma spp. (cacau)
Cacao is possibly used in psychoactive and ritual incenses. In Panama it is burned along with generous amounts of chili pods to dispel malicious spirits and for healing.
Cacao is also used as a psychoactive beer additive in Belgium in a wheat beer known as Floris Chocolat.
Theobroma bicolor is a balché additive, a mildly intoxicating beverage made by soaking the bark of Lonchocarpus violaceus in honey and water, and fermenting it. Sometimes aromatic additives are used, such as cocoa beans for their theobromine and phenethylamine.
Psilocybe mushrooms are often ingested together with cacao or chocolate, even in Europe. In Switzerland, chocolate and 0.5 g of powdered liberty caps (Psilocybe semilanceata) are mixed together to make cookies (“the genuine Swiss chocolate”).
Mexican Indians often ingest Psilocybe mexicana with chocolate.
Cacao powder was sometimes used as a psychoactive additive to wine (succolade) in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe, along with sugar, cardamom, and saffron.
Because the pure resin of Virola is sticky, it is usually mixed by some Amazonian tribes with plant ashes, e.g., from the bark of a wild cacao tree (Theobroma subinacanum). The snuff apparently will not have any effects unless the (alkaline) plant ashes are added.
In the 1920s and 1930s, pharmaceuticals, invigorating drinks, and agents of pleasure made from khat (e.g., Catha-Cocoa Milk) were sold in London, which contained cocoa. Nowadays, the khat has been replaced with coffee or the Cola plant.
Piper aduncum (matico pepper) – its leaves and inflorescences are an ingredient in various Aztec cacao recipes and have a mild stimulating effect because of the essential oil. An aphrodisiac and stimulant, in Mexico it is one of the traditional spices for cacao.
Capsicum (chili pepper) is often added to cacao.
Solandra (Cup of Gold), a visionary plant with tropane alkaloids, was used to add zest to cacao drinks in Mexico.
Calliandra anomala (Red Powder Puff), an hypnotic and sleep-inducing plant containing alkaloids, may have been used as an additive to cacao.
Quararibea funebris is used as a spice for cacao drinks in Mexico. It has been described as a possible hallucinogen .
The flowers of Cymbopetalum penduliflorum, said to inebriate like mushrooms, are used in Mexico as a spice for cacao drinks.
When consuming large amounts of cacao (for example in cacao ceremonies), it is important to drink lots of water to avoid a headache or “hangover” due to cacao’s dehydrating effect.
Does raw cacao keep you awake? Due to the caffeine content, in large enough quantities, cacao will keep you awake.
When taken in excess, consuming caffeine may cause:
- anxiety and nervousness
- drunkness, confusion
- insomnia or light sleep patterns
- various types of heart disease, stomach and intestinal maladies,
- and moodiness.
In acne-prone individuals, the consumption of cocoa may cause an increase in acne.
From about 28 weeks until birth, pregnant women may want to cut back on consumption of cocoa.
Due to oxalic acid, using cocoa habitually may inhibit healthful overall mineralization of the body.
Phenethylamine dilates the blood vessels in the brain and consequently can, under certain circumstances, cause headaches or migraines.
People with MAO deficiency in particular may experience blushing, headaches, and increased blood pressure to the point of fatal cardiovascular shock.
Obviously, if you are taking MAOI medications (e.g., some antidepressants), then you should consult your doctor before consuming cocoa in larger than culinary doses.
Cocoa powder may contain cadmium and lead, toxic metals, in small amounts so children should limit consumption.
Because cocoa is a powerful stimulant, it can be considered addictive.
Cocoa is a healthy food, but also a powerful psychoactive agent. I’d recommend using it especially as a stimulant, euphoriant, and aphrodisiac.
It may also serve as a dream enhancer, however I would probably avoid consuming it before I intend to get deep sleep. For dreaming, I’d suggest taking your cocoa during WBTB (Wake Back To Bed; waking up after 4-5 hours of sleep, then going back to bed) or before a daytime nap.
Purchase fair trade cocoa, though, which is harvested using a certified process followed by cocoa farmers, buyers, and chocolate manufacturers, designed to create sustainable incomes for farmers and their families.
See if you can get the criollo variety, which is especially prized and superior in quality.
Watson, R., R., Preedy, V. R., Zibadi, S. (Editors.) Chocolate in Health and Nutrition (Nutrition and Health).