May 16, 2018

Theobromine and the Performance-Enhancing Properties of Dark Chocolate

By Jerry Toth

The fact that dark chocolate is a performance-enhancing drug is surprisingly overlooked by the general public. Over the course of the last ten years of my life, almost all of my most productive days—both physically and mentally—were fueled by the psychoactive ingredients of properly-dosed dark chocolate. As a stimulant, in my personal opinion dark chocolate is superior to adderall, ritalin, coca leaves, coffee, guayusa tea, and several other legal and illegal drugs. It is a drug in the form of a superfood, whose flavor and aroma complexity surpasses that of wine. And it is a key part of my life, not only in terms of its production, but also its consumption.

The "clean energy" properties of dark chocolate come as a surprise to many people. Most consumers of dark chocolate know that it tastes heavenly, and many people know it’s the most antioxidant-rich food on earth. But few people understand that dark chocolate is naturally endowed with no less than five chemical compounds that cumulatively boost energy, stamina, mental acuity, and mood. In other words, not only does dark chocolate make you feel good—it also boosts your performance.

Cacao fruit, and the seeds from which chocolate is made, is a veritable pharmacopeia of psychotropic compounds.

Theobromine and caffeine are the two primary stimulants found in dark chocolate. These two naturally-occurring chemical compounds work together to increase both physical and mental performance in a smooth and sustained manner. Muscular, cardiovascular, respiratory systems and neurotransmitters in the brain are all stimulated, and hunger is suppressed. Whereas caffeine on its own can be jittery and provoke a crash, theobromine is much gentler and longer-lasting, and there is no crash. A third stimulant—theophylline—also plays a role, as does the mood-enhancing compound phenylethylamine, also known as the “love drug,” and a compound called anandamide, also known as the “bliss molecule.” But theobromine is the dominant force. It is an extremely powerful tool that applies equally to physical strength and stamina as well as mental acuity.

Natural Sources of Theobromine

Chocolate is the only food or drink with significant levels of theobromine. Trace amounts of theobromine can be found in coffee beans, but none of it reaches the human body when coffee is consumed as a drink. Very small amounts of theobromine are present in tea, guayusa, guarana, and yerba mate. A single serving of 75% dark chocolate contains 7x more theobromine than Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, 17x more than yerba mate, 78x more than tea, and there is no data published on theobromine content in guayusa and guarana. The ratio of theobromine to caffeine in dark chocolate ranges from 7 to 16, compared to 0.4 for yerba mate and 0.1 for tea.

Sources: USDA National Nutrients DatabaseCenter for Science in the Public Interest; Bioprofile Testing Laboratories; Caffeine Informer.

I first discovered the performance-enhancing properties of chocolate somewhat by accident. I was living in the middle of the woods in Ecuador at the time. We had just built the Bamboo House, a Robinson Crusoe-like structure that was surrounded by a few thousand acres of Pacific Ecuadorian forest. The Jama-Coaque Reserve was less than one year old at that point, and almost all the forest that surrounded us was totally unknown except to a handful of mountain men, hunters, and illegal loggers. We realized that if we wanted to protect this forest, we first had to know what it was we were protecting, as intimately as possible. And the best way to do this was to walk every single overgrown trail, explore every stream basin, scale every waterfall and climb to every single peak of this mountainous tropical forest. For a few years, this is how I spent many of my days, which was beautiful and exhausting.

Hiking the cloud forest of the Jama-Coaque Reserve, fueled by chocolate. Circa 2009.

To physically get through days like this, I discovered two secret methods, both of which I still religiously employ today. The first is to bathe naked in the stream at the end of the day—to fully submerge in the cool waters and simultaneously drink from it. This has restorative powers which are beyond the scope of this article. But even the magical waters of the Camarones River was not enough on its own. At sunrise each morning, facing another day of walking up and down the mountain, I needed extra help. And I found this help in the form of theobromine.

During these very same explorations of the nascent Jama-Coaque Reserve, I often came upon abandoned groves of semi-wild cacao growing in the forest. Unbeknownst to me at the time, these were heirloom Nacional cacao trees that had grown to unusual heights and were now comfortably living in the shade of even taller trees. I used long bamboo poles to knock the pods off the upper branches. Then I cut open the pods with a machete, scooped out the seeds, and brought them down to the house where I converted them into chocolate using the rustic methods taught to us by our neighbors. When I say “us,” I’m referring to my fellow conservationists, fledgling organic farmers, biologists, and the other fringe characters who inhabited that electricity-less house in the middle of the woods during those years. The scene has not changed much since then.

Theobromine & Sleep

Another key feature of theobromine is that, contrary to caffeine, it does not disrupt sleep. In fact, studies have shown that theobromine actually improves sleep. A comprehensive study by M.A. Grander et al. tested “dietary nutrients associated with short and long sleep duration in a US nationally representative sample (n = 5587) showing that the largest contributor to sleep duration was theobromine.”

By no means were we producing finely-sculpted bars of To’ak chocolate. At that point, everything was done by hand in a house that didn’t even have a proper stove. To cook, we used a wood fire that we built in to our kitchen in the traditional Manabí style. We roasted the cacao beans in a cast-iron pan over a fire. Once the beans cooled, we put the pan of roasted beans on the dinner table and a group of us sat around together, removing the husks by hand, bean-by-bean. Afterwards I grinded the cacao in an old-school hand-grinder that was attached to a slab of wood in our kitchen by means of a vice-grip.

The Bamboo House—the nerve-center of the Jama-Coaque Reserve, and a fine place to drink chocolate in the morning.

Sometimes we baked chocolate-banana cake, or made chocolate-banana pudding. Other times we swabbed chocolate fudge onto bananas and ate it with our hands. Chocolate and bananas wee optimal pairing partners not only because of their complementary flavors, but because they were the two most readily available food sources growing in the forest that surrounded us. But my favorite method of consuming chocolate in the Jama-Coaque Reserve was, and still is, in the form of a drink.

The Love Drug

Three other psychotropic compounds—theophylline, phenylethylamine, and anandamide—are also present in chocolate. Theophylline is another xanthine, similar to theobromine and caffeine, although there are smaller concentrations of it. Theophylline principally increases your ability to concentrate. Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a powerful little compound that is also naturally-occurring in the human brain. It triggers the release of endorphins and mildly stimulates the production of dopamine and serotonin, which heightens feelings of sexual arousal and pleasure, and serves as a natural antidepressant. PEA has also been called the “love drug,” because it is found in higher quantities in the brain during periods of romance and also when people reach orgasm. PEA is present in other foods, too, and whether or not the levels of PEA in dark chocolate are high enough to trigger these particular emotions and sensations is still being studied. Like PEA, anandamide is naturally-occurring in the human body and is also found in chocolate. It has been called the “bliss molecule” for its role in activating cannabinoid receptors in brain cells to heighten motivation and happiness.

When I consume this drink at sunrise, I have the strength and stamina to spend the rest of the day ascending and descending the mountain or planting trees around the house, plus a random earth-works project like digging a swale or something—as you do. By the time the sun sets, I realize that I’ve been working the entire day, almost without a break, and I usually still have enough left in the tank to keep going. But when it gets dark I stop, walk to the waters of the river and treat myself to a nice skinny dip and drink, and wash up for dinner. At night I sleep like a baby.

After a few years of doing this in the forest, I eventually brought this tactic with me to the city. Half of my time in Ecuador is spent on the coast, where the work is physical, and the other half is spent in Quito where the work is digital—as in, using fingers on a keyboard. In this latter scenario, the main part of the body that requires stimulation is the brain, and dark chocolate works just as well for this. It works best on days in which I have to write something lengthy, or work on spreadsheets, or sit through long boring meetings, or manually sort cacao beans. In all of the above scenarios, a cup of drinking chocolate in the morning enhances my performance and, at the same time, elevates my mood.


The Recipe

You don’t need to hand-grind your own cacao beans. Then again, it doesn’t hurt…

This recipe was inspired by local ingredients, Aztec lore, and the bulletproof coffee concept. It is basically a theobromine delivery system integrated with all of the most important macro-nutritional elements that a body needs for a day of heavy physical activity in the Jama-Coaque Reserve or wherever else you are pushing your body to the limit. I call this “Chocolate Jama-Coaque,” which rhymes perfectly if you pronounce it in Spanish (Cho-co-la-tay Hama Ko-ah-kay). However, this recipe can also be modified for a day of heavy mental activity in an urban setting. The main difference between these two variations is the amount of carbohydrates.

The key feature of both variations is the combination of stimulants (theobromine, caffeine, and to a lesser extent theophylline) with a good source of fats and protein (from the cacao itself, which is 50% fat, plus the addition of egg and nut butter). The oats and banana provide carbohydrates, which are crucial for a day of heavy physical labor but less essential for a day of heavy mental labor. Note: both recipes are dairy-free, and if you decline to add oats, it’s also gluten-free.


RECIPE 1: Chocolate Jama-Coaque: Body Power Version


Serving Size: 1 person

Preparation and Cooking Time: less than 10 minutes.

Ingredients

  • A little less than 1 mug of water
  • Dark chocolate (70-100% cacao). For a strong dose, use 1 oz (28 g). For a moderate dose, use ½ oz (14 g).
  • 1 whole egg and/or 1 heaping tablespoon of coconut oil
  • Some kind of sweetener (honey, raw sugar, agave nectar, etc.)

Optional additions

  • 1 heaping tablespoon of nut butter
  • A few tablespoons of oatmeal
  • 1 little chili pepper (highly recommended, if you like a little spice)
  • A dusting of cinnamon
  • Drop or two of vanilla extract
  • Banana, preferably home-grown

Directions

1. Pour water into a small saucepan, but don’t boil it yet.

2. Fully beat the egg into the water while the water is still cold. Do not heat the water before adding the egg, otherwise it will prematurely cook the egg before everything has time to mix together. And don't waste the darn yolk...use it!

3. Dice the chili pepper and add it to the saucepan.

4. Add the chocolate

5. Optional: add sweetener, cinnamon, and/or vanilla extract.

6. Put the saucepan over a medium flame and bring to a boil, while stirring a bit. Watch out! The moment it starts to boil, sometimes it suddenly froths over the saucepan and onto the stove.

7. As it begins to heat up, you can also add the coconut oil and/or nut butter, and stir it in.

8. Once everything is fully melted, then add the oatmeal and stir it in. 

9. Simmer and stir for a little while longer until everything is well-integrated. Then take it off the fire. 

10. Optional: cut up a banana and throw it in. Or use the banana as an edible spoon.

11. Once it cools, you can serve it in a mug or a bowl. If you added nut butter and oats, you will need a spoon. Otherwise, you can just drink it. Another option (if you opted against the granola) is to pour this soupy chocolate on top of a bowl of berries and granola.

12. Now prepare for take-off. You will gradually begin to feel the effect within minutes, and you’ll ride the wave all day without any crash.

RECIPE 2: Chocolate Jama-Coaque: Brain Power Version

Same thing as the Body Power variation, but without the oats and banana. Feel free to use a heaping tablespoon of coconut oil rather than the egg. 

Consider the recipe above as the departure point for your own experiments. The beauty of protein/fat-enhanced drinking chocolate is that it can be easily adapted to whatever happens to be available in your kitchen. For example, instead of a banana, you can pour the viscous drinking chocolate onto a bowl full of strawberries or blueberries with granola. And if the egg thing just seems too weird, you can always substitute coconut oil, almond milk, or regular milk. 

The All-Natural Adderall Alternative

Dark chocolate represents a viable alternative to many synthetic drugs, all of which have greater side-effects and a far less delightful flavor profile. And to be honest, there is no need to spend $300 on a bar of To’ak Chocolate to achieve these benefits. Any high-quality source of dark chocolate will work—preferably something organic and fair trade, and ideally from Ecuador.

This nutritional life-hack is something I live by. Most of my time in the Jama-Coaque Reserve these days is spent tending to our mini cacao plantations, which are scattered about the forest in previously-degraded patches of land. It’s not quite as intense as climbing the mountain but sometimes it comes close. Invariably, I start these days with a cup of drinking chocolate, thickened with egg and oatmeal and nut butter, and I end it with a swim. And I feel just as good now as I did ten years ago—true story.

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