Chocolate is considered by many to be one of the greatest culinary sources of pleasure. For thousands of years, cocoa beans —which are the source of real chocolate, as well as coffee — have been considered natural stimulants, relaxants, euphoriants, aphrodisiacs, tonics and antidepressants, in part because of a chemical found in these beans called theobromine.
This compound was first discovered in the 1840s by biologists studying the bitter seeds (or pods) of cocoa trees in Central and South America, who referred to the trees as “Theobroma,” which means “food of the gods” in Greek.
Today, sources of theobromine, including dark cocoa and tea, are still considered to be nutrient-dense foods that may also have cognitive and mood-enhancing effects.
What Is Theobromine?
The definition of theobromine is “a bitter, volatile compound obtained from cacao seeds.” It’s technically an alkaloid compound (meaning a nitrogen-atom containing chemical) that resembles caffeine and has similar effects.
What does theobromine do to humans exactly? Its effects include stimulating the heart, widening blood vessels and potentially improving one’s mood.
Is theobromine a stimulant like caffeine? While it’s not as strong of a stimulant compared to caffeine, it does have some stimulant effects, including speeding up your heart rate, possibly increasing alertness and increasing urination.
Where Is It Found?
Chocolate may be the most popular source of theobromine, but it isn’t the only source. In addition to being one of many chemicals found in cocoa beans, it’s also present in smaller amounts in various types of tea leaves, matcha green tea, coffee and green coffee bean supplements, hot chocolate, kola nuts, and certain other lesser-known plants.
In order to make chocolate, cocoa pods are split, and the seeds are scooped out and then fermented, leaving behind a mass of rich brown chocolate. The highest concentration of theobromine is found in dark chocolate/cocao nibs, while milk chocolate provides less.
Dark chocolate contains more cocoa solid (plus usually less sugar and more antioxidants), so it’s the ideal way to consume theobromine.
In case you’re wondering, cocoa butter only contains trace amounts of caffeine and theobromine. It’s the solid mass of the cocoa bean, which is lower in fat than the plant’s oil.
Cocoa butter is concentrated with antioxidants, certain minerals and these molecules.
Theobromine vs. Caffeine
Both of these compounds, which are considered methylxanthines, are found naturally in cocoa seeds (beans) and have similar physiological effects. Theobromine is found in higher amounts in chocolate/cocoa products than caffeine is, while there’s more caffeine in coffee.
Overall, the effects of theobromine have been studied far less than those of caffeine.
Together these compounds are responsible for the uplifting and enjoyable feelings that people associate with chocolate and tea. Studies suggest that both influence our moods in a positive way, potentially while also reducing risk for certain health problems like neurodegeneration.
1. Can Positively Affect Cardiovascular Function
Depending on the person and his or her level of sensitivity to its effects, theobromine benefits include acting as a myocardial stimulant and vasodilator. In other words, it can help regulate blood pressure and support healthy circulation by widening blood vessels.
It may also help with maintaining healthy lung function, such as increasing airflow to the lungs and reducing asthma symptoms, and have some mild anti-inflammatory effects.
Certain studies suggest that its ability to reduce inflammation may be due to its role in blocking phosphodiesterase enzymes and increasing activity of certain enzymes, such as PKA.
2. Considered By Some to Be An Aphrodisiac
Certain chemicals found in chocolate, including theobromine and phenylethylamine, have earned it a reputation as a natural aphrodisiac food. However, this remains up for debate, as study findings have been mixed.
If theobromine in chocolate does in fact have aphrodisiac properties, it’s likely due to its ability to improve your mood, energy levels and blood flow.
3. May Have Mood-Boosting Effects
Certain studies suggest that consuming theobromine from chocolate may provide euphoric feelings and have mild anti-depressive effects. However, the comforting effects of chocolate seems to be due to the unique mix of chemicals it contains, especially phenylethylamine.
4. Considered a Nootropic and Might Enhance Focus
Research shows that theobromine affects focus and concentration via a similar mechanism as caffeine: by blocking adenosine receptors and inhibiting phosphodiesterase. Simply put, it helps decrease the effects of chemicals in the brain that make you feel groggy and unfocused.
Its mild stimulating effects are one reason it’s becoming more of a popular supplement used by athletes.
While anecdotal evidence tells us that it may improve mental performance, motivation and ability to focus, and reduce fatigue, more research is warranted on the topic. One study did find evidence that taking cocoa supplements helped participants’ performance on mental tasks and made them feel less tired, but it’s not clear if other compounds in cocoa (including bioflavonoid antioxidants) deserve the credit.
5. Has Natural Diuretic Effects
This compound is a natural diuretic that can help increase the amount of urine made by the kidneys, which means it may help reduce water retention and treat edema (fluid buildup).
Does theobromine lead to weight loss? This hasn’t been proven in reliable studies, but it’s possible considering it can increase energy levels and reduce bloating and inflammation — meaning it may help control your appetite, support metabolic health and reduce cravings due to fatigue.
Risk, Side Effects and Interactions
Studies tell us that theobromine is safe for humans and typically associated with fewer unwanted effects than caffeine.
Does theobromine keep you awake or contribute to sleep issues, such as insomnia? It’s unlikely to if consumed from food sources alone, as opposed to supplements, although it’s possible.
In fact, some people even claim that taking it in supplement form aids their sleep and allows them to rest more deeply.
Possible side effects that occur when someone consumes high doses of this molecule include nausea, loss of appetite, sweating, trembling, digestive issues and headaches (similar to caffeine side effects and caffeine headaches).
Theobromine sensitivity varies from person to person. Some are more tolerant to the effects of stimulants, while others can’t handle more than tiny amounts.
For the majority of people, consuming chocolate, cocoa nibs and tea in moderation won’t cause a negative reaction, but supplements still may.
For those who are looking to indulge in some treats with a chocolate taste, carob chips are an alternative option to real chocolate — since carob contains no caffeine or theobromine and therefore has no stimulating effects.
Why Is Theobromine in Chocolate Bad for Dogs?
While most people can tolerate theobromine and caffeine, both are unsafe for dogs and cats to consume, especially if consumed in large amounts and if the dog/cat is small.
Pets metabolize these chemicals differently than humans and can experience poisoning/toxicity if they eat too much chocolate. According to the North Windham Vet Hospital:
The more chocolate liquor there is in a product, the more theobromine is present. This makes baking chocolate the worst for pets, followed by semisweet and dark chocolate, followed by milk chocolate, followed by chocolate flavored cakes or cookies.
If you’re unsure how much chocolate your pet may have consumed, it’s best to take it to a vet right away — especially if displaying symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, hyperactivity and tremors.
Supplement and Dosage Info
What is theobromine used for when taken in supplement form? Theobromine supplements are used as nootropics or to support brain and cardiovascular health, as well as for lung support and even to improve sleep.
It’s usually sold as fine powder that has a bitter taste when not combined with other ingredients. The powder, or capsule, can be taken on its own or used in foods and drinks.
Dosage recommendations vary depending on the individual, why it’s being used and someone’s level of sensitivity to its effects. Theobromine appears to be safe when used in dosages between 300 to 600 milligrams per day.
When taken long-term, or in higher dosages between 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams, it’s more likely to cause side effects. As little as 1,000 mg/day can also increase your heart rate and worsen symptoms, such as anxiety.
- What is theobromine? It’s an alkaloid compound found naturally in the cocoa plant. The most concentrated food sources include dark chocolate, cocoa nibs and tea.
- While coffee and cocoa are both derived from cocoa beans, there’s more caffeine in coffee and theobromine in cocoa.
- Theobromine benefits potentially include having diuretic effects, widening arteries and boosting blood flow, lifting your mood, improving focus/concentration, and possibly having aphrodisiac effects.
- If taken in high doses, theobromine may disturb sleep and cause other side effects, such as nervousness, digestive issues and headaches. That said, it’s usually tolerated better than caffeine.