Theobromine is among the many beneficial compounds found in dark chocolate. But what exactly is theobromine, and what does it do for your health?
Unlike caffeine, theobromine won’t give you the jitters, but it does offer a range of health benefits that are comparable to caffeine and other phytonutrients. This article will explore what theobromine is, where it’s found, and what health benefits it offers.
What Is Theobromine?
Theobromine is a compound found in plants, most abundantly in cacao and tea leaves. It has a similar structure and action to caffeine, although its effects are slightly different and notably less stimulating.
The use of cacao as a medicinal plant dates back over 3000 years to ancient Mayan and Aztec culture, where chocolate drinks were considered a “drink of the gods.”
As early as the 1500s, scientists would use cacao to treat issues like fatigue, respiratory issues, and heart problems.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10917925/
Today, we can attribute some of the most profound healing effects of chocolate to theobromine as this compound has been studied for neuroprotection, inflammation, cardioprotection, and immunity.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24362474/
Improves Energy And Cognitive Health
Theobromine acts in a similar way to caffeine in your brain. These two compounds both fall into the methylxanthine category, and they block specific receptors that are meant for the chemical compound adenosine.
Under normal conditions, adenosine docks on its receptors, and it induces feelings of sleepiness. When theobromine is present, however, it takes the place of adenosine on these receptors and therefore blocks adenosine activity. The result is a boost in energy, much like you feel with caffeine (although less potent).https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4335269/
Theobromine has also been studied for its cognitive-enhancing activity. Research shows that consumption of theobromine is associated with a reduced level of amyloid plaques, which is a hallmark for Alzheimer’s disease.https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-019-5172-0#:~:text=Major%20evidence%20on%20theobromine%20effects,inflammatory%20and%20a%20neuroprotective%20action
Theobromine has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which support the activity of your immune system. As an anti-inflammatory compound, theobromine helps to down-regulate inflammatory chemicals in your body called cytokines. Theobromine helps to calm your overall inflammatory response by reducing cytokine activity.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4335269/https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12960921/
Furthermore, animal research suggests that theobromine may impact antibody immunity. In a rat study, one week of theobromine supplementation positively influenced systemic and intestinal antibody concentrations, along with a modification of lymphocyte composition.https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/148/3/464/4930806
Supports Heart Health
Research shows that theobromine may reduce blood pressure as well as balance cholesterol levels, two vital aspects of heart health.
Theobromine acts as a vasodilator, widening your blood vessels and allowing for more blood to travel through. This action decreases blood pressure as more blood is allowed to move through the vessel without force.https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/148/3/464/4930806
In one study, 24 healthy volunteers experienced a reduction in blood pressure one hour after consuming 700 mg of theobromine.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21839757/ In another placebo-controlled double-blind study, 42 healthy participants received theobromine-enriched cocoa and experienced significant reductions in systolic blood pressure.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20823377/
In other research, theobromine is associated with increases in HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) and decreases in LDL. High HDL is a marker of good heart health, as this type of lipoprotein picks up excess cholesterol in your blood and brings it back to your liver. LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, can contribute to plaque in your arteries and is more susceptible to oxidation.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23595874/
May Improve Cough and Respiratory Symptoms
In addition to overall immune enhancement, theobromine has been specifically studied for its impact on respiratory conditions.
Some research suggests that theobromine helps to suppress cough by inhibiting the activation of afferent nerves, which carry signals from sensory stimuli to your brain. Theobromine’s anti-inflammatory activity also seems to play a role in its ability to calm respiratory distress.
In addition, theobromine may block the activity of a specific enzyme called phosphodiesterase, which suppresses airway hyperactivity associated with respiratory diseases.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4335269/
In one study, patients with asthma given 10 mg of theobromine experienced enhanced bronchodilation, allowing for increased airflow through their lungs.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/4056254/ Animal research also showed significant reductions in cough and lung inflammation with the administration of theobromine.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15548587/
Potential Risks Of Theobromine
Theobromine is generally safe for humans, but there are some risks that come with large doses. According to Pubchem, excessive doses of theobromine taken daily have been associated with a range of symptoms, including:https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Theobromine#section=Toxicity-Summary
- Severe headache
- Increased heart rate
When it comes to animals, theobromine can actually be quite dangerous. In fact, this compound is one of the reasons that dogs can’t eat chocolate. Theobromine is highly toxic to dogs, with high enough doses (ranging from 100-500 mg per kilogram of body weight) being lethal.
The half-life of theobromine is much longer in dogs, about 18 hours as opposed to 2 to 3 hours in humans. This is why it can produce symptoms of toxicity. Signs of theobromine poisoning in your dog may look like excessive thirst, vomiting, panting, hyperexcitability, muscle twitching, irregular heartbeat, and eventually could evolve into seizures or even death.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1215566/
Why is chocolate bad for dogs?
Chocolate contains several compounds that may be toxic to dogs, particularly theobromine and caffeine. When dogs consume large doses of chocolate, they can become poisoned and start displaying symptoms like vomiting, panting, excessive thirst, hyperactivity, muscle twitching, irregular heartbeat, seizures, or even death.
What’s the difference between theobromine vs. caffeine?
Theobromine and caffeine are very similar in structure and function, but they exhibit different effects on your body. Theobromine is much more gentle and mild, and it has a slow onset. On the other hand, caffeine can be quite intense and fast-acting and is much more stimulating.
What are potential theobromine side effects?
Theobromine is generally safe for humans, but some side effects have been noted when people consume large doses of this compound on a daily basis. Some potential side effects include nausea, loss of appetite, sweating, severe headaches, trembling, and increased heart rate.
What type of chocolate has the most theobromine?
Dark chocolate contains the largest dose of theobromine because it has the highest concentration of pure cocoa. Milk chocolate and other forms of chocolate will also contain some levels of theobromine, but because it is diluted with other ingredients, it won’t have as much potency.
Does cacao contain caffeine?
Cacao contains small amounts of caffeine. One Tablespoon of solid cacao contains 12mg of caffeine.