“Cacao! Cacao!” No, I’m not trying to draw exotic birds to my window. I am saying (typing, that is) the name of a potent but oft-misunderstood bean that grows on trees. Some folks actually believe “cacao” is merely the fancy way of saying “cocoa”, or perhaps a mating call at New Age chocolate gatherings. Cacao, though, is all things to all bio-hackers. The methylxanthines in cacao are abundant, and an example of a probably beneficial psychoactive compound—psychoactive meaning simply “a chemical substance that affects mental processes”. The most abundant methylxanthines in cacao are caffeine and theobromine. Yeah, if you’ve ever downed three espressos in rapid succession, you have some some acquaintance with psycho-activity.
According to research done by the National Institutes of Health, methylxanthines are the prancing main active components in cacao, coffee, and tea, not to mention (for reasons of awkward pronunciation) yerba maté, yaupon holly, guayusa and guarana berries. People whose research involves staring at tiny things with headache-inducing intensity, report that methylxanthines seem to act on adenosine receptors in the central nervous system, boosting mood, mental concentration, and arousal. Is that a potent combination or what?
Caffeine, interestingly (but I’ll let you be the judge of that), has some loose connection to one of our Darwinian mechanisms. It seems caffeine’s activation of our neural circuitry sends a signal to the pituitary to pump out extra hormones, and the effect of these hormones is to ratchet up adrenalin production in the ol’ adrenal glands. This squirt of extra adrenaline is exactly what drives the “Fight or Flight” response in humans (and all mammals)—that full-body jolt of sudden energy that, anthropologically, is a tool for doing vicious battle with an attacker, or fleeing the scene in a panicked, survivalist sprint.
[Sidenote - mechanistically speaking, having the cr*p scared out of us is a function of survivalist efficiency. When cornered in a “fight or flight” scenario in nature, we are literally talking life or death. Whether in prep for a lethally violent brawl or a lightning-fast leave-taking, your bod is going to divest itself of all unnecessary luggage. Woops! Their goes last night’s tofu burrito! etc]
Hey, What About the other Methylxanthine?
What about theobromine? What about theobromine? All right, already! You methylxanthine hobbyists are a little over-anxious, anybody ever tell you that? Okay, so here’s the deal. Theobromine, like many of our naturally occuring pleasures, was first jumped on by the Mayans, of course. Surprise surprise. When not building ziggurats all over the place and over-applying eyeliner, those people seemed intent on getting to all the good stuff first. And of course, once a culture discovers theobromine, well—the mind clears, brain activity is boosted, focus increases, and Boom; you’ve got yourself a self-rewarding feedback loop. Yeah, they were all over cacao, were the Mayans. The taxonomic name of the cacao tree, Theobroma Cacao, has its provenance in the Mayans having referred to cacao as a Food of the Gods—“broma” meaning food, “theo” meaning God. We can infer from this food + gods business that the Mayans were pleased with their new discovery and its madly uplifting effects.
Theobromine Machine. Unalloyed Flavonoid. Joyous Mayan Cryin’.
But beyond adrenal and neuronal voltage, theobromine pushes other beneficial little buttons in our complex and gooey inner workings. Theobromine’s anti-inflammatory properties means, among other things, that blood vessels open a little wider, increasing blood flow and making the sweeping of toxins from the free-flowing current more efficient. Theobromine also works positively on cholesterol, raising the good [HDL] and lowering the bad [LDL].
And cacao contains flavonoids—double-duty metabolites that act as powerful antioxidants, liberating your cells to do their thing without fear of being set upon by marauding free radicals. The flavonoids in cacao, notably in the form of epicatechin, also act as neuroprotectors—measurably improving actual cognition, and even preserving cognitive integrity in aging laboratory rats. These cacao flavonoids even affect brain perfusion, helpfully sloshing the cranial blood into those parts of the brain most needful of the sticky stuff at any given moment.
Is it any wonder the busybody Mayans called this stuff the Food of the Gods? What would they have done with a Hershey bar? Imagine this scenario. You travel back in time, gather the Mayan big shots in a forest clearing aglow with the light of many torches. You recite a quantity of overwritten gibberish (I can help with that part), and then with a great ceremonial flourish you present to them a slab of sweet dark chocolate, wrapped in embossed golden foil. Those Mayans would flip their feather-festooned headgear.
So; Cacao! Its cerebrovascular magic, antioxidant power-punch, and cognitive high-five already make it noteworthy. When you realize it can also be built into a candy bar...it’s enough to make you giddily build a ziggurat. Which may explain a few things.