Updated: Mar 18
Valentine’s Day boxes of chocolates, chocolate Easter eggs, and rabbits, Christmas truffles with mysterious fillings, fireplaces, and mugs of frothy hot chocolate… What celebrates love and decadence better than chocolate?
Chocolate is derived from the cacao bean of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree native to Mesoamerica. “Theobroma” translates to “drink of the gods,” and cacao plays important roles in Mayan religious practices. It’s a powerful plant for the heart; both energetically/emotionally and physically.
According to Mayan legend, cacao comes from the rainforest to open people’s hearts and unite humans and nature once again in harmony. It represents a shift towards openness and love—a little surprise that it is the staple gesture of romance on Valentine’s Day. Mayans and Aztecs considered this powerful mood-boosting superfood to be more valuable than gold, and given its impressive health benefits, it IS more valuable than gold.
Cacao is a heating, light, dry, bitter plant that warms the body, encouraging circulation, digestion, and opening of the heart. Its extreme antioxidant, heart, and mood benefits qualify it as one of nature’s superfoods.
When we crave chocolate, we may be craving sugar, but our bodies are likely craving the nutrients in cacao, specifically magnesium, calcium, and iron. We need these always, but specifically during menstruation which is why chocolate is a common period comfort-food!
Why Is Magnesium Important?
Magnesium is the most important mineral for heart function and a cofactor in more than 300 enzyme reactions necessary in maintaining muscle and nerve function. Cacao also contains more calcium than cow’s milk and the highest plant-based source of iron (consumed with vitamin C for optimal absorption). In comparison to beef and lamb, which provide 2.5mg per 100g of iron, or even spinach with 3.6mg, cacao contains 7.3mg per 100g.
Much of cacao’s medicinal power can be attributed to the amount of polyphenol and flavonoid antioxidants—40x more antioxidants than blueberries, and the highest flavonoid concentration of all foods! Flavonols are involved in nitric-acid production, which relaxes blood vessels and promotes vasodilation, improving circulation to your brain and heart while reducing blood pressure. Cacao’s flavonoids cross the blood-brain barrier, stimulating neurogenesis and neuron morphology, specifically in the learning and memory centers. In addition to antioxidant actions of protecting cells against age and damage, polyphenols and flavonols support brain and heart health.
Studies of cacao polyphenols and flavonoids showed a slowed carbohydrate absorption in the gut and boost of insulin secretion for reduced insulin sensitivity and balanced blood sugar.
Cacao is also famous for being a mood-enhancing stimulant, containing both theobromine and caffeine. Dopamine, serotonin, tryptophan, tyrosine, and phenylethylamine, the “bliss” chemicals naturally produced when we’re excited or happy, are all present in cacao. Phenylethylamine is known as the “love molecule” because it affects our endorphins in a way chemically very similar to when we fall in love! Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and other “happiness” neurotransmitters, but needs iron to convert—a role cacao also fills.
Adenosine is a neuromodulator that plays a role in bringing us down from natural highs, breaking down, and normalizing excited neurotransmitters to facilitate sleep. Cacao acts as an antagonist of adenosine receptors. This antagonism prompts the release of “happiness” hormones and neurotransmitters while suppressing their breakdown. We’re able to then experience the positive mood-enhancing effects for a prolonged period. Some find the mood enhancement a powerful aphrodisiac when used with that intention.
Cacao facilitates meditation and deepening awareness. Coupled with the mood-boosting and heart-opening actions, cacao is used ceremoniously in a type of shamanic healing. Ceremonial cacao drinking traces back to Aztec rituals from marriages to human sacrifice, births, and baptisms. While not psychoactive in the same way as other shamanic ceremonies, they intended for spiritual balance, healing, opening the heart, and increasing connectedness. Like the Mayan legends state, it promotes transformation and shifts, restoring harmony within oneself.
Unfortunately, eating a chocolate bar won’t provide the many benefits of cacao. The process of making chocolate includes heating and treating cacao with alkaline, which destroys 60%-90% of the original antioxidants.
Cacao (not cocoa) powder, nibs, butter, and paste, however, do contain cacao medicine. Cacao nibs are fermented cacao solids without the fat, from which the powder is made. Cacao butter is the fat from the cacao bean, and in addition to wonderful medicine internally, it makes a fantastic skincare product. Ceremonial cacao uses cacao bean paste, which contains both the cacao butter and powder.
Try drinking cacao as you would hot chocolate, with vanilla, spices, and plant-based milk. Blend it into smoothies, whisk the powder and melted cacao butter, sea salt, and sweeteners/spices and cool for homemade chocolate bars, or add to raw and baked goods, chilis, etc., for bitter decadence packed with nutrients.
And for a real cocoa treat, get the Cinnamon Cacao Kava by Kava Social in Brooklyn, NY. This wellness latte is soothing and delicious, and will leave you in a good mood.