What if we told you we had the answer to all your caffeine crash problems? It probably seems too good to be true, right?
We’ve heard of replacing coffee with tea (lower caffeine), mushroom coffee (what?), “magic” pink and yellow lattes, and simply, getting more sleep… but nothing quite seems to take the place of a good “cup of joe”.
But coffee has a long and complicated history in terms of nutrition. In fact, nutritionists now are considering it as one of your recommended cups of daily hydration.
When considering recent trends and new information, we have seen theobromine (found in cacao and some teas) beginning to rise in the ranks as a suitable caffeine alternative. Research has shown that theobromine can provide a longer-lasting, mild, and pleasing energy (read: no caffeine-induced anxiety) as opposed to coffee… along with some other benefits.
In this article, we’ll explore theobromine, how it is different from caffeine, and how to get more of it into your day.
Theobromine, commonly found in chocolate, is made from the theobroma cacao (cacao plant seeds). It is also found in some teas. It is considered a naturally occurring stimulant, which makes sense as cacao has been sought for its effects on energy ever since the Mayans used it and considered it a gift from the gods.
Despite being in the same class of stimulants as caffeine, theobromine does not stimulate the central nervous system. As you can imagine, this results in a less edgy/jittery stimulation and for the same reason, theobromine is not addictive. Your brain does not form a chemical bond with the substance and the stimulation from theobromine is more of a general feeling of “being refreshed” or having slept well.
Many have reported feeling more focused when using theobromine as a more gentle and mild feeling. Theobromine also has a more long-lasting effect on energy and is not addictive.
In fact, on a molecular level, theobromine and caffeine only differ by one methyl group. As caffeine is metabolized by the body, that methyl group is removed and caffeine, therefore, converts to theobromine. This extra methyl group is what makes coffee addictive and brings its effects to the central nervous system.
People are turning to theobromine as a caffeine-alternative to help them boost their moods, get better sleep, to breathe better (theobromine helps relax your muscles, including the lungs), lower blood pressure, and improve cardiac health.
There is an overwhelming list of benefits to choosing theobromine over caffeine, and a number of tasty ways to consume it! The top of the list includes brewed cacao, cacao powder, and dark chocolate. According to CiroBrew, an 85% dark chocolate bar has 115 mg per 1.5 oz serving, which is a good dose of theobromine. For cacao powder, you’ll want to use 1 table spoon for similar effects.
You can also consume some teas including yerba mate and guayusa… although some teas also contain caffeine, so if you’re looking to avoid caffeine altogether, this may not be a suitable alternative.
Now here’s one we all know about! Caffeine.
Chances are you’ve been using caffeine (in at least some way) from a young age. Whether it was through a sugary variation of iced cappuccinos and frappuccinos at Starbucks, or by drinking energy drinks after a long night of studying, caffeine has been in our lives in some form, for a long time.
As we have learned, caffeine is a stimulant and interacts with the central nervous system, which is why it is addictive. Caffeine is only slightly different from theobromine, by one methyl group, but the presence and metabolism of that methyl group is what makes it interact with our nervous system, blocking receptors telling our bodies to de-stimulate and therefore providing “energy”.
Many people experience jitters or even anxiety when they consume too much coffee, as the nervous system is over-stimulated and has no way of calming down.
However, there are many benefits of caffeine, including its ability to improve memory, mental functioning, and speed up your reaction times. Many athletes use caffeine as a legal training tool, going into a caffeine “deficit” up to three weeks before a competition and then having a good old coffee or caffeine pill before their big event to optimize the effects.
Arguably the most important use of caffeine, and likely its primary use, is to decrease fatigue. Parents, students, shift workers, and generally tired people, have been using caffeine for centuries to “wake up” and for many, it is an important part of their daily routines.
If you are particularly sensitive to caffeine or tend to over-indulge, there are warnings to consider as those with high blood pressure, as well as children, teens, and the elderly tend to be vulnerable to caffeine’s more adverse effects. (WebMD)
How they interact
Theobromine and caffeine differ at a molecular level. But their relationship is interesting!
As we have learned, theobromine is in the same class of stimulants as caffeine, but the absence of one methyl group prevents theobromine from having such an impact on the central nervous system and it is not addictive.
Caffeine which is mostly consumed in the form of coffee, while being predominantly a stimulant to the central nervous system, is also a cardiac and skeletal muscle stimulant. It also relaxes smooth muscles.
On the flip side, theobromine which is mostly consumed in the form of chocolate is also a diuretic but mainly acts as a smooth muscle relaxant and cardiac stimulant.
So, the key difference between caffeine and theobromine is that caffeine mainly affects the central nervous system and theobromine mainly affects the smooth muscle. Because it is not a central nervous system stimulant, theobromine’s effects are considered milder in nature and don’t affect attention or alertness the same way caffeine does.
Why it is good to have both!
Some people opt for chocolate as an alternative to caffeine because they want to avoid the jitters/anxiousness that is often associated with over-caffeinating (which is easy to do when you do not consider taking coffee in “doses”).
Swapping caffeine for theobromine is an option for sustained energy, but this would likely involve eating large amounts of chocolate on a regular basis. Due to dietary restrictions or simply “good health”, this isn’t always an option for people looking for a “cleaner” energy boost.
However, if you can tolerate caffeine and you enjoy chocolate, a caffeinated chocolate hybrid or even teas with both caffeine and cacao are always an option.
There is a third option, too. Guayusa.
Guayusa is a holly tree that is native to the Amazon rainforest. It’s been harvested since ancient times and brewed as a tea for its antioxidant properties. Today, it’s primarily used as a tea and is also harvested and sold as a powder/extract to add to energy drinks, as it contains a significant amount of caffeine.
Containing both caffeine and theobromine, guayusa helps to boost mood, mental alertness, and concentration. Rich in antioxidants and with properties that may stabilize blood sugar, this tea is something you should consider adding to your regime.
Studies have even found that mixing caffeine (19 mg) and theobromine (250 mg) may improve short-term brain function (PubMed).
What to look out for
Of course, you can have too much of a good thing and there are some potential side effects of consuming too much caffeine and theobromine.
Coffee drinkers will note that anxiousness and jitters can be a regular occurrence if you over-indulge, and chocolate fanatics will warn of the effects of having too many chocolate bars (mainly, too much sugar), but consuming excess guayusa is not currently linked to any adverse effects.
Despite its high caffeine content, guayusa does not cause the same anxious feeling or shakiness that other beverages do. However, those with iron deficiency should be on the lookout for a nauseating feeling of they consume guayusa on an empty stomach. The tannins in this tea (and many others) interfere with iron absorption. This effect can be avoided by consuming tea alongside some food.