Cacao: The Love Drug
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, you may be planning to gift a loved one some delicious chocolate treats. The physiological effects that associate chocolate with love are so seductive, and at times psychedelic, it’s no wonder the food is the go-to present for modern day Valentine’s Day.
There is only one small caveat: to truly feel the euphoric effects, you need to look beyond commercial chocolates.
Food of the Gods
In its original form, Valentine’s Day had no connection to romance, roses, or chocolate. In fact, it’s unlikely St. Valentine ever tasted chocolate, considering the martyr lived in Rome long before the South American delicacy made its way to Europe.
Made from the seeds in the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree, which originated in South and Central America, chocolate has a long ethnobotanical history illustrated by the linguistic mash-up in its name. Theobroma translates from Greek into “Food of the Gods,” and cacao comes from “Ka’kau,” the Mesoamerican peoples’ name for the plant. It has been revered by the Mayans, Olmecs, and Aztecs for over 2,000 years, and later by European colonizers who brought a delegation of Mayan nobles to Spain with gifts of raw chocolate.
In its raw form, chocolate is much more potent than the processed candy hearts found in today’s supermarkets. Raw chocolate, also known as cacao, was considered a divine gift by Mesoamerican peoples. It held great religious significance and was found to be a source of nutrition and strength despite its bitter taste. It was also associated with matters of the heart, not all of which were romantic. While Aztec emperor Moctezuma II reportedly drank several cups before his sexual engagements, cacao was also poetically known to the Mayans as “heart blood,” and the fruit became a symbol of the human heart removed in religious sacrifice.
The advent of defatting and alkalizing processes in the 19th century helped commodify and expand the availability of chocolate. While these processes reduced the bitterness of the cacao to make it more palatable, they also stripped it of many of its synergistic health benefits. Today, companies like Hershey and Cadbury still use these processes, adding milk and sugar and reducing the cacao content – sometimes to as low as 10% – to make the sweet candy we know and love.
There is, however, a movement to return to the indigenous way of preparing and drinking cacao. Companies like Cacao Lab or Soul Lift Cacao are working with elders in Central and South American communities to bring awareness of the health benefits and psychoactive effects of raw chocolate to other cultures, and encourage people to eat chocolate more mindfully. Afterall, in its raw form, it is more plant medicine than candy.
The Chemistry of Chocolate
Chemically, cacao is heart medicine. Its chemical components and pharmacodynamics are sometimes compared to those of MDMA or other psychedelics. It contains more antioxidants than most foods, and is chock full of vitamins like magnesium. It is known to help protect against cancer, reduce blood pressure, and improve brain function among other things. But ultimately, it is the euphoric and stimulating (and possibly aphrodisiac) effects that attract many to the plant.
The main psychoactive components are theobromine, phenethylamine, anandamide, and tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin.
Theobroma cacao is one of the few plants that produces theobromine. It is the chemical that gives raw cacao its bitter taste, and can give first-time consumers quite a shock. But theobromine is also a softer version of caffeine, relaxes muscles, and vasodilates the blood vessels, increasing blood flow (and according to chocolatier Brian Wallace, possibly imitating the effects of Viagra). Phenethylamine (PEA) provides a link between classic psychedelics and cacao. PEA is the backbone to many of the happy chemicals in our brain, like dopamine and norepinephrine, and is also the backbone to compounds like MDMA and mescaline. According to poet and ethnobotanist Dale Pendell, PEA “might be responsible for the soothing mood effects of chocolate.”
Then there is the “bliss molecule,” Anandamide, which is a neurotransmitter that binds to the same brain receptors as THC, mimicking the psychoactive effects of cannabis. Cacao also contains compounds that inhibit the breakdown of anandamide in the body, sustaining the euphoria it causes.
But what gives chocolate that melt in your mouth texture that makes it so pleasurable to eat? Cocoa butter, the main fat component of chocolate, has a melting point that matches the temperature of the human body. When eaten (or held in the hand), cacao will slowly and sensually liquify on your tongue.
Cacao and Psychedelics
It is because of this synergistic play of chemicals within cacao that many use it as a medicine, in meditation, or in their psychedelic journeys. Some even forgo MDMA at raves in favor of cacao.
Psilocybin (which the Aztecs called “flesh of the gods”) shares a special relationship with cacao – both are entheogens that originated in Central America. Fransiscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún reported that the Aztecs “drank chocolate during the night,” and “ate the mushrooms with honey.” Many people still like to eat their mushrooms with honey, in chocolate, or both. Psilocybin users find cacao enhances their psychedelic experience, alleviating some of the anxiety of having a difficult trip.
But cacao on its own is psychedelic enough. Ceremonial doses, which can range from 40-50 grams of raw chocolate, and are traditionally whisked with hot water and combined with honey and spices to create a frothy drink, may cause increased heart rate, a flush in the skin, and mental and physical sensations similar to light doses of psychedelics. Also, similar to psilocybin or MDMA, it takes about 30 minutes to feel the effects. Combine that with an intentional set and setting, and anyone could have a powerful mind-expanding experience.
In 2015, the average American was reported to consume nearly 10 pounds of chocolate a year. America has a love affair with the candy, but perhaps this Valentine’s Day presents the opportunity to step away from the heart shaped box at your local supermarket, try a cacao ceremony instead, and see where the medicine takes you.