Cacao..the Magic and the Mystery
Why do we love chocolate? Why does it make us feel so good? This is an amazing medicinal plant with so many complexities. In all honesty, as one of my number one plant allies, I will most likely write many blogs about this amazing medicine! I get asked all the time “what is the difference between Cacao, Cocoa and Chocolate?” So, let’s address that right away.
Cacao is the fruit of the Cacao Tree. The pod starts as a very tiny flower and grows into a pod. The beans grow inside the pods which grow in abundance on the Cacao Tree. The pod houses the beans covered in “cacao honey” (third image on the right). The honey is what ferments the bean to make it so healthy and tasty. Cacao becomes cocoa once it is no longer in bean form so, when we make a powder out of it, it becomes cocoa. Cacao or cocoa become chocolate when milk and sugar are added. Many artisanal cacao bean to bar producers use the term Cacao as their bar is usually 100% cacao, made from nibs. Of course, the less sugar and milk, the stronger the medicine, with the actual bean being the best whole food medicine. In this blog, I will use the term cacao as that is what we call our 100% products here on our farm in Costa Rica.
So, why do we love it so much? According to an article written by Chris Wellham, The Medical Hunter, chocolate gets right to the heart of sexual pleasure by increasing the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. Serotonin plays a major role in positive mood, emotional health, proper sleep and balanced appetite. Decreased serotonin is a well known factor of depression. Women appear to be more sensitive to chocolate than men, and so this could explain why chocolate is craved during PMS and the “moon cycle”, when our serotonin levels are often lowered. As Chris points out, one of the most influential compounds in chocolate is PEA, phenethylamine. This chemical, which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and releases endorphins. PEA also potentiates the activity of dopamine, a neuro-chemical directly associated with sexual pleasure.
“After water, cocoa is the single healthiest substance you can put in your mouth. It can easily replace a number of psychiatric drugs for mood, plus it produces the same chemistry in the brain that occurs when we fall in love.” - Chris Kilham, WellBella
The popular drug cannabis (marijuana), contains a group of compounds called cannabinoids. Of these, THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, causes the “high” associated when the plant is consumed. Cannabiniods are found in only two other places. One is in the human brain, where a mind altering cannbinoid named anandamide is manufactured. This same extraordinary chemical is also found in chocolate.
Anandamines’ name comes from the Sanskrit word, ananda, which means bliss. Cannabis and chocolate and the human brain all share this bliss inducing agent. In the human brain, ananadamide binds to the same receptor sites as THC from cannabis. Anadamide produces a feeling of euphoria or that blessed out feeling we get when we consume chocolate.
I will address the many cannabinoids and receptor sites in the body at much more depth when we chat about the medicinal power of Hemp. Considered one of the worlds “Super Foods” and “Food of the Gods,” Cacao has over 700 known compounds for healing. A few of the healing qualities are as follows:
• Neurotransmitter repair
•Amino Acids and micronutrients such as magnesium, iron and zinc
• Cardiovascular health
• Healthy fats
• Thermogenic aid for weight loss
The Ancient Mayans and Aztecs used Chocolate for Spiritual and Ceremonial purposes. In its purest form, raw and 100% cacao, is a powerful aid when one is doing their “inner work”, especially if that inner work includes heart-based healing, as Cacao is the heart opener. Strong and powerful heart opening happens when you set your intention to heal with the medicine of Cacao. The actual medicine is due to the “theobromide” that is in each bean. Theobroma cacao means “Food of the Gods.”
Nutritional Value of Cacao
Cacao is rich in minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, copper and manganese. It is also a good source of selenium, potassium, and zinc while providing the body with carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fiber. In addition to this, the cholesterol content in it is almost negligible. It contains cacao butter, which is a mixture of monounsaturated fats like oleic acid and saturated fats, namely stearic acid and palmitic acid.
A comparative research study has shown that cacao has higher antioxidant activity than black tea, green tea, and red wine. Antioxidants help to neutralize the oxygen-based free radicals that are present in the body. In addition to this, it is abundant in phenolic phytochemicals and possesses a high amount of flavonoids as well.
Improves Brain Health
Scientists have suggested that cacao may also have many benefits towards a healthier brain. Findings show that the neuro-protective benefits could also help with learning and memory functions, mainly because the cacao increases the flow of blood to the brain, which has the potential for curing vascular disorders.
Balances Cholesterol Levels
Cacao has hypoglycemic and hypocholesterolemic effects on both glucose and cholesterol levels, respectively. A diet containing it has also shown a reduction in triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and glucose level. At the same time, levels of healthy HDL cholesterol increased during testing.
The consumption of cacao has been shown to be effective in improving insulin resistance and glucose metabolism. This, in turn, aids in regulating sugar levels in the body. Free radicals aggravate diabetic complications by promoting oxidative stress, leading to cell and tissue damage. The free radical scavenging activity of cacao has shown therapeutic effects in treating and preventing this sort of cellular injury
Relieves Bronchial Asthma
Cacao beans contain xanthine and theophylline, which aid in relaxing bronchial spasms and opening constricted bronchial tubes. This facilitates an easy flow of air and is valuable in curing various allergies, including asthma and shortness of breath.
A study has shown the potential benefits of cacao in preventing high-fat diet-induced obesity. Consuming 100% cacao helps in modulating lipid metabolism and reducing the synthesis and transport of fatty acids. Cacao has shown to improve thermogenesis, the mechanism of heat production in white adipose tissues and the liver.
Consuming cacao has shown antidepressant-like effects on certain physiological processes. Studies have shown that cacao flavonols help to enhance mood, combat depression, and promote improved cognitive activities during persistent mental stress. The presence of the neurochemical phenylethylamine in it also helps in enhancing feelings of contentment and promoting aphrodisiac effects.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Studies have shown that cacao exerts beneficial effects on cardiovascular health as well. It is rich in flavonoids namely, procyanidin, catechin, and epicatechin, which have antioxidant properties and help in protecting the cells from damage while strengthening the heart. It also aids in improving endothelial function and stimulating the beneficial HDL cholesterol. It helps in preventing the formation of fatal blood clots, which can lead to stroke or cardiac failure. Blood platelets play an important role in cardiovascular disorders. Flavonoids present in cacao possess anti-platelet aggregating effects and modulate primary hemostasis, which is the measure of time blood takes to clot. All these health effects help in preventing the proliferation of various medical conditions like atherosclerosis and thrombosis, which are some of the prime causes of more serious cardiovascular diseases.
Research studies have demonstrated that the consumption of cacao husk exerts therapeutic effects in treating chronic constipation and bowel function diseases. As per the study done on pediatric patients, consumption of fiber-rich cacao products resulted in faster colonic, rectal and intestinal transit times. Another study also advocated that regular consumption of cacao products have shown to encourage better bowel function by a reduction in time to have bowel movements, increase the frequency of bowel movements, and make a softer consistency of stool without inducing any other side effects like gastrointestinal discomfort or abdominal pain.
Cacao has demonstrated beneficial effects in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells without effecting the growth of normal healthy cells. Studies have provided evidence regarding the chemopreventive and anti-proliferative qualities exerted by the flavonols and procyanidins present in cacao. These healing effects have proven extremely valuable in the treatment of various types of cancer, including colon cancer and prostate cancer.
Reduces Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Cacao has been shown to exert calming effects on people suffering from chronic fatigue. The attenuating effects of cacao are attributed to the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, anandamide, and phenylethylamine in the brain, which exert protective effects from oxidative stress on the neuronal cells and helps in combating chronic fatigue syndrome.
Cacao has also been found to be effective in maintaining good skin health. Research findings suggest that the consumption of flavonol-rich cacao helps in decreasing the effects of UV- induced erythema and reducing skin roughness and scaling. It also aids in enhancing skin elasticity, hydration, and density. Another study confirmed that epicatechin present in cacao aids in elevating the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin, stimulating the healthy flow of blood in the dermal tissues, and contributing to endogenous photo-protection. It is used in the preparation of various skin care products.
Treats Neurodegenerative Disorders
The presence of major flavonols like epicatechin and catechin in cacao has shown beneficial effects in treating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Research findings suggest that these phytochemicals have synergistic qualities, which aid in reducing the oxidative stress on the mind. This helps in preventing neuronal cell damage and exerts a protective effect on the cellular membrane against cytotoxicity.
Prevents Magnesium Deficiency Effects
Another benefit of cacao products is their role in preventing the ill effects of a magnesium deficiency in the body. An investigative research study has confirmed that the regular consumption of cacao products may prove beneficial in preventing the adverse effects caused due to a diet lacking in magnesium for an extended period of time.
Uses Of Cacao
Cacao mulch is a by-product and is produced from the discarded shells of cacao beans. Mulch is valuable in efforts to reduce weeds, regulate the temperature of the soil, prevent soil erosion, and increase the nutritive value of the soil. Roasting cacao beans releases its shells, which are further used to produce cacao mulch. Cacao mulch is rich in naturally available macro-nutrients such as potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen, all of which are valuable for plant health. Cacao beans have water retention capability which lends it to being protective of the impending fire.
Cacao – An Important Word of Caution
It has been my experience that when one consumes too many cacao beans at one sitting, the digestive system will tell you to stop as you may become nauseated. There is also a small amount of caffeine in cacao which could affect your sleeping patterns.