Is Cacao a Psychoactive Substance?

Can cacao produce a psychoactive effect?
Is Cacao a Psychoactive Substance?

By the time I began attending cacao ceremonies in Bali last spring, I’d already sat in ceremonies with ayahuasca and iboga — much more powerful substances. So, I was skeptical that something as mild as chocolate could affect my mental or emotional state. And it definitely didn’t in the way that a psychedelic would. But I was surprised to find that, after drinking a couple cups of pure cacao, I did go on a journey of sorts. 

As the group erupted into ecstatic dance, I indeed felt ecstatic. I began planning for my future with an unusually optimistic perspective and contemplating obscure spiritual topics I’d never thought about before. Then, as we lay down for a sound bath, a wave of relief washed over me, and the muscles around my heart unclenched as if something toxic were leaving my body.

I did several more cacao ceremonies after that and began to experience the “heart openings” I’d heard others describe having during these rituals. I’d connect to this love I didn’t know I felt for my community and the people in my life, and words I wanted to say to those I loved would flood into my mind. 

Tara L. Skubella, who leads cacao ceremonies in Colorado using Cacao Love cacao from Peru, has had similar experiences. “Cacao opens my heart and emotions with ease,” she says. “I consider cacao a personal medicine for connecting with self, deepening ritual, opening the heart, and supporting perimenopausal symptoms. Using cacao before free movement dance is one of my favorite uses of cacao. I receive a very body- and heart-opening experience, which softens my movement into a more fluid, heart-centered state of expression.”

Cacao As Medicine

Cacao was first discovered by the Olmec people in early Mesoamerica and was used widely in rituals by the Aztecs and Mayans. It’s considered a “heart medicine,” which means it opens the heart, according to Marita, One Who Catches Lightning, a descendent of the Olmec and Zapotec people who raises ceremonial cacao and leads ceremonies. “It reveals to you what is there, what is blocking it. It connects you to the unconditional love of Mother Earth. It allows you to be supported in your feelings.”

While cacao has a mild effect on the mind, it’s “not about blasting off the planet,” Marita explains. Or, to put it scientifically, it’s “neuroactive but not strongly psychoactive,” says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. Theobromine, one of the compounds in cacao, has an energizing effect without creating jitteriness like coffee might, while another compound, phenylethylamine, releases dopamine, which makes you feel good. The sensation of the fatty cacao butter in your mouth can also release dopamine, which adds to the satisfying feeling, he says. 

On top of that, cacao contains a chemical called anandamide that works on the cannabinoid receptors to create a feeling of euphoria — the name of the molecule comes from the Sanskrit word for “bliss.” It also has magnesium, which is important for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can induce feelings of calmness and satisfaction, says Giordano. 

Opening Your Heart

Cacao is quite literally “heart opening,” as it’s a vasodilator — a substance that opens your blood vessels and stimulates blood flow, Giordano adds. Even just two squares of dark chocolate will increase blood flow in the brain for about three hours, he says. This may be why some studies have found that chocolate improves cognitive functioning. 

There may be another reason cacao is known to open the heart. “The reason they give chocolate on Valentine’s Day is because two of the chemicals in cacao — phenylethylamine and anandamide — make you feel somewhat blissful and satisfied,” says Giordano. “So, it tends to reproduce the feeling one (hopefully) gets when one is intimate. It’s also why a good restaurant will give you dark chocolate after a meal. It’s a recency effect because the last thing you experience from the meal is, ‘I feel good now.’” 

The greater the percentage of cacao in the chocolate, the stronger the effect, says Giordano, which is why the pure cacao used in ceremonies is so effective. 

In other words, science is just beginning to prove what ancient Mesoamerican cultures have known all along: cacao has the potential to boost your mood, help you think more clearly, and, indeed, open you up to love.

Because cacao and the cultures it comes from have given us so much, it’s important to make sure the cacao you’re getting is ethically sourced. “Cacao is ‘medicina’ and should be used with the greatest respect. There are many not doing so and colonizing cacao,” says Marita, who suggests pouring some down into the ground as a gesture of reverence. “Always, when you have a batch or just a cup, return some to Mother Earth.”

  1. I have been having 1-2 large cups of unsweetened cocoa every day for about 15 years instead of coffee. Relieved my TMJ and GERD, and gives me enough caffeine, theobromine, etc to stay alert and soothe any anxiety.

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