Here's How Chocolate Can Defeat Coffee Addiction
Image Credit: Coffee | Image Credit:

Caffeine, a CNS (Central Nervous System) stimulant, is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world, with most individuals getting their fix through coffee. However, this reliance on the brown beans to get through the day doesn't come without a price: most long-term consumers develop something akin to an addiction to the substance to get through the day. Excessive consumption of coffee, especially a few hours before sleep, can wreak havoc on an individual's circadian rhythm. 

Matthew Paul Walker, professor of neuroscience & psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has long been a champion regarding the importance of sleep. The professor doesn't demonize the molecule, he enjoys a cup of coffee every day, like most people. He also believes that the dangers of caffeine lie in the dose, and time, of consumption. He acknowledges the paradox tied to the molecule’s usage, and assures the public that a basic understanding of how the molecule works can destigmatize most misgivings that surround the brown elixir. 

Caffeine works through a variety of mechanisms, one of which involves dopamine. Dopamine, our brain’s reward chemical, is also closely tied with wakefulness. Caffeine increases dopamine release, thereby increasing alertness. The primary effect caffeine has on alertness and attentional performance is through its action on adenosine. 

Adenosine is a powerful molecule linked to a variety of neurological functions. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on its association with the digestive process. During digestion, glucose is broken down to ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate), the energy currency of our body’s cells. After this ATP is ‘used up’, it is broken down into adenosine. As adenosine binds to its receptors, neural activity slows down, which induces drowsiness (this is done in two ways, adenosine binds to the A1 receptors to shut down the part of the brain responsible for wakefulness, while simultaneously binding to A2 receptors that promote sleep, the totality of which causes drowsiness)

As the day progresses, the concentration of adenosine builds up in the body, which is proportional to how drowsy the individual feels. This is where caffeine alleviates the situation by acting as an adenosine blocker. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, which prevents the molecule from carrying out its function, thereby keeping the drowsiness at bay. However, this only lasts for so long. The caffeine is in constant competition with the adenosine for binding sites. Once the caffeine starts to get dislodged, all the adenosine that was circulating in the body, plus the adenosine that was built up during the caffeine’s action, binds to the receptors. This causes our body to be hit with an immense wave of drowsiness and lethargy - most caffeine addicts are all too familiar with this phenomenon, the caffeine crash.

Great, so now what? Well first off, watch when you consume your first cup(s) of Joe, confine it to the morning, no more than three hours into your day. But what if you can’t stop yourself from grabbing a hot cup of cappuccino during the day? Enter the alternative, the world’s favorite processed fermented food, cacao. Cacao powder is made from cacao beans that have been dried, roasted, and ground. 

Cacao powder is different from cocoa, in that it is roasted at far lower temperatures and is not processed with an alkali. That gives it higher nutrient and antioxidant content. Cacao does have caffeine, albeit less than half of what is contained in a cup of coffee. Cacao, however, has a very high concentration of theobromine, more than ten times that found in caffeine. Theobromine is an alkaloid that functions in an opposite manner to caffeine. Since cacao contains both these molecules, it functions in a rather interesting manner. Caffeine alone would increase blood flow by contracting blood vessels, but theobromine works in the opposite way, achieving the same by dilating blood vessels. 

Cacao was savored by the Aztecs for centuries, and it’s not hard to see why they loved it. When you ingest cacao, you receive the benefits both molecules have to offer: the low caffeine content blocks the action of a small volume of adenosine, while the theobromine dilates the blood vessels to increase blood flow, which then keeps drowsiness at bay. The compound also stimulates dopamine release, similar to caffeine, albeit in a much gentler way. Cacao also contains tryptophan, a chemical that helps stimulate serotonin and melatonin levels, thereby improving sleep. Cacao may be taken in the form of a hot chocolate, ideally without milk, or sugar. Several companies make cacao pods, similar to coffee pods, making it simpler for us to undo our caffeine addiction with good old chocolate.