Medically reviewed by Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD, BCGP, BCPS.
Nutritionally reviewed by Diana Lee, RD.
Theobromine is a xanthine alkaloid found naturally in the cacao plant, from which chocolate is made. Theobromine may be a healthier version of caffeine and may actually provide health benefits related to cognition and the cardiovascular system. Here we’ll examine theobromine’s sources, benefits, effects, mechanisms, and more.
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In a hurry? Here are the highlights:
- Theobromine is a methylxanthine similar to caffeine that is found in the cacao plant, from which chocolate is made.
- It gives chocolate its bitter taste; naturally, darker chocolate contains much more theobromine than milk chocolate.
- Theobromine has evidence of promoting wakefulness, lowering blood pressure, and improving blood flow, mood, and respiratory health.
- Theobromine should offer milder, longer-acting effects than caffeine, and with fewer adverse side effects.
- Theobromine is highly toxic to animals.
What is Theobromine?
Theobromine is a compound existing in the highest quantities in the cacao plant (theobroma cacao), from which chocolate is made. Theobromine is a xanthine alkaloid similar in structure and effect to caffeine. Like Dynamine®, theobromine is a purine alkoloid. Theobromine can be found in smaller amounts in the kola nut, guarana, yerba mate, and certain tea leaves1.
Theobromine itself is a white or off-white crystalline powder, and is responsible for giving dark chocolate its bitter taste. Darker chocolate with higher cacao content is more bitter because of its higher theobromine content1.
- Promote wakefulness, motivation, and alertness2–4.
- Lower blood pressure5–7.
- Improve blood flow5–7.
- Increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol8.
- Enhance cognition2,9.
- Improve respiratory health5,10.
- Strengthen tooth enamel11–15.
- Improve mood2–4,9.
- Reduce inflammation2,3,9.
- Protect against kidney stones16.
Theobromine’s Mechanism of Action – How Does It Work?
Theobromine shares the same mechanism as caffeine – inhibiting adenosine receptors, thereby promoting wakefulness and alertness2.
Theobromine is a dimethylxanthine with two methyl groups at positions 3 and 7, and is thus also known as 3,7-dimethylxanthine17.
Theobromine has a half-life in humans of about 7 hours, with peak concentration at about 2 hours following ingestion18–20.
Theobromine’s half-life in dogs is about 18 hours21.
One clinical study noted positive objective and subjective effects for participants from dosages up to 250mg, with negative subjective effects on mood from higher doses2. These results are illustrated below.
However, anecdotal evidence exists for people enjoying the effects of a 400mg theobromine supplement per se.
Theobromine Side Effects
Side effects from theobromine are rare and dose-dependent and, similar to caffeine, include headaches and nausea2.
Theobromine in Chocolate
Theobromine is found in the highest concentrations in the cacao bean, from which chocolate is made. Higher cacao percentage chocolate (progressively darker) has higher theobromine levels, with raw cacao powder being the highest at 20mg/g. Milk chocolate contains 2mg theobromine per 1g of chocolate. Dark chocolate contains on average 9mg/g20,22. White chocolate contains only trace amounts of theobromine because it contains no cocoa solids23.
Theobromine in Coffee
Theobromine is found in very small concentrations (0.2%) in green coffee beans, tea, and yerba mate, but is not found in “normal” black coffee22,23.
Theobromine in Foods
Theobromine is found in the following foods, from greatest to least concentration:
- raw cacao beans, nibs, and powder
- processed cocoa and dark chocolate products
- milk chocolate
- black tea
- chocolate pudding, cereal, cake mix, candy, ice cream, syrup, etc.
In humans, the lowest published toxic dose (TDLo, the lowest recorded dose where toxicity symptoms appeared) is 16mg/kg bodyweight. This is a little over 1g for a 150 lb. human. The median lethal dose (LD50) is 1000mg/kg bodyweight17.
First signs of theobromine poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, progressing to cardiac arrhythmias, epileptic seizures, internal bleeding, heart attacks, and eventually death17.
Theobromine in Dogs
Theobromine poisoning in dogs happens frequently and quickly. This is why you commonly hear that “dogs can’t eat chocolate.” Absorption and metabolism of theobromine is much slower in dogs than in humans, with a half-life of about 18 hours in dogs21.
Signs of theobromine poisoning in dogs include vomiting, haematemesis, polydipsia, hyperexcitability, hyperirritability, tachycardia, excessive panting, ataxia, and muscle twitching, progressing to cardiac arrhythmias, seizures, and death. These symptoms can potentially begin within a few hours of ingestion and can persist for up to 72 hours. There is no specific antidote, but treatment protocol usually consists of induced vomiting and administration of activated charcoal, oxygen, benzodiazepines for seizures, antiarrhythmics for heart arrhythmia, and intravenous fluids21,24.
Domestic animals can easily eat enough chocolate to be fatal. The lowest recorded toxic dose of theobromine in dogs is 16mg/kg bodyweight, with a median lethal dose of 300mg/kg bodyweight. For a 50 lb. dog, that’s about 360mg and 6800mg respectively.
Theobromine concentrations are higher in certain types of chocolate. Higher cacao percentage chocolate (progressively darker) has higher theobromine levels, with raw cacao powder being the highest at 20mg/g. Milk chocolate contains 2mg theobromine per 1g of chocolate. Dark chocolate contains on average 9mg/g21,25. As such, dark chocolate is far more toxic to animals than milk chocolate. White chocolate contains only trace amounts of theobromine26.
Doing some math, this means that for a 50 lb. dog, just 50g of dark chocolate can be potentially fatal. Smaller dogs would obviously be susceptible to smaller amounts. Cats are even more susceptible, but are less likely to eat chocolate because cats are unable to taste sweetness27.
To be safe, keep any and all chocolate-containing foods away from your pets, including cocoa powder, cocoa cereals, chocolate ice cream, chocolate milk, chococlate chips, chocolate candy, etc.
Theobromine vs. Caffeine
Theobromine and caffeine are both known as methylxanthines. Theobromine is actually a byproduct of caffeine metabolism. They both exert their CNS-enhancing effects by inhibiting adenosine receptors, however theobromine does so more weakly than caffeine. As such, theobromine should exhibit less tolerance buildup and fewer adverse side effects than caffeine. Theobromine is less likely to cross the blood-brain barrier and thus has less effect on the CNS.
Theobromine also has less effect on the cardiovascular system than caffeine, and theobromine’s cardiovascular effects are generally positive, whereas caffeine’s are generally negative. These properties make it similar to Dynamine® and TeaCrine®. Theobromine’s CNS effects are milder and longer-acting than caffeine1,2,4.
Theobromine and Blood Pressure
Theobromine is also vasodilatory and can lower blood pressure, as opposed to caffeine typically being vasoconstrictive and raising blood pressure5–7,28. Studies have noted that raw cacao powder (high theobromine content) reliably exerts these effects to a greater extent in cases of high blood pressure than in people with normal blood pressure6,29,30.
Theobromine for Cough, Asthma, COPD, and More
Theobromine and theophylline have shown promising antitussive effects for a range of respiratory diseases including acute and persistent coughing, asthma COPD, bronchitis, and more, due to their bronchodilation, airway expansion, arterial pressure decreasing, anti-inflammatory, and mucus clearing effects. Treatment with methylxanthines is a viable alternative to traditional codeine cough syrups that have undesirable side effects and taste31–38.
Researchers have also noted that theobromine and other methylxanthines seem to actually regulate and disrupt the neurological channels involved in coughing31–36. Anecdotal reports seem to corroborate this, with people claiming that consuming raw cacao powder (high theobromine content) decreases their coughing.
Theobromine and Weight Loss
Diet pills are increasingly including theobromine in their formulations, likely because of extrapolation from a single study showing potential weight loss and lipid metabolism improvement in rats. Not enough evidence exists to suggest that theobromine may be useful for weight loss39,40.
Theobromine vs. Theophylline
Theophylline is another member of the methylxanthine family. It appears to offer similar ameliorative effects to theobromine for blood pressure and respiratory health31–33. Theophylline is actually an FDA-approved medication for asthma and other respiratory disorders41.
Theophylline’s half-life of 8 hours in human adults is slightly longer than that of theobromine32,33. It can potentially be much longer in some people with thyroid dysfunction or liver problems41.
Theobromine and Rutaecarpine
Like caffeine, theobromine is metabolized primarily in the liver by the enzymes CYP1A2 and CYP2E142. As such, rutaecarpine should limit theobromine’s exposure and expedite its excretion just as it does with caffeine.
My experience with theobromine has basically mirrored what I’ve described above – a milder, longer-acting caffeine, not unlike theacrine, that boosts mood, motivation, alertness, and energy. I’ve also utilized raw cacao powder in my morning coffee for years now along with mushroom powder.
A few options for theobromine supplements exist. First, you can obviously just use raw cacao powder, in which we know theobromine is found in the highest concentrations. Raw cacao is also rich in minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols. Add it to your morning coffee. A potential problem with this approach is we don’t know the specific theobromine content of cacao powder products.
Another option is to supplement Theobromine directly with 400mg capsules from Nutricost on Amazon.
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