Mental Health and Cacao

Mental health disorders are New Zealand’s third leading cause of health loss with conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit disorders (ADD) affecting a large portion of people1-4. One in six people or 16.6% of the population (650,000 adults) will experience a common mental disorder at some time in their lives that will drastically impact on the health and well-being4. Socio-economically deprived New Zealanders, women, and Māori all have higher rates of mental health-related issues4. Studies have shown that the biggest barrier to people seeking help is fear of how they will be perceived within society5. Understanding mental health can help alleviate some of the fears surrounding it and also assist to better understand how we can manage it.


When stress becomes too much for some or just when you feel overwhelmed anxiety is a mental health disorder where people feel;

  • Excessive worrying or apprehension about several of events or activities
  • Difficulty managing the worrying
  • Three or more:
    • Restlessness or being “on edge”
    • Easily fatigued
    • Irritability
    • Body tension
    • Sleeping problems
  • Can also be associated with panic attacks and other severe symptoms


Depression can come and go, for some it can be a single episode, or othersongoing recurring episodes3. It is characterized with a depressedmood or loss in pleasure:

  • Feeling down almost every day for two weeks or more
  • Notably loss of enjoyment in almost all activities during this time
  • Significant unintentional weight changes
  • Other people notice that you are slowing down in movement or thinking
  • Almost constant fatigue
  • Recurrent thoughts of self-harm

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

This mental health concern is due to the unfortunate experience of a traumaticevent. Symptoms vary from person to person and may not manifest immediately.This disorder is characterised by:

  • Experiencing a stressor that threatens or experiences serious injury ordeath
  • Persistently re-experiencing traumatic event through nightmares,flashbacks, intrusive thoughts
  • Avoidance of triggering emotions, memories, and reminders
  • Exhibiting two types of negative alterations in cognition and mood
  • May have alterations in arousal and activity
  • Lasts more than one month
  • Creates distress or emotional impairment
  • Not due to other illnesses or medications

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Adults suffering from ADHD frequently experience five or more indications ofinattention and hyperactivity that impairs daily life7. Thesymptoms of ADHD include:

  • Inattention
  • Carelessness: making mistakes and lacking attention detail
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Does not listen to direct communications
  • Lack of follow-through
  • Poor organisation
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks with sustained mental effort
  • Loses necessary items
  • Easily distracted
  • Generally forgetful
  • Hyperactivity/impulsion
  • Fidgets
  • Leaves conversations randomly
  • Restless
  • Has trouble with calm activities
  • Always on the go
  • Talks excessively
  • Bursts out comments
  • Difficulty waiting
  • Interrupts or intrudes on others

For those looking for natural alternatives to improve mental health many mayseek complementary or alternative medicines to treat theirsymptoms9. In Central and South American culture, the cacao beanhas always been used a sacred brain food to maintain mental balance andhappiness. Now new scientific studies are beginning to explain why cacao issuch a powerful plant to help our mental health.

How Cacao works to improve our mental health

1. With brain protecting flavonoids like epicatechin

Cacao is rich in special antioxidants that protect our brainfunction10,11,12. It contains molecules called flavonoids, thatimprove memory, cognition, and learning13. Studies of peopleconsuming flavonoids over a 10- year period showed that they preserved theircognitive performance14,15. Cacao flavonoids are rapidly absorbedin the brain and can increase cerebral blood flow reaching peak concentrationswithin 2-3h after eating16-19. The most prevalent flavonol found incacao, called epicatechin20, has been independently shown to bebeneficial for vascular function and blood flow21. Studies haveshown that perceived fear and anxiety can negatively alter cerebral blood flow(CBF)22. So having higher levels of flavanols from cacao in yourblood can help reduce anxiety, fear and improve cognition23,24. Inlarger clinical trials several studies showed that after 5 days or more ofconsuming cacao people experienced cognitive improvement in many tests,although overall behavioural changes were not noted18,25-32.

2. Through the action of methylxanthines (MXT) like theobromine

The other dominant component of cacao is the family of molecules classifiedunder methylxanthines (MTX), and their metabolic products, which act on keyreceptors in the brain. The MTX components in cacao include theobromine,caffeine and procyanidins11,35. Cacao only contains low levels ofthe stimulant caffeine11, but much higher proportions oftheobromine, that produces a similar but lesser effect incomparison36,37. So cacao can be a little stimulatory but not asmuch as foods with high levels of caffeine like coffee. Theobromine is themost bioavailable compound in cacao, as measured in human plasma11.It also penetrates the brain crossing the selective blood-brain barrier fordirect effects14. Theobromine improves working memory, acute memoryformation and memory use40. The proposed mechanism is thattheobromine is an adenosine receptor antagonist, a kind ofinhibitor12, but differs from the comparative moleculecaffeine12. In fact, theobromine in cacao actually offsetscaffeine-related anxiety and sleep disruption10. This suggeststheobromine may preferentially bind to different brain regions or types ofneurons to specifically enhance memory, offering many more benefits thansimple caffeine.

3. By supporting our ‘bliss molecule’ - Anandamide

Cacao also contains trace levels of human amines that may collectively altermood through promoting the production of our natural bliss molecule calledAnadamide. Anadamide is a human cannabinoid that regulates many stress-relatedfunctions in our nervous system. Anadamide acts to bring harmony, balance andbliss back to our natural brain function in partnership with neurotransmitterslike serotonin. It is still unclear however if cacao directly or indirectlyinfluences Anandamide. One study that has since been refuted claimed thatcacao contains anandamide, which when ingested resulted in direct activationof cannabinoid receptors in the brain41. This was strongly refutedby other researchers42, however there has since been proposed asecondary hypothesis that the molecule phenylethylamine (PEA) that existswithin cacao actually acts to prevent the reuptake of cannabinoid actingmolecules like Anadamide, thereby enhancing the cannabinoid receptoractivation indirectly42. This follow-up response declared that thetrace amounts of these amines would not be sufficient to induce amind-altering experience. However, acute administration of cacao showedanti-anxiety responses in a rat stress-test, and long-term ingestion of cacaoincreased the amount of serotonin in several brain regions43.Serotonin reduces anxiety, amongst other mood-stabilising effects. The traceelement PEA, found in cacao is structurally similar to serotonin and dopamineand enhances these uplifting neurotransmitters through secondarymechanisms44,45. So directly or indirectly cacao may offerincreased levels of bliss and happiness to our brain when consumed regularly.

4. Through natural antidepressant effects

Antidepressant effects of cacao have been demonstrated in laboratory studieswhere rats consuming it performed better in stressful situations33.In a similar human study using cacao flavonol tablets to disguise thepronounced taste, acute consumption improved cognitive function and improvedself-reported mental fatigue34. Further studies investigating cacaosupplementation for anxiety showed acute administration provided anti-anxietyresponses, with long-term ingestion increasing the amount of serotonin inseveral brain regions43. These studies suggest a positive role incacao consumption for depression and anxiety, by alleviating the symptomsexperienced by those struggling.

The clinical research has provided sound evidence to support the use of cacaoin the ongoing management of mental health disorders. The molecules itcontains have been shown to offer brain protection, improvements in memory,enhancement in mental function as well as anti-depressant and anti-anxietyeffects. These properties could be of assistance to those struggling withtheir mental health. The only complications with the use for such issues is alack of standardising of active ingredients. Currently there is no knownstandard for required levels of flavanols, methylxanthines, PEA or otherimportant molecules and not all cacao is equal in terms of its therapeuticquality. Levels of such compounds can vary greatly depending on where and howthe cacao has been grown and processed. However, daily consumption of a goodquality premium cacao may offer some people benefit for the ongoing managementof mental health disorders.

To learn more about cacao andbecome a cacao expert.

Cacao Health Benefits


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