Theobromine: Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Chances are you’re up to speed on caffeine and where to find it. After all, caffeine is the most widely consumed “drug” across the globe. [1] And let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a good cup of coffee to start the day?

Interestingly, caffeine is associated with many health benefits, including lower risk of
depression, various forms of cancer, and even neurodegenerative diseases. [2][3][4] Unfortunately, drinking large amounts of coffee/caffeine is also correlated with insomnia, cardiovascular issues, and adrenal fatigue. [5][6]

The good news is that you have to be consuming quite a bit of caffeine before it becomes unhealthy (i.e. 500+ mg per day). As with most any chemical, the difference between medicine and poison is in the dose.

But what you might not know is that caffeine isn’t the only beneficial stimulant compound in coffee beans, tea leaves, etc. Several other caffeine-like molecules are found in these plants, including theobromine and theophylline. Collectively, these molecules are known as methylxanthines, which are derivatives of xanthine – a purine base found in virtually all tissues and fluids in the human body.

Hence, despite some people referring to caffeine and its metabolites as “drugs,” they are naturally occurring.

This article is going to focus on a particularly promising one of these caffeine-like molecules: Theobromine. Read on to learn all about this underappreciated stimulant, how it works, it benefits, and the best way to use it to reach your health and fitness goals.

What is Theobromine?

On the molecular level, caffeine (chemically known as 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) is an alkaline, naturally occurring substance derived from xanthine. In nature, caffeine is most abundant in cacao beans and coffee beans, as well as various tea leaves.

Theobromine is a metabolite of caffeine, being demethylated at the carbon-1 position of the xanthine molecule. Hence, the chemical name of theobromine is 3,7-dimethylxanthine. Theobromine is often known as the “chocolate compound” as it’s what gives chocolate its slightly bitter taste. Like caffeine, theobromine is also found in coffee beans, cacao beans, tea leaves, and kola nuts

Despite its name, theobromine does not contain the element bromine. Theobromine gets its name from Theobroma cacao, aka “the cocoa tree.”

Caffeine and Theobromine: Similarities and Differences

Methylxanthines like caffeine and theobromine are stimulant compounds due to their actions throughout the nervous system.

The liver predominantly metabolizes caffeine into paraxanthine – another methylxanthine that is not present in any foods. Caffeine is also metabolized into theobromine and theophylline, albeit in small amounts.

What’s intriguing to note is that some of the putative benefits of caffeine appear to be more properly attributed to its derivatives. For example, paraxanthine seems to be responsible for the lipolytic properties of caffeine.[7] In turn, this has led people to become more interested in supplementing directly with caffeine derivatives as opposed to just caffeine itself.

Physiologically, methylxanthines act as acetylcholinesterase (ACE) and phosphodiesterase (PDE) inhibitors, thereby affecting cellular metabolism and signaling.[8]

PDE enzymes break down key secondary cellular messengers, particularly cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP) and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP).

Since methylxanthines effectively inhibit the actions of PDE enzymes, cAMP and cGMP levels increase, enabling cells to transmit signals more efficiently. The net effect is a longer duration of action of neurotransmitters and hormones that stimulate these secondary cellular messengers. (This is why methylxanthines are known as “stimulants”.)

Secondly, since methylxanthines inhibit ACE, the actions of acetylcholine (an excitatory neurotransmitter) are amplified; this results in a rapid boost in cognitive function and motivation.

Given that huperzine-A also acts on ACE, methylxanthines and Huperzia serrata extract may have additive and synergistic effects.[9] This is one reason nootropics like Keto1 Mind stack well with Keto1 Ablaze.

In addition, methylxanthines are nonselective adenosine receptor antagonists, especially in the heart and brain.10 Consequently, theobromine and caffeine block these receptors and prevent adenosine (the primary endogenous ligand) from binding. This results in a stimulant effect, speeding up heart rate and increasing dopamine activity in the central nervous system (CNS).

This is why caffeine in high enough doses promotes motivation and reward-driven behavior, and possibly even euphoria. Theobromine, on the contrary, doesn’t give you that crazy “high” that caffeine often does.

While both caffeine and theobromine have similar mechanisms of action in the human body, the former is generally more potent (per mg) than the latter. As such, theobromine is essentially like a “mild” version of caffeine, having a lesser inhibitory effect on PDE/ACE enzymes and only weakly antagonizing adenosine receptors.

However, this doesn’t mean theobromine is ineffective; quite the contrary. For some people, theobromine is a better choice if caffeine is too strong of a stimulant or if it produces side effects. Theobromine won’t give you the peaks and valleys like chronic caffeine use can.

Again, both caffeine and theobromine have their benefits and drawbacks, like any other supplement ingredient.

One of the most important distinctions between the two is that theobromine acts as a vasodilator instead of a vasoconstrictor, like caffeine. This makes theobromine a great stimulant to consume as a pre-workout supplement for better blood flow and muscle pumps.11 However, it might not give you as much of a mental jolt and perceived energy boost as caffeine.

This is why some pre-workout supplements, like Fulcrum, use longer acting and smoother versions of caffeine (di-caffeine malate) and theobromine derivatives (theacrine) to give you the best of both worlds.

Remember, since methylxanthines are stimulants, you don’t want to consume them late at night as they might make it hard for you to fall asleep. Hence, It’s best to consume theobromine during the early-mid parts of the day, and no later than 4-5 hours before bedtime.

Theobromine Uses and Benefits

As of late, many health and fitness enthusiasts are becoming more aware of the benefits of consuming dark chocolate. Little might you know, many benefits of cocoa (dark chocolate) are governed by theobromine. Per example, theobromine helps increase nitric oxide (NO) by activating NO synthase, resulting in vasodilation.[12] In turn, theobromine is quite beneficial for the cardiovascular system and promoting healthy blood pressure.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of theobromine. Here are other notable theobromine benefits backed by recent research:

  1. Enhance Cognitive Function – Much like caffeine, theobromine holds acclaim for its cognitive benefits. In a 30-day human study, subjects who consumed theobromine showed significant improvements in their ability to engage in thought-provoking tasks compared to those who took a placebo.[13] In addition, those taking theobromine reported that they felt less mental fatigue throughout the day.
  2. Mitigates Oxidative Stress – Theobromine is a potent antioxidant, helping to neutralize free radicals and reactive oxygen species.[14] In turn, this helps keep your cells healthy and supports proper toxin elimination. This is especially crucial as we grow older since chronic oxidative stress is the putative underlying cause of many modern diseases, even cancer, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.[15] Be wary though, consuming large amounts of either theobromine or caffeine effectively makes them pro-oxidants. (Moderation is key when it comes to methylxanthines.)
  3. Anti-inflammatory Properties – Theobromine has recently become a more popular alternative treatment for asthma due to its natural bronchodilating properties.[16] Multiple studies show that theobromine attenuates inflammation in the airways by blocking histamine release and allowing the lungs to expand, helping asthmatics (and non-asthmatics) breath easier and more efficiently.[12] It also appears that this benefit becomes more gradual with consistent theobromine use.
  4. Decrease Blood Pressure – An overwhelming body of evidence supports that theobromine significantly improves cardiometabolic risk factors, especially total triglyceride levels, blood glucose, and blood pressure.[17] In fact, one study found that consuming cocoa with meals for 4 weeks significantly reduced systolic blood pressure compared to those eating the same meals without cocoa.[18]
  5. Reduce LDL (“Bad”) Cholesterol – By the same token as the previous benefits, theobromine appears to be a new candidate for blood pressure medications since it has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and fasting triglyceride levels.[19] This is a promising avenue given that statins might not be the healthiest option for reducing cholesterol in the long-term.
  6. Natural Pain Relief (Analgesia) – Theobromine has been used in modern medicinal applications dating back to the early 20th century.[20] As part of its anti-atherosclerotic properties, theobromine may act as an analgesic for people with vascular complications, such as angina.[21]

Theobromine Side Effects

All methylxanthines have a risk of side effects due to their stimulatory nature. The good news, though, is that theobromine tends to be the mildest of the methylxanthines and typically only produces side effects in very large doses.

This is why some people prefer theobromine over caffeine since caffeine can cause unwanted side effects even in fairly modest doses.

While theobromine side effects are not as common as the side effects of caffeine, they are somewhat similar when they do occur. Such side effects may include tachycardia, hyperventilation, headache, upset stomach, and loss of appetite. Assuming you’re not ingesting exorbitant amounts of theobromine, these side effects are quite uncommon.

Furthermore, theobromine has less addictive potential than caffeine. Arguably the biggest drawback of caffeine is that it’s highly addictive and the more you consume it, the less effective it becomes.[22] In other words, you become tolerant to the stimulatory actions of caffeine over time, leading to diminishing returns of effects (or even dependency).

Since theobromine is a milder stimulant than caffeine, the risk of becoming addicted to it or dependent on it is low. If you have an addictive personality or a history of substance abuse (especially with stimulants), theobromine is likely the better choice than caffeine.

Where to Buy Theobromine

Now that you have a better grasp of what makes theobromine useful and how it differs from caffeine (and other methylxanthines), let’s get you up to speed on where to buy theobromine. While you could simply eat cocoa powder and get a decent amount of theobromine, it tends to be easier to just supplement with it directly. (Also, don’t get too caught up in the hype of eating a bunch of dark chocolate just to get the benefits of theobromine as you’ll likely end up eating a ton of fat and calories in the process.)

Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workout powders and pills are sold seemingly everywhere these days, and there’s a good chance they contain both caffeine and theobromine. While we recommend a tried-and-true pre-workout formula such as Fulcrum, there are plenty of options out there. The main thing to make sure is that the pre-workout supplement you use isn’t loaded with superfluous amounts of stimulants (especially caffeine). Theobromine is fine in slightly higher doses (i.e. 200 mg) but you want to keep the caffeine intake under 400-500 mg per day, particularly if you’re under 200 lbs. Exercise caution when you’re shopping for pre-workouts as many of them are glorified methamphetamine blends that essentially get you high and leave you feeling hungover 2-3 hours later.

Pure Theobromine Supplements

You can opt for “pure” theobromine powders and tablets instead of trying to find it in a supplement formula. Pure theobromine is distributed in tablet and powder form and can be purchased in various stores on the internet, certain health supermarkets, and sometimes even the local pharmacy. This is the easiest way to incorporate theobromine into your supplement regimen without having to worry about ingesting a bunch of other ingredients in the process.

Thermogenics

Similar to pre-workout supplements, many fat burners and thermogenic supplements contain theobromine for its cognitive and metabolic benefits. Cinerate features a blend of methylxanthines (including theobromine and theophylline) from natural green tea extract, making it a healthy and efficacious option for weight loss and appetite control on a low-calorie diet.

References

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    2.  Wang, L., Shen, X., Wu, Y., & Zhang, D. (2016). Coffee and caffeine consumption and depression: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 50(3), 228-242.
    3.  Ullah, F., Ali, T., Ullah, N., & Kim, M. O. (2015). Caffeine prevents d-galactose-induced cognitive deficits, oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration in the adult rat brain. Neurochemistry international, 90, 114-124.
    4.  Yang, C. S., Wang, X., Lu, G., & Picinich, S. C. (2009). Cancer prevention by tea: animal studies, molecular mechanisms and human relevance. Nature Reviews Cancer, 9(6), 429.
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    9.  Zheng, W., Xiang, Y. Q., Li, X. B., Ungvari, G. S., Chiu, H. F., Sun, F., … & Xiang, Y. T. (2016). Adjunctive huperzine A for cognitive deficits in schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta‐analysis. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 31(4), 286-295.
    10.  Ferré S (May 2008). An update on the mechanisms of the psychostimulant effects of caffeine. Journal of Neurochemistry. 105 (4): 1067–79.
    11.  Fisher, N. D., Hughes, M., Gerhard-Herman, M., & Hollenberg, N. K. (2003). Flavanol-rich cocoa induces nitric-oxide-dependent vasodilation in healthy humans. Journal of hypertension, 21(12), 2281-2286.
    12.  Smit, H. J. (2011). Theobromine and the pharmacology of cocoa. In Methylxanthines (pp. 201-234). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.
    13.  Scholey, A. B., French, S. J., Morris, P. J., Kennedy, D. O., Milne, A. L., & Haskell, C. F. (2010). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24(10), 1505-1514.
    14.  Azam, S., Hadi, N., Khan, N. U., & Hadi, S. M. (2003). Antioxidant and prooxidant properties of caffeine, theobromine and xanthine. Medical Science Monitor, 9(9), BR325-BR330.
    15.  Aruoma, O. I. (1998). Free radicals, oxidative stress, and antioxidants in human health and disease. Journal of the American oil chemists’ society, 75(2), 199-212.
    16.  Hu, J. (2016). Ergogenic Effects of Intake of Salbutamol, Caffeine and Theobromine on Non-Asthmatic Subjects (Doctoral dissertation, Liverpool John Moores University).
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    18. Ibero-Baraibar, I., Suárez, M., Arola-Arnal, A., Zulet, M. A., & Martinez, J. A. (2016). Cocoa extract intake for 4 weeks reduces postprandial systolic blood pressure response of obese subjects, even after following an energy-restricted diet. Food & nutrition research, 60(1), 30449.
    19.  Jacobs, D. M., Smolders, L., Lin, Y., de Roo, N., Trautwein, E. A., van Duynhoven, J., … & Mihaleva, V. V. (2017). Effect of theobromine consumption on serum lipoprotein profiles in apparently healthy humans with low HDL-cholesterol concentrations. Frontiers in molecular biosciences, 4, 59.
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