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Ingredient Explained: Theobromine

Over the last decade caffeine has become known as the most effective pre-workout and thermogenic ingredient on the planet -- a reputation that is well supported by the research.

However, we have seen numerous other compounds emerge as suitable alternatives for those that are intolerant to caffeine, or that work synergistically with caffeine to improve results.

And theobromine is one of these.

Step 1: What is it?

Theobromine is a unique compound found naturally occurring in highest concentrations in the cacao plant (latin name theobroma cacao) and tea leaves.

This particular compound was commonly used by ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations during weddings and various other religious ceremonies due to the euphoric effect it can cause. It is also what gives dark chocolate its bitter taste.

Theobromine is a type of compound known as an “xanthine alkaloid,” and it has a very similar structure to caffeine., which is where it derives most of its benefits.

Step 2: What does it do?

When ingested, theobromine works by blocking adenosine receptors in the body.

Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that is produced by the human body. Broadly speaking, neurotransmitters are what your body uses to transmit information to cells, with adenosine being responsible for creating feelings of fatigue and tiredness, preparing your body for sleep.

However, by blocking your body’s adenosine receptors, theobromine stops adenosine from acting on your body. This leads to increased sensations of wakefulness and alertness, improved mood, and heightened energy levels.

Taking this into consideration, the supplementation of theobromine can have some unique benefits.

Firstly, it has been shown to improve mental performance and cognitive function, while simultaneously reducing mental fatigue and lethargy [1]. Secondly, it has been shown to improve sensations of alertness, and enhance the ability to perform demanding tasks [2]. 

Collectively these two factors highlight why it has become increasingly common as a pre-workout ingredient. Additionally, some of this research [2] has indicated that it provides these effects via slightly different means than caffeine, suggesting they could complement one another nicely.

Thirdly, there is also some evidence indicating that theobromine can reduce blood pressure [3]. While this is unlikely to affect your exercise performance in the gym, it may improve long term health -- which is never a bad thing.

Lastly, it has also been shown to increase blood flow and the secretion of key hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. As these hormones increase both heart and metabolic rate [4], theobromine may make maintaining an energy deficit (and long term weight loss) easier.

This is why theobromine is often found in thermogenic supplements, as well as pre-workouts.

Step 3: How do I take it?

The most common recommendations for theobromine supplementation is between 80 and 500 milligrams per day. This seems to be the sweet spot where you can maximize the positive benefits without any notable side effects.

It is important to note that some research has explored higher dosages (up to 1000 milligrams per day), but this has shown negative effects on sensations of wellbeing, and has even caused decreases in alertness (similar to what occurs when you have too much coffee).

With this in mind, we would suggest starting on the lower end of these recommendations to assess tolerance. You can then increase slightly over time as needed.

Step 4: What are the top products?

As we have already discussed, Theobromine is rarely sold in isolation, largely due to the synergistic effect it has with other compounds like caffeine. As such, you are most likely to find it in either pre-workout or thermogenic supplements.

And this is what you need to look out for when you buy it.

Firstly, make sure the ingredient list is clear.

Because theobromine is sold in a mix of larger compounds, it is often underdosed. As a result you should try and find something that clearly describes how much theobromine contains, and it should be close to 100 milligrams. 

Secondly, check the quality.

If you are purchasing online, you want to make sure that the theobromine is at least 95% purity. Any decent company will provide regular lab tests on their website, so you should be able to check these for clarification.

Lastly, don't pay too much. 

Most pre-workouts and thermogenics are overpriced. Look for those that have minimal marketing, simple packaging, and a small amount of select, evidence-based, ingredients. And if they have a proprietary blend, ignore it.

And that is how you find the best Theobromine containing supplement today.

References:

  1. Scholey, Andrew B., et al. "Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort." Journal of Psychopharmacology 24.10 (2010): 1505-1514.
  2. Cova, Ilaria, et al. "Exploring cocoa properties: is theobromine a cognitive modulator?." Psychopharmacology 236.2 (2019): 561-572.
  3. Mitchell, E. S., et al. "Differential contributions of theobromine and caffeine on mood, psychomotor performance and blood pressure." Physiology & behavior 104.5 (2011): 816-822.
  4. Baggott, Matthew J., et al. "Psychopharmacology of theobromine in healthy volunteers." Psychopharmacology 228.1 (2013): 109-118.
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