Let's take a closer look at caffeine first. On a chemical level, it’s an alkaloid that stimulates the central nervous system, heart, and muscles. It’s the most common central nervous system stimulant you can buy. It’s naturally found in seeds, leaves, and nuts of a variety of plants found in Africa, South America, and East Asia, who use it to protect themselves against insects. The coffee plant is best-known source of caffeine, though it’s also found in soda, pills, and black tea.
Theobromine was first discovered in the 1840’s in cocoa beans. Since then, it’s been found in a variety of tea, like black tea and yerba mate. It’s most commonly consumed in dark chocolate, however. It belongs to the same family as caffeine (the methylxanthine family) and has similar effects, but as you’ll learn shortly, there are some notable differences.
Caffeine vs. theobromine: benefits and side effects
Caffeine’s main benefit is that it combats drowsiness. That’s why coffee is such a popular morning drink, or why people drink 5-hour energies, which have concentrated caffeine. Caffeine can also make you feel less hungry, so it’s a common ingredient in weight loss products.
However, on the downside, caffeine can make you feel jittery and nervous. If you drink coffee too late in the day, it can make falling asleep challenging. For a toxic dose, you’d have to drink 50-10 cups of coffee, but for powdered caffeine, it only takes a tablespoon or so to be fatal.
Theobromine was first discovered in the 1840’s in cocoa beans.Theobromine was first discovered in the 1840’s in cocoa beans.
Theobromine affects the body in a similar way to caffeine, but it’s 10 times weaker. Research shows that while caffeine and theobromine bind to the central nervous system in the same way, thebromine’s binding is less strong. That means you won’t experience the same nervous energy as caffeine, unless you ingest too much. You also probably won’t experience the same energy crash that happens when you get a lot of caffeine. The energy from theobromine sources is less intense and longer-lasting. Other benefits of theobromine include improved blood flow and better breathing, which is useful if you have a cough. This is because theobromine relaxes smooth muscle tissue, including the tissue in your lungs. Evidence also suggests theobromine might help reduce inflammation thanks to antioxidants.
Theobromine isn’t all good, however. If your body isn’t used to it or you consume too much, it can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and a rapid heart rate. Too high amounts can also cause caffeine’s side effects, like anxiety and restlessness. For a lethal dose, you’d have to ingest A TON, so that isn’t a concern. Before you’re in any real danger, you’d start vomiting first, so that’s an obvious warning sign.
Much like caffeine, theobromine is a diuretic; however it mainly acts as a smooth muscle relaxant and cardiac stimulant. While these two compounds have similar effects, the key difference is that caffeine has an effect on the central nervous system and theobromine most significantly affects smooth muscle. In behavioral studies, caffeine intake improves self-reported alertness and mood over a period of 24 hours. Theobromine produces mild positive effects in pleasure, but does not affect attention or alertness in moderate doses compared to caffeine.
Both caffeine and theobromine are very similar molecules. But they only differ by a single methyl group! Theobromine, which mainly comes from the cacao tree, has two methyl groups attached to the nitrogen atoms in its original xanthine skeleton (an oxidized purine molecule much like guanosine). Caffeine comes from the coffee plant, or Coffea arabica, and is the trimethylated derivative of xanthine. Both of the molecules are produced via metabolism of nucleosides, and arise from modification of inosine, a purine derivative similar to guanine and adenine. Inosine is also used in the production of uric acid, which is more oxidized than xanthine.
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