Cacao Love

An age-old superfood bolsters connection and self-care.
Cacao modulates blood pressure and builds serotonin. Photo: Rodrigo Flores

By Jenna Lebovits

According to ancient Toltec myth, a feathered serpent god named Quetzalcoatl offered humans the gift of cacao, or the “drink of the gods,” and it is him we have to thank for this beneficial brew. Many Indigenous communities—the Maya, Olmec and Toltec—believed that the cacao plant is not simply a fruit to eat, but rather something that carries a spirit.

Today, cacao is a staple in the pantries of wellness warriors and health-conscious cafes. You might’ve heard of cacao nibs (the brown crunchy bits atop smoothie bowls) but many consumers opt to craft a warm and comforting beverage.

The plant—which is absorbed into the body in about 20 minutes—affects the body’s mental, physical, emotional and spiritual channels. On the emotional plane, cacao is believed to support feelings of warmth, love and unity. “In our modern society, we forgot about the aspect of connection, of intimacy,” says Florencia Fridman, cacao educator and co-founder of Cacao Laboratory, who has been hosting cacao ceremonies (communal gatherings centered around eating or drinking cacao for reflection or celebration), across the world for over seven years.

On a physical level, cacao elicits biochemical responses that support positive mental health and overall well-being. The supercharged drink is chock-full of antioxidants and feel-good chemicals such as magnesium, tryptophan, phenylethylamine (PEA) and theobromine. The potent plant improves blood flow to the extremities, as well as the scalp and the brain, supporting hair health and cognition.

Many cacao devotees praise its ability to “open the heart,” and on a physiological level, the plant is proven to work wonders on the cardiovascular system, thanks to theobromine, a bitter alkaloid. Studies have shown that cacao modulates blood pressure and cholesterol—which is key in reducing the risk of heart disease—and dilates the blood vessels and stimulates blood flow. PEA, the compound released when we fall in love, floods the bloodstream, along with magnesium and tryptophan, which relax the mind and body. “Cacao can actually help build serotonin instead of blocking the inhibitors, which is what SSRIs or antidepressants do,” says Fridman.

Cacao, to Fridman and many others, is a tool that brings sacredness to the mundane—a natural substance that can support physical, emotional and energetic healing. “It’s beautiful to see how much cacao is waking up, not just in the traditions where it’s been protected for so many generations,” says Fridman, “but globally, in bringing us back to connect to unconditional love, harmony, gratitude and reverence for life.”