“After water, cacao is the single healthiest substance you can put in your mouth. It can easily replace a number of psychiatric drugs for mood, plus it produces the same chemistry in the brain that occurs when we fall in love.” – Chris Kilham, WellBella (Medicine Hunter, Author, Traveller and Researcher)
So now it’s time for one of my favourite plants of all time, a magical plant which has inspired legend, influenced the introduction of economy, carries a rich trade history and is now a key player in the booming confectionary industry. It’s pretty popular actually…totally mainstream in fact, albeit it pretty hard to propagate out of its natural habitat…almost growing exclusively from 20 degrees north of the equator to 20 degrees south of the equator…Yeah that’s right guys and dolls it’s Cacao...well Theobroma cacao to be exact! The scientific name Theobroma cacao was given to the species by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (the big daddy of modern-day taxonomic plant classification and also the man who likened the irishman to sparrows due to their “noise, squabbles and ubiquity”…stick to plants love) in 1753, when he published it in his famous book Species Plantarum. Theobroma translating as ‘food of the gods’ in Latin, as cacao was revered as a very sacred plant by ancient civilisations. Cacao is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word xocolatl, from xococ (bitter) and atl (water). Possibly bitter water due to the Aztecs and Mayans love of grinding up the cacao beans and mixing it with water to make a potent drink. Unbeknown to most people however it was not the Mayans and the Aztecs to first discover this rich brew, but a civilisation called the Olmec. The history of the Olmecs is not as widely reported upon and is still deemed as somewhat of a mystery due to a poor representation of archeological material. However it is widely accepted that they were a pre classical Mesoamerican civilization that were to predate all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, namely Aztecs and Maya. Details of the Olmec are pretty sketchy but it’s expected they practiced similar beliefs such as lovely sacrifices and lovely ball games….oh and ‘Olmec’ roughly translates from Aztec as ‘rubber people….’ I like that so I do.
The Mayans were a very sharing bunch when it came to cacao, women and all classes could be seen drinking it, possibly due to a more abundant production of cacao by the Mayans. However Aztec women were forbidden to drink the stuff and it was generally seen as a drink for the more upper class men or for warriors to drink before battle…I don’t like the Aztecs, they seem entirely unreasonable to me. Sometimes i’m so glad to have been born into this time and culture as I would most definitely been burned at the stake for being a saucy witch or had my hands cut off for coveting the lovely jubbly little cacao beans…
Cacao was so revered that images of cacao pods were painted on the walls of stone temples and Mayan artifacts have been found that show kings and Mayan gods drinking chocolate. Look at how beautiful those pods are, the delightful looking little creations…
Cacao can be seen in modern day synonymous with love, comfort and even sin…what about warfare, anyone? Ever chomped down on your Cadburys, or for the more refined of us, black and gold, and thought oh…I wondered what great battles this special little bean was known to entice? No? Well news flash people….the humble cacao bean was thought to have been a catalyst in the fall of one of the world’s first great empires, The Maya. By 1400AD the Mayan power was decreasing, the Aztecs were ruling the highlands of Central Mexico, far from the rainforests of the Maya. The Aztecs had power, however they could still not grow their most coveted beloved, the devilish, bewildering and beautiful; Theobroma cacao.
The Aztecs then had to trade to get their bean, some even making counterfeit beans….IMAGINE…counterfeit beans, i’ll remember that name when I form my imaginary band…This demand for the delectable bean quickly lead Cacao to become the driving force behind the Aztec economy.
The bean at this time was the epicenter of their civilisation, this wasn’t a mere treat or a little side entertainment to eat during your evening netflix binge. No, this bean controlled movement of the masses, ceremonies and attributed wealth and status to those lucky enough to be in possession of it.
Wee fella and his bean..
The need for this valuable resource further fueled the Aztecs need to conquer the Maya and eventually when they did the Maya were forced to pay their defeaters “tributes” which were of course, you guessed it, paid in Cacao. So the Aztecs, who couldn’t grow their own Cacao, would always have their own supply….kind of like that fat kid at school who was a big bully but would always have chocolate smeared round their face and NEVER EVER share…even if there was enough to go round.
However, even though I am an absolute sucker for a bit of bloodshed and chocolatey treats it is not just the rich and somewhat violent history that draws me so to Cacao but the chemical contents it wields within its sumptuous form. Cacao in its rawest form is known to contain anandamide….’ananda who?’ I hear you say…well how about if I tell you that anandamide is derived from the sanskrit ‘ananda’ meaning bliss, and ‘mide’ meaning chemical. Funnily enough anandamide, which is only found in cacao is a cannabinoid, yup, just like THC and CBD found in another much loved medicinal plant (Cannabis, for all you extremely sheltered individuals).
Anandamide is thought to be as important as the more well-known neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonin. Anandamide is also thought to act as a component in the control of cognition and expression of emotions. Also linked to the feeling of a high after exercise….so really instead of going on a run you could just lie in your PJs and eat a big slab of raw Cacao….just saying…On a more serious note it is also currently being studied as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Even more interestingly the alkaloid found in black pepper, Guineensis, is thought to increase the activity of this neurotransmitter in the brain….black pepper and dark chocolate anyone?
This blissful chemical found in cacao is not the only one of titillating interest however (yes, it gets better!), what about the name Theobroma cacao? Shall i repeat it…Theobroma cacao…nothing? Okay i’ll let you in on a little family secret, theobromine is caffeine’s more beautiful sister (also known as Cinderella) and it is found in high doses in cacao and yes, chocolate. Theobromine is actually what gives chocolate that bitter taste and ever heard of that old wives tale that chocolate is bad for dogs? Well it’s actually totally true, theobromine is completely toxic to dogs and just 2 squares of high percentage dark chocolate is enough to kill your little furry friend. But anyway, enough about pet death, theobromine is actually great for humans and is known to improve cognition, energy and memory. What can get better than this, I hear you say? Well what about LOVE people? Oh and SEX, LOVE and SEX! Yeeeaaaah…that’s right! Cacao also contains high levels of phenylethylamine. Phenylethylamine is a psychoactive and stimulant that is released in the body during excitement and arousal…also known as the ‘love’ drug….and is what is released in the body when we are ‘in love’. That’s it, i’m becoming a spinster who never exercises and just bathes in hot frothy raw Cacao pleasuring myself all day long…. as if I need much convincing.
You say Cocoa, I say Cacao, same difference right? WRONG! Cacao is the raw unadulterated form, Cocoa and most cocoa powder, also known as coco powder is “Dutch processed” which means temperatures up to 150c are used to extract the cacao, this process destroys much of the nutritional benefit of the cacao. Most of the dark chocolate (and cocoa) available today is so highly processed that the most of the nutrient and antioxidant strength has been lost leaving only excess sugar and fat. So to get nature’s intended Cacao hit, you really must get on the raw stuff lads, I promise you it’s pretty beautiful and an extremely bountiful source of antioxidants, stimulants and psychoactives to enhance energy, balance mood, provide sensual energy with that warming spooning hug after….oh mummy jeggies i’m in love.
Raw unadulterated goodness
Knowing this, I decided I must go to a CACAO ceremony to fully understand the benefits and medicinal properties of this plant in its rawest form. What I got was a form of ‘Cacao liquor’ which is Cacao in its purest form, similar to how the ancient Mesoamerican cultures would have consumed it. The Cacao powder was dry and pulverised raw Cacao beans which was mixed into hot water to make a rich frothy brew.
Before the ceremony began I was asked to write down three intentions, three things that I might want to focus on during my meditation. I had heard that due to the theobromine and caffeine, raw cacao can rapidly increase your heartbeat. Not going to lie I was totally hungover and worried I would die, but what is an experience if you aren’t worried you are going to die? So, the ceremony in itself was very casual, a way of opening myself and connecting with a stranger to share life experiences and to learn from getting to know a new being in a completely non judgemental sense.
So in a dimly lit circular purple carpeted room with paintings of parrots on the wall, much like a vaginal dream of birds, I drank the rich brew and lay down to let this new lady of my life guide me through what turned out to be an unexpected and pretty interesting journey into my subconscious.
Oil painting by Michael A. Wilson, but also apparently what my subconscious looks like…
This type of meditation is seen to be a ‘heart opening’ form of meditation due to the high content of theobromine, an alkaloid much similar to caffeine, which is responsible for dilating blood vessels, increasing the blood flow and raising the heart beat. During this meditation I had many interesting realisations which were all extremely personal to me, however they kept being clouded by a vision of the back of somebody’s head that kept obscuring my view. Through each vision this happened. Until through the guided mediation we reached the ‘third’ vision. I began to envision the back of this woman’s head more clearly. She was full of life and perfectly happy in a desert city scape, effortlessly free and abundantly joyous, it was only after her face came into vision that I realised this woman was me. I really REALLY nearly cried. I have gone through life having this idea that I somehow don’t deserve true happiness, nor is it possible for me to achieve this, but this vision was so clear and true with it’s telling that I know I am worth the love and happiness she held, just like all other beings and souls around us. I would also like to write that by no means was this some ‘hippy dippy’ ceremony meant to reenact the ways of our ancestors gone before us but used as a modern day tool to help cope with the constant pressures and anxieties experienced through excess stimulation from modern life.
So as Charles M Schulz once said, ‘All you need is love, but a little bit of chocolate now and again doesn’t hurt’…now and again doesn’t even come into it…get that brown wonder in its raw unadulterated form into your life this instance…open your mind to plants and you shall receive their blessings.