This common ingredient improves coffee's brain-sharpening properties while reducing its anxiety-producing effects.
Coffee Is a Health Food
The more coffee you drink, the longer you live. At least it looks that way. Coffee appears to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, neurodegenerative diseases, and even kidney and liver cancers. Plus, it's a well-known picker upper, improving concentration, creativity, and the ability to do work.
Biohackers, though, generally aren't content to enjoy coffee merely for its innate benefits. Instead, they're strongly motivated to use it as a phytochemical mule to carry creatine, nootropics, or even protein powder to the body.
Some nutballs even load it up with a fistful of butter and some MCT oil without thinking that in the long run, replacing a nutrient-filled breakfast with a carafe of saturated fat maybe isn't the best thing for the body.
There is something, however, that you can add to coffee that makes it work better, giving it additional powers and increasing its effects on creativity and motivation while attenuating some of its anxiety-provoking effects. It's cocoa, the stuff that's been in your mother's pantry forever that she uses to make cakes and other chocolaty goodies.
What Cocoa Does
Like most plant-derived substances, cocoa is a rich, gold-in-them-there hills repository of phytonutrients. It contains scads of polyphenols including flavonoids and flavanols, alkaloids like theobromine, and a whole alphabet soup of bioactive compounds.
Together, these substances give cocoa the ability to reduce the incidence of heart arrhythmias and heart disease in general by lowering blood pressure and improving endothelial function.
Cocoa is also thought to improve insulin sensitivity, fight cancer, act as a neuro-protectant, and, along the same lines, work as a neuro-enhancer to improve cognition.
Cocoa + Coffee
American researchers from Clarkston University and the University of Georgia had subjects perform a battery of cognitive tests to assess motivation, mood, attention, and error rates. People that used caffeine in conjunction with cocoa (70 mg. caffeine, 179 mg of theobromine, 499 mg flavanols, and 1 packet Truvia sweetener) experienced less anxiety from the testing and performed better than the subjects in the caffeine only, cocoa only, or placebo groups.
The researchers found that "the combination of fatigue-fighting coffee and anxiety-reducing cocoa was the best combination for boosting attention span."
The researchers theorized that the theobromine and flavanols in cocoa binded to the adenosine or benzodiazepine receptors, thereby reducing anxiety. They cautioned, though, that another similar study showed that this anxiety-reducing effect might take up to 30 days of daily cocoa supplementation to take full effect, possibly because of receptor up-regulation.
Watch Out for "Dutched" Cocoa
If you want to experiment with adding cocoa to coffee, you need to find some cocoa that hasn't been exposed to "the Dutch process," or "Dutching." While it sounds like a natural processing method where Dutch maidens step on cocoa beans while wearing wooden shoes, Dutching actually involves treating the cocoa bean with alkali.
While it darkens the cocoa, reduces its bitterness, and makes it easier to mix, Dutching substantially reduces the flavanol content, not to mention cocoa's anti-oxidative efficiency.
While most cocoas have been Dutched, the Ghirardelli company makes an excellent non-Dutched product. Look for it, or other non-Dutched cocoas, in the baking section of the grocery store (not the hot beverage section, which is home to sugared, flavored cocoas used to make hot chocolate.)
How To Use Cocoa With Coffee
To enhance coffee's neuro-enhancing properties, lessen its anxiety-producing effects, and benefit from its health-promoting effects, combine as little as 500 mg. to as much as two or three grams of powdered cocoa with your coffee (a tablespoon would be about 5 grams). Feel free to add sweetener.
Be aware, though, that non-Dutched cocoa doesn't mix with liquid as well as heavily processed cocoas, so you need to get a little creative. You can either add a bit of cream or even a bit of coconut oil (or yes, even butter) to help turn the water and cocoa into an emulsion so that it mixes with the coffee. Alternatively, you could just stir your spoon like crazy and hope for the best.
- Ali Boolani, Jacob B. Lindheimer, Bryan D. Loy, Stephen. "Acute effects of brewed cocoa consumption on attention, motivation to perform cognitive work and feelings of anxiety, energy and fatigue: a randomized, placebo-controlled crossover experiment," BMC, 13 January 2017.
- "Effect of Treating Cocoa with Alkali: The Dutching Process," Life Extension News, Volume 16 No. 1, January 2013.