Theobroma cacao, the Latin and traditional name for the cacao we know today, is of the Greek roots theo “god” and broma “food”, to mean “food of the gods”. Ancient history says the Theobroma cacao tree was given to the Aztecs and Mayans from the god Quetzalcóatl, one of the most important gods in ancient Mesoamerica. Known as the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcóatl is a mix of bird and rattlesnake, and was the God of winds and rain, and the creator of the world and humanity.
Shaped by many different cultures throughout history, cacao has long been used in rituals surrounding birth, marriage, religious ceremonies and death. This is where the relationship between cacao and mushrooms begins. The Aztec tradition of ceremoniously drinking cacao involved the use of other sacred foods, including the teonanacatl mushroom, which translates to “flesh of the gods”. This mushroom refers to the psilocybe mexicana, a psychedelic mushroom found native to Mesoamerica. It was believed that the energetics of the cacao would help to potentiate the spirit of the mushrooms, their medicine and psychoactive properties. So it is here that we see the food of the gods commune with the flesh of the gods.
Revered for its aphrodisiac, medicine potentiating properties, the sacred use of cacao was understood as a gateway to the divine. These traditional uses can now be understood scientifically as well. The chemical compounds of cacao on its own can initiate a cascade of enzymatic reactions that can have both mind and body altering effects. In relation to the sacred relationship between the use of psychedelic mushrooms and cacao in Aztec rituals, we now understand that an enzyme inhibitor called MAO inhibitor, is able to slowly break down the psychoactive compounds within the mushrooms, thus enhancing their effects and can be seen as a vehicle that gently extends and prolongs the experience.
Let’s better understand more of the compounds that make cacao so special, then we will get to the point about why having your medicinal mushrooms with cacao is a perfect pairing.
Anandamide is an endocannabinoid that is synthesised in areas of the brain that are important for memory, motivation, higher thought processes, movement control, and pleasure. It’s responsible for the blissful state we can experience from activities like yoga or meditation, often referred to as the “bliss molecule” as it can produce feelings of euphoria. So that explains why a hot chocolate can make you so damn happy.
More commonly known as the "the love chemical", PEA is a neurotransmitter that stimulates the central nervous system to release the body's natural opium-like compounds called endorphins. Stimulating the brain’s pleasure centres, it elevates mood, alertness, focus and mental acuity. It’s the giddy excited feeling someone gets when falling in love, or is feeling a sense of lust/attraction.
Serotonin and Tryptophan
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that is commonly known as the "feel-good chemical." and cacao supports the body to produce its own serotonin, naturally. Serotonin plays an important role in combating stress, improving mood and promoting feelings of comfort, contentment, happiness, relaxation, and well-being. Tryptophan is also found in cacao, and is another neurotransmitter that acts as a precursor to serotonin.
Cacao contains high levels of magnesium, with over 300 enzymatic reactions requiring it to function. Magnesium helps increase energy, calms the nervous system, supports sleep and digestion and relaxes the muscles.
Theobromine and Caffeine
Theobromine is one of the primary alkaloids derived from the cacao plant. It is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes smooth muscle and improves blood flow, and overall heart function. Cacao also contains small amounts of caffeine, which can stimulate the nervous system and increase feeling of alertness.
Cacao contains a class of polyphenol antioxidants called flavonoids, such as epicatechin, catechin, and procyanidins. Flavonoids are a kind of antioxidant that protects the body from ageing and disease, as well as cardioprotective effects that help to reduce blood pressure and support a healthy cardiovascular system.
So we have covered the history and the science of cacao, and now let’s talk about our favourite thing in the world - Taoist tonic herbs and medicinal mushrooms.
“Chinese herbal medicine first evolved high up in the misty mountains of ancient China, as a by-product of Taoist hermits’ perpetual search for the elusive Elixir of Life purported to confer immortality to humans.”
- ‘A Handbook of Chinese Healing Herbs’
By Daniel Reid, 1995.
The Asian medical system has long-held reverence for mushrooms as functional foods and powerful herbs, and the first known herbal pharmacopoeia in China, the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, includes many species of mushroom still known today. It also provides the foundation of tonic herbalism, through the lense of the classification system - superior, regular and inferior herbs. We love focusing on the superior herbs, those that nourish, support and rebuild the body on an energetic and physical level. If you want to learn more, check out our articles on medicinal mushrooms and tonic herbalism.
So, we understand that the medicine of the mushroom kingdom and the medicine of cacao have been intertwined in a sacred love affair for centuries. Does this relationship translate to the medicinal, tonic herbs and mushrooms that we love to use and share here at SuperFeast?
Oh, you know it does.
The chemical compounds of the cacao we mentioned earlier, weave their magic with that of the mushrooms, allowing the body to absorb the medicinal benefits of the mushrooms as they drive deeper into the organ systems and the body as a whole. The vasodilator actions of cacao help to relax the blood vessels, allowing the blood to circulate with more ease and vitality, this also supports the smooth flow of Qi to the organ systems that the tonic herbs are targeting.
The natural fats within the cacao butter (especially if you are using a raw ceremonial grade cacao), can also act as an ideal carrier mechanism that helps your tissues absorb the mushrooms more effectively.
Then there is the final, yet perhaps the most important factor, cacao tastes amazing.
You can create so many delicious hot chocolate tonic recipes that can help you to integrate the tonic herbs and medicinal mushrooms into your daily routine with more ease, and it just brings a little extra joy to your day. Try some of our favourite recipes if you are new to the tonic making life.