19 December 2007

Chocolate, Caffeine, and Theobromine - Oh My!

Branching from a different discussion about migraines, dehydration, and caffeine, I wanted to look up whether caffeine was dehydrating - I knew it was a diuretic, but I wanted to know if it more directly dehydrated. And then I got sidetracked by an article about a parrot dieing from chocolate overdose. So rather than having any sort of coherent picture for you today, I present you with some snippits of facts about chocolate, caffeine, and theobromine.

  • "In healthy adults, caffeine's half-life is approximately 3–4 hours. In women taking oral contraceptives this is increased to 5–10 hours" [Wikipedia, original source] In other words, caffeine affects women on the Pill for twice as long as it does for most other adults, but it probably affects people not on the Pill more quickly and more strongly.

  • Caffeine on its own is a stimulant in the body. Caffeine metabolizes in the liver into three different other chemicals - most becomes paraxanthine (84%, takes fat out of storage and into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar levels, and sugar is a stimulant), theobromine (12%, diuretic and a stimulant, is present in chocolate and is why most people mistakenly think that chocolate has lots of caffeine), and theophylline (4%, a good asthma treatment, but in much higher concentrations than produced by caffeine metabolism, also raises blood pressure). Each of these by products appears to be created by removing a CH_3 from caffeine and replacing it with a Hydrogen, the only question is which one gets removed; each of them has further stimulant effects. [Wikipedia: Caffeine, Theobromine]

  • Chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine, but significantly more theobromine, and only about as much caffeine as a cup of decaf coffee. Theobromine is often confused with caffeine however, and the media does not distinguish between the two, so the misconception that chocolate is a significant source of caffeine continues to perpetuate.

  • One of the ways caffeine works is that it "competes" with adenosine, so that it essentially stops adenosine from working. Adenosine is a depressant in the human nervous system, and its presence is related to the need for sleep; its lack means that dopamine instead begins to dominate - and dopamine is a stimulant, increasing heart rate and blood pressure.

  • In humans, theobromine has less of an effect on the nervous system than does caffeine, but has more of an effect on the heart. In addition, theobromine relaxes smooth muscles (ones that act involuntarily), such as dilating blood vessels (and thereby decreasing blood pressure) and bronchial tubes in the lungs (possibly explaining why I've always felt that caffeinated beverages help when I'm feeling allergic, as I also have allergy-triggered asthma).

  • For reasons unclear to me, most animals (including dogs, cats, and birds) process theobromine more slowly than humans, with the result that it affects them more strongly, leading to theobromine poisoning. Do NOT feed your pets any of your leftover holiday chocolates. It could be the last thing they eat.

Well, that's a bunch of disorganized facts for you. :-P I warn you of two things though, (1) "damnit Jim, I'm a doctor not an engineer!" I'm a astrophysicist, not a biologist, so it's possible I'm understanding some of this wrong; and (2) since I'm not on the clock, I used Wikipedia as my primary (nearly only) source rather than peer-reviewed journals, or even authoritative/reputable news sources, and as we all know, Wikipedia's biggest strength and weakness is that anyone can edit it. If you wish to contradict or clarify anything I mentioned here, I'd appreciate a concise quote from another source, as well as a link to it - I'm looking to learn! :)

ETA: Another link here to birds and theobromine.


Jeff Iversen said...

Great research! Alchohol is also a diuretic. I am wondering about the effect of some of the new energy drinks like "Sparks." They contain alchohol and caffeine. This is supposed to give you energy? All they need to do is put some nicotine in there and it would be complete. You could get a beer, a cigarette and a cup of coffee in one convenient beverage!
I talked to my vet about feeding chocolate to mey dog. He asked me how much my dog weighed (43#) and said that she would have to eat at least a pound of chocolate before it became a problem. I guess it would stop her from breathing.

Shane B Pereira said...

I'm interested what you write about the caffeine thing. What is the importance of it to our body? Some of my uncles use to drink coffee or tea very regularly so is there anything related to that?