The Risks of Snorting Cacao Powder

wooden spoon with cacao powder
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Club goers in Europe and the U.S. are snorting lines of raw cacao powder, used to make chocolate, as well as taking cacao pills and drinking cacao-infused drinks for their latest “natural highs.”

Unlike phencyclidine (PCP or angel dust), MDMA (ecstasy or Molly), and cocaine, cacao isn’t considered a controlled substance by the U.S. government; in other words, sniffing cacao isn’t illegal. Furthermore, there’s only scattered and scant research on the neurological effects of cacao and chocolate.

In an attempt to contextualize the apparent highs derived from cacao, let’s take a more detailed look at what cacao is composed of as well as the research attempting to explain its effects, vis-à-vis chocolate, on the central nervous system.

Composition of Cacao

The cacao bean contains more than 50% fat. Other components of cacao include protein and other nitrogen-containing compounds, such as theobromines and caffeine. Between 20% and 25% of the cacao bean is sugar or carbohydrates.

As any health-conscious person likely knows, cacao is rich in antioxidants, including flavonoids like epicatechin and catechin. When the cacao bean is processed into cocoa powder and chocolate by means of fermentation and roasting, it loses much of its antioxidant content.

Cacao contains multifarious other compounds with potential biologic and psychoactive effects including:

  • Phenylethylamine
  • Serotonin
  • Tryptophan
  • Tryptamine
  • Tyramine
  • Tyrosine
  • Anandamide
  • Salsolinol
  • Tetrahydro-b-carbolines

Several of these compounds are metabolized by the body before they ever make it to circulation. Specifically, the biologic amines serotonin, tryptophan, phenylethylamine, tyramine, tyrosine, and tryptamine are broken down by monoamine oxidases in the kidneys, liver, and intestines. (People who are deficient in monoamine oxidases must avoid chocolate so as not to develop headaches and high blood pressure.)

Potential Cognitive Effects of Snorting Cacao Powder

It’s a stretch to call cacao or chocolate a drug. However, because chocolate cravings are somewhat similar to symptoms of substance dependence, some researchers have been inspired to examine the mechanistic effects of chocolate on the brain.

Anandamide Compounds: Two analogs of anandamide are found in chocolate. These anandamide analogs are similar to cannabinoids (marijuana) and may result in euphoria. Instead of directly causing euphoria, however, these anandamide compounds exert a more circuitous effect by inhibiting the breakdown of endogenous anandamide which are already produced in the body.

Serotonin Effects: Serotonin moderates a number of physiological processes in the body, including sleep, impulse control, and appetite. For a long time, experts hypothesized that serotonin linked food cravings and mood and that craving for chocolate and carbohydrates somehow sated serotonin deficiencies—especially in those people who are depressed.

In fact, studies involving people with seasonal affective disorder and atypical depression somewhat support this hypothesis. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of chocolate craving as a biological response to depression is most obviously undercut by the fact that many people with melancholic depression don’t crave food at all.

Another reason the hypothesis that chocolate consumption is linked to serotonin and positive mood may be flawed has to do with research that suggests serotonin levels are raised only after consumption of foods that are less than two percent protein; calorically, chocolate is five percent protein.

Research published in 2013 also suggests that the mood benefits of chocolate and carbohydrates occur independently of serotonin, suggesting that these mood benefits are likely much more complex than can be explained by serotonin alone.

Opioid Effects: People who are dependent on heroin and other opioids often crave sweets like chocolate. Additionally, other physical states including pregnancy, menstruation, alcohol dependence, and eating disorders also change endogenous, or intrinsic, opioid levels in the body. These associations have led experts to suggest that opioids and chocolate are associated in some way.

Research from 2010 tends to support this hypothesis. Specifically, endorphins, which are opioids, are released after eating delicious foods like chocolate. Moreover, the release of such endorphins after eating chocolate or something else that’s sweet and palatable appears to produce analgesia, or pain relief, as well as mood elevation.

Moreover, the analgesic effect of sweet stuff like sugar solutions and chocolate can be reversed by naltrexone, an opioid antagonist which is also given to people who experience heroin opioid dependence.

Catechin and Epicatechin: The flavonoids catechin and epicatechin present in cacao rapidly make their way into circulation after consumption of chocolate. Furthermore, based on animal studies, epicatechin and catechin cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain. This accumulation of flavonoids may exert beneficial cognitive effects.

Cerebral Blood Flow: In order for our brains to function well, we need good cerebral blood flow or circulation. Proper cerebral circulation is necessary to supply glucose and oxygen to the brain and clear waste products.

Research suggests that cacao, wine, grapes, berries, tomatoes, and soy are all polyphenol-rich foods that promote vasodilation of brain blood vessels and thus enhance brain circulation. These brain effects may help explain improved motivation, attention, concentration, memory, visual tasks, and other cognitive and cerebral benefits of cacao.

Interestingly, flavonoids present in cacao may also decrease blood-vessel endothelial senescence in those who eat it, suggesting anti-aging effects. In other words, chocolate may help make your brain younger. Flavonoids may also protect neurons from damage caused by neurotoxins, reduce inflammation of neurons, and improve learning, memory, and cognitive function.

Dopamine Effects: People no longer eat predominantly to satisfy energy deficits but rather eat mostly for pleasure. If you’ve ever had dessert at a restaurant after stuffing yourself on appetizers and the main course, you may agree.

The mesolimbic dopaminergic system is involved in the effects of drugs of misuse. Consumption of cacao and chocolate may also activate the body’s dopamine receptors. This activation is likely not specific to chocolate per se and caused by the consumption of other foods, too.

The Link Between Chocolate and Mood

In one research study funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and a grant from Pfizer, Australian researchers examined chocolate craving in people with depression, atypical depression, and certain personality traits (neuroticism). Hyperphagia, or excess eating, is a prominent symptom in those with atypical depression.

Researchers analyzed online survey responses from 2692 participants—soliciting data on depressive symptoms, demographics, treatments of depressive episodes, personality constructs, and whether chocolate was craved when depressed.

All survey respondents were more than 18 years old, with the average age being 40 years old. Research participants experienced depressive symptoms for two or more weeks. About 71% of the survey respondents were women, 74% had taken antidepressant medications in the past, and 78% had received counseling or other forms of psychotherapy.

Among survey respondents, 54% reported food cravings, with 45% craving chocolate specifically. Additionally, among those respondents who craved chocolate, 61% attested to the capacity of chocolate to improve their mood. Chocolate "cravers" also said that chocolate made them feel less annoyed and anxious. Researchers also found that chocolate was craved by people with neuroticism and that chocolate craving was indicative of atypical depression.

Although results from this study generally point to the improved mood among people who consume cacao-derived chocolate, there are some issues that limit the applicability and generalizability of these findings. First, the results of this study were self-reported and not validated by the researchers. Second, the participants had depression and possibly neuroticism, and the researchers didn’t examine people without depression and neuroticism. In other words, these results don’t automatically apply to people without depression or possibly neuroticism. Presumably, many club-goers who snort cacao don’t have depression or neuroses.

What It All Means

We might never know exactly whether the “natural high” experienced after snorting lines of cacao is, in fact, specific to chocolate or a placebo effect. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI):

“The placebo effect is defined as a physiological response following the administration of a pharmacologically inert ‘remedy.’ The word placebo means ‘I will please,’ and the placebo effect has a long history of use (and abuse) in medicine. The reality of the effect is undisputed.”

Research suggests that cacao and chocolate do exert some mood and cognitive effects. The mechanism of such activity likely involves various neurotransmitters and so forth. In other words, there’s probably no one single reason why these substances elevate mood.  

There are issues, however, with the claim that snorting cacao is natural. Except for your fingers, sticking anything up your nose is unnatural and, unless directed by your physician, refrain from snorting anything. Even over-the-counter (OTC) nasal decongestants can have adverse effects if used excessively—notably the development of rebound congestion which can result in a vicious cycle of dependence for the user.

A couple of concerns that come to mind when people snort foreign substances are inflammation and infection. Foreign substances introduced into the respiratory tract can cause inflammation that, in turn, can predispose a person to infection. If a person often engages in late-night clubbing, drinking, illicit drug use, and cacao sniffing, the immune system can get run down and predisposed to respiratory infection, especially in the presence of inflammation. 

Please note that these concerns are specific to sniffing cacao and don’t necessarily apply to cacao pills or cacao-infused drinks, which apparently also lead to anecdotal highs. Nevertheless, it’s always best to use caution whenever you buy something novel and unregulated.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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