While enjoying a cup of hot cacao might feel more akin to the holiday season or the cold winter months, some research indicates that it might actually be a great way to assist with getting a good night’s rest. We spoke with a registered dietitian who shared more about the benefits of cacao powder, including its anti-inflammatory properties and nutrient content. What’s more, I tested drinking it nightly for a week to see its impact on my ability to get restful sleep. More ahead on why I’ll be sipping on a cup of "hot chocolate tea" from here on out when I’m feeling tense ahead of bedtime, and exactly when to do so to reap its potential sleepytime benefits.
- Christina Manian, RDN, registered dietitian and freelance writer
Health benefits of cacao tea
First things first, it’s important to distinguish the differences between cacao and cocoa. Although they may sound alike, according to Christina Manian, RDN, a Boulder-based registered dietitian and sustainable food systems professional, the two differ in their processing method. “Cocoa powder is the product of roasting cacao, which brings out its chocolatey flavor and is what goes on to become chocolate. Cacao, on the other hand, isn't roasted, which helps maintain its antioxidant and nutritional benefits,” Manian says. She notes that you can benefit from eating both in their unsweetened powdered or nib form.
That said, we’ll focus on the abundant benefits of cacao, which is filled with many antioxidant-rich and anti-inflammatory fighting nutrients. “Cacao is full of plant compounds, or phytochemicals, specifically from the flavonoid group. These compounds are powerful antioxidants that help to reduce inflammation throughout the body,” Manian says. What’s more, she notes that cacao powder is a great vegan source of iron and calcium, which help maintain healthy red blood cell counts and strong bones. “Studies have shown that cacao can benefit our brain health, heart health, gut health, and help to reduce blood sugar,” Manian says.
“Cacao is full of plant compounds, or phytochemicals, specifically from the flavonoid group. These compounds are powerful antioxidants that help to reduce inflammation throughout the body.”—Christina Manian, RD
Along with these benefits, a 2020 study found that consuming cocoa improved stress-induced chronic sleep disorders in mice, such as insomnia and circadian sleep disorders. In the experiment, mice that consumed dietary cocoa had less nocturnal wheel-running activities provoked by stress-induced chronic sleep disorders (CSDs). That said, Manian notes that cacao does contain some caffeine—about half that of a cup of tea per tablespoon—which may seem counterintuitive if sleep is the goal. “If you’re sensitive to caffeine, I would recommend consuming cacao powder or tea earlier in the day; otherwise, if small amounts of caffeine don’t keep you up at night, a cup of hot cacao could be a lovely—and healthy—alcohol-free nightcap to enjoy,” Manian says.
“If you’re sensitive to caffeine, I would recommend consuming cacao powder or tea earlier in the day; otherwise, if small amounts of caffeine don’t keep you up at night, a cup of hot cacao could be a lovely—and healthy—alcohol-free nightcap to enjoy," Manian says.
If a hot cacao beverage isn’t quite your cup of (ahem) tea, Manian also says that there are plenty of other great ways to consume cacao, including in smoothies, mixed into a yogurt parfait or oatmeal, on peanut butter toast, in baked goods, or in savory dishes like chili or mole for a rich depth of flavor. And while there are many great ways to consume cacao, she says it’s always important to ensure you’re buying high-quality pure cacao without additives like sugar, which can diminish its health benefits.
I tried drinking cacao tea, and I finally felt well-rested come morning time
Although I don’t always struggle with falling asleep, I do battle with getting deeply restful sleep. Usually, this means that I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and cannot fall back asleep after a 2 a.m. bathroom break for several (frustrating) hours. What’s worse, there are many times when I sleep through the night, but I wake up feeling as if I only got a few hours of sleep and feel even more tired than I did heading to bed in the first place.
To remedy this, I’ve been working to implement a sleep routine lately, which has worked wonders for me. Part of my sleep routine includes sipping on a warm, soothing beverage as I wind down for the night. Although my go-to is usually chamomile tea, I recently decided to switch things up and sip cacao tea instead. (As a chocolate lover, it took minimal convincing, obviously.) So, every day before bed—except two evenings—I sipped on a 10-ounce serving of hot cacao tea (made by combining one tablespoon of Navitas Organics Cacao Powder with hot water) in my favorite Ember Temperature Control Smart Mug.
During the first week of my experimentation, I started sipping on the tea about one hour before bedtime. However, since I’m highly sensitive to caffeine, I would experience a minor surge in energy before hitting the hay. Again, let me stress the very minor part—it easily could’ve gone unnoticed. That said, though my rest felt fine overall, to play it safe, I decided to start my nightly ritual a bit earlier than usual—two hours ahead of bedtime instead of one—which I found was key during my second week of sipping cacao tea for better sleep.
In the second week, I began seeing a positive trend. When I switched my cacao tea intake to two hours before bedtime, I noticed two significant differences: I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, and I felt much more rested come morning time. Usually, when I wake up in the morning, I usually feel groggy and sluggish and have difficulty concentrating first thing in the day. However, after consuming cacao tea, I felt noticeably more well-rested shortly after waking up—like I actually got eight hours of adequate sleep, which I did.
Unlike when I drink chamomile tea—which makes me feel calm and tranquil in a relatively short period of time—the sleepytime effects of cacao tea aren’t as immediate. As I mentioned, I get a slight surge of energy after consuming it, but then I can drift away into a deep slumber and wake up feeling fully refreshed—which is not something that generally happens to me.
Aside from this, the drink is packed with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that also help reduce stress—and that is why I’ll be sipping it on the reg from here on out. It’s a 10 out of 10 for me.
An herbalist explains the benefits of cacao:
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