If you have a hacking cough that just doesn’t seem to go away, dark chocolate may help. One of the beneficial components of chocolate is the antioxidant theobroma cocoa or theobromine.

While theobromine is toxic to dogs and other mammals, the active ingredient provides numerous health benefits for humans.

Theobromine, which provides chocolate’s bitter taste, is present in higher amounts in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate. Similar to caffeine, the phytochemical has diuretic properties. Unlike caffeine, theobromine, however, is not a central nervous system stimulant.

Theobromine has both a stimulant and relaxing effects, lowering blood pressure by dilating blood vessels. 

Theobromine & Respiratory Health

Research shows that theobromine may be helpful to treat asthma and other respiratory problems. Studies with both guinea pigs and humans demonstrated that theobromine impeded the coughing triggers of citric acid and capsaicin, possibly inhibiting the activation of the vagus nerve, which runs from the lungs to the brain. 

Additionally, theobromine has anti-inflammatory benefits, which may help modulate airway reactivity in bronchial tissue.

Chocolate & Coughs

Researchers in London and in Budapest looked at the effects of theobromine on persistent coughs, comparing the impact of chocolate compared to codeine. What they found was that theobromine was a third more effective as codeine, which is conventionally prescribed to suppress persistent coughs.

Volunteers were given either theobromine, codeine, and placebo and then were triggered with a concentration of capsaicin to produce a cough. The group who had taken theobromine required a third higher concentration to produce a cough compared to the placebo group, and the codeine group needed only a slightly higher concentration than the placebo group.

Chocolate or the active ingredient theobromine may suppress coughs without the side effect of medication.

Chocolate vs. Cough Medicine

A few squares of dark chocolate or a cup of cocoa is tastier than cough syrup but there are other benefits to choosing theobromine over that over the counter or prescription serum.

Cough medication falls under two categories:


Suppressants such as dextromethorphan bring numerous health risks along with cough suppression and are ineffective at addressing coughs from asthma, smoking, or emphysema. 

Side effects include severe dizziness, restlessness, or agitation; confusion, hallucinations, and shallow breathing, as well as stomach upset and hives.

Doctors advise limiting the use of cough suppressants as briefly as needed. The medication should not be taken with MAO inhibitors, antidepressant medication, or alcohol, as well as other medications.

In high doses, these medications may cause fatal liver injury, cardiovascular effects, and over-sedation.


Cough expectorants such as guaifenesin, which work by thinning mucus secretions, may interact with other medications, including other cough or cold medication. Possible side effects include nausea and vomiting, as well as more rarely occurring allergic reactions or rashes, difficulty breathing, itching, and dizziness.

Liquid expectorants may include sugar and/or alcohol, which may be hazardous for certain medical conditions.

The Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend cough medicine for children under 6 and people diagnosed with a medical condition such as heart disease or hypertension should check with a doctor before using. 


Historically, codeine cough suppressants have been commonly prescribed by physicians for particularly persistent coughs, but more recent studies show that codeine is no more effective than a placebo at addressing coughs from either upper respiratory infections or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Codeine has a long list of side effects, including:

♦ Drowsiness

♦ Dizziness

♦ Blurred vision

♦ Nausea, upset stomach, constipation

♦ Dry mouth

♦ Mood changes

♦ Ringing in ears

♦ Tremors

♦ Trouble urinating

♦ Weakness

♦ Easy bruising

♦ Slow or irregular heartbeat

♦ Allergic reactions: rash, swelling, itching, severe dizziness, trouble breathing

The Federal Drug Administration has restricted the use of codeine in children under 12 and in adolescents under 18. Codeine cough suppressants contain the narcotic hydrocodone, in addition to other medications.

Continued use may lead to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, sweating, shaking, chills, nausea, and vomiting.

Chocolate and its active component theobromine may bring relief without the long list of side effects and complications. Why not try this delicious recipe the next time you or a family member has a cough?


This homemade cough syrup contains several ingredients that may be useful to suppress coughs.

Honey: Soothes and coats the throat; antiviral and antibacterial properties. Numerous studies support honey is more effective than over the counter cough medication, especially in children.

Cayenne: Is a source of capsaicin, a pain reliever that disrupts the messaging between the nerves and the brain. Cayenne also increases blood flow and promotes healing.

Cinnamon: Has antiviral, antibacterial, and antispasmodic properties and is especially useful with tickly coughs.

Cacao Powder: Does not contain any fillers such as lecithin, sugar, or milk solids and contains the highest concentration of theobromine.

Spicy Hot Chocolate Cough Syrup


1 cup raw honey

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup raw cacao powder or cocoa powder

1/16 - 1/18 teaspoon cayenne


1.Place honey in a bowl with enough room to stir vigorously. If the honey is particularly stiff, warm just slightly to soften and mix the mixture in the saucepan.

2. Add cinnamon, cocoa powder, and cayenne, then whisk or stir until the mixture is completely homogenous and smooth. It will be thick and will fall in smooth ribbons.

3. Pour into a clean jar or bottle and store at room temperature for up to six months. If the mixture crystallizes, simply reheat by setting the jar in warm water.

For adults, take 1 tablespoon and for children, take 1 teaspoon as often as needed.


The syrup can be quite thick, so it's sometimes helpful to tilt your head back as you lick it off the spoon. You want all the honey and cayenne goodness to be coating your throat, not your tongue, as much as possible.

Also, if children are absolutely averse to taking this off the spoon, it may be stirred into a small amount of hot milk and served as hot chocolate. It's not as effective, but if that's the only way your child will take it, it's definitely acceptable.

Other Natural Cough Suppressants

Probiotics: These microorganisms balance the gastrointestinal tract and support the immune system. Studies show that Lactobacillus may decrease the risk for cold or flu, as well as certain allergies.

Dairy may increase the thickness of phlegm but a probiotic supplement may be helpful, as well as probiotics from active yogurt, miso, and even sourdough bread.

Bromelain: This enzyme found in the fruit and stem of pineapples can be effective as both a  cough suppressant and an expectorant. Either eat a slice of pineapple or drink four ounces of fresh juice. A bromelain supplement may also be effective but should not be taken by children or adults who take blood thinners.

Peppermint: Menthol soothes the throat and is a decongestant. Peppermint can be used as a tea or to breathe in vapors from a steam bath of peppermint oil in hot water.

The Bottom Line

Over the counter and prescription cough medications can bring numerous side effects, some potentially dangerous, and may not be as effective as their natural counterparts. 

Theobromine, an active ingredient in chocolate, can be a natural cough suppressant, inhibiting the coughing reflex and providing anti-inflammatory benefits. 

Additional natural ingredients that may help with coughs include honey, cayenne, cinnamon, and peppermint.

Probiotics, found in supplements and in fermented foods, and bromelain, found in pineapple and in digestive enzyme supplements, may help with coughs and boost the immune system to provide protection against coughs and flu.