Chocoholics rejoice!! There actually is a right way to love your chocolate, and it’s not just about eating less of it. The key to knowing which is which and why lies inside your mind and brain.
Anyone who really loves their chocolate knows that this wonderfully delicious food must contain a raft of psychoactive chemicals because, obviously.
It turns out that chocolate’s feel-good effects are a direct result of its impact on your neurophysiology and psychology.
Knowing what’s going on “under the hood” can help understand cravings, and make them work for you rather than against you.
This Is Your Brain On Chocolate
The cocoa bean contains a wide array of psychoactive properties, each of which nudge your neurons in different ways.
- Its anadamide stimulates the same cannabinoid brain receptors as marijuana.
- Chocolate’s theobromine may act synergistically with its caffeine within the brain to create a sense of pleasure.
- It also contains phenylethylamine, known as the love drug because it is also released naturally when people fall in love or experience intense pleasure.
- In addition to all these other feel good chemicals, chocolate also contains tryptophan, which can be converted into serotonin. The levels of tryptophan and serotonin are both associated with your emotional state: if they’re low, so are you.
- Brain PET scans reveal that chocolate consumption light up the pleasure areas of the brain. This is also related to the chocolate-stimulated release of endorphins.
This is all very suggestive, but just because chocolate is associated with all these neurochemicals linked to positive mood.
But the real question is intensely practical and personal. When you eat chocolate, does your mood actually improve? Are real world measures of anxiety changed, and in what direction?
The answer turns out to be yes and no. While that non-answer isn’t interesting, what is very interesting is the fact that chocolate “brings the happy” under specific conditions, but not in others. So once you know what those two conditions are, you can make sure all those upbeat brain chemicals work for you, not against you.
The Wrong Way: Chocolate Used As Treatment
Taking chocolate in response to emotions is a bad idea. This is what that looks like. “I had an incredibly awful day, I’m going to console myself with chocolate”, or “I had an incredibly awesome day, I’m going to celebrate with chocolate.”
One research group found that emotional eaters who used chocolate to treat their bad mood were actually more likely to have those negative feelings persist than those who didn’t use chocolate in this way.
In other words, when used as a treatment for existing anxiety or stress, chocolate made the negative feelings persist even longer.
And think about how this condition can very quickly slip out of control. If a person continues this strategy (eating chocolate to fix an emotional state), the mood doesn’t actually improve. This can increase anxiety and/or depression, which increases the chances of self-medicating even more. At that point, you’re sliding down a slippery chocolate slope straight into a bog of emotional awfulness.
The Right Way: Chocolate As Prevention
On the other hand, eating 40 grams of high cocoa chocolate (about 8 thumb-size pieces, or 1 ounce) every day for 2 weeks can help lower stress levels.
How? Consuming this amount of chocolate for this long is actually associated with a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol that floods your blood, can trigger fatty deposits, adrenal exhaustion, and even muscle wasting.
But does the statistical decrease in cortisol actually translate into you feeling less crappy? Less stressed? Less anxious? It’s one thing to measure a hormone in the context of some research study and show that the cortisol level in your blood stream moves up or down. But the real question is whether eating chocolate results in improved feelings in the long term.
As the continual bearer of good news, let me just tell you that the answer is a big, chocolaty yes. A 2010 study looked at the impact of cocoa polyphenols on two groups of people over an 8-week period. They gave one group 85% cocoa chocolate and the second group something that tasted just the same (it even had the same number of calories).
By the way, if you’re wondering how eating the equivalent of 9 thumb-size pieces of 85% cocoa chocolate daily impacted their weight, there was no weight gain at all after 8 weeks of eating this amount. Zero. Just one more reason to be happy!
So what happened?
Those eating the 85% cocoa chocolate reported a 35% reduction in fatigue, a 37% reduction in anxiety, and a 45% reduction in depression.
By comparison, those who ate the very same product without cocoa’s polyphenols reported slight increases in every one of those measures.
So if you’re responding to these stressors by using chocolate to basically self-medicate, your very best case scenario is that you’d just be treating symptoms. At worst, you are making the problem worse. The better solution is to have a little high-cocoa chocolate each and every day.
After all, it is good for your heart and mind when you take it slow, make it last, and think about it more as a One-A-Day than a Band-Aid.