Craving chocolate? You’re not the only one. I eat a little everyday. I like it in the afternoon, in place of coffee or tea. I like it in the evenings, when I’m trying to relax and unwind from the tangled day. I like it when I’m feeling emotionally low or physically drained. I like it all the time really.
When I went through my first real struggles with depression at 19, my first advice came from Dad: “Chocolate always makes me feel better.” And while chocolate didn’t quite carry me through that rough year, it did its part.
While chocolate shouldn’t be your only coping mechanism, it can be an accepted one.
Chocolate is Healthful: We’ve all heard that chocolate is chalk-full of antioxidants, having significantly more per ounce then any other food or beverage. This means that chocolate helps you detoxify and fight aging. Some researchers chocolate can reduce cholesterol and blood-pressure, as well as balance your hormones. Of course, the sugar and additives (like hydrogenated oils) in your chocolate are not so healthy. So, for the tastiest, most beneficial boost, go for dark chocolate with recognizable ingredients: cocoa liquor/solids/mass (same things), sugar, (you need some), cocoa butter (left over from processing cocoa beans into cocoa powder), vanilla (not the artificial vanillin), and soy lecithin (to make it smooth and solid). This is what makes Hershey’s superior to Godiva.
Chocolate is Fascinating: A little history: Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cocoa tree. Seed pods are harvested twice a year, by hand, and fermented underground. The seeds are then sun-dried, roasted, smooshed, and then turned into something yummy. Chocolate’s first documented use is by the Mayan in 200-900 AD. Mayans drank chocolate (though they didn’t have sugar so it was mighty bitter), used it in ceremonies, and it was their currency as well. The Aztecs adopted the practice, and it was exported to Europe via the Spaniards. Currently, the U.S. is only the eighth largest consumer of chocolate, at 11 pounds annually per person. Switzerland, whose citizens consume more than 21 pounds per person each year, is in the lead. But it wasn’t always eaten purely for pleasure. Chocolate has always been used and viewed medicinally, so let me reeducate you on it’s properties in modern scientific terms.
Chocolate Feels Good: Chocolate really does make you feel better when you are stressed, and has been shown to decrease stress and the “flight and flight” response. Pure chocolate contains over 380 known chemicals. Here are a few responsible for its feel-good effects:
- Anandamide, a lipid naturally found in the brain, can bind to the same receptors as THC (The active chemical in marijuana is called tetrahydrocannabinol)and thus release dopamine. But you’d have to eat 25 lbs of chocolate to have as much dopamine released as THC does, and even then THC affects much more of the brain than anandamide does. Chocolate produces more of the naturally-occurring anandamide, and releases other chemicals to prevent the short-lived lipid from breaking down. The name anandamide comes from the Sanskrit ananda, bliss.
- Opiates: chemicals, such as those found in opium, that produce a feeling of well-being (euphoria). Eating chocolate causes the brain to produce natural opiates, which dull pain and increase feelings of well-being.
- Amphetamines: Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine. Like amphetamines, this chemical causes blood pressure and blood-sugar levels to rise, resulting in feelings of alertness and contentment. Phenylethylamine has been called the “love-drug” because it quickens your pulse… which hardly seems the same as love to me. But I do LOVE chocolate.
- Caffeine in chocolate is minimal (12 Hershey bars = 1 cup coffee), but lovely.
- Theobromine is another stimulant found in chocolate that can, in addition to acting similarly to caffeine, lead to mental and physical relaxation. It can increase alertness as well as cause headaches. Other stimulants in chocolate include methylxanthines. Theobromine comes from the Greek theobroma, “food of the gods”.
- Aphrodisiac? Combine phenylethylamine’s ability to quicken the heart, the feelings of euphoria from anandamide, theobromine’s power to cause relaxation, and the other neurotransmitters sending pleasurable feelings throughout the brain.
Chocolate Tells You To Slow Down When you crave chocolate, you may be stressed, tired, or overwhelmed. If you are really self-aware as you dump that handful of chocolate chips into your mouth, you might want to think about activating some other coping strategies. You need a break. What can you do to help you slow down, check in, and de-stress before you erupt? Try some of the other suggestions on the blog to help you manage stress and stay grounded in the long-term. And do keep enjoying the chocolate.
Warning: Please don’t share chocolate with your littlest ones. Just two ounces of chocolate can be fatal to a dog because it can not digest the theobromine. Chocolate can also make some small children sick and cause migraines for the same reason.
Three chocolate candies and one glass of red wine were consumed during the writing of this post.
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