Oh chocolate; how we love it so. We eat it when we are happy, we serve it at celebrations and use it to show affection when we are feeling amorous; Hersey’s Kiss, anyone? We eat it when we are sad, we send it in gift baskets to show sympathy to others and we devour it in high doses when we are feeling lonely; Hersey’s Hug, anyone? No matter what the emotion or situation, there’s a Hersey’s for that. While I’m sure that team Snickers and team Kit Kat will argue that their confections work just as well, if not better, the point is that chocolate is synonymous with our happy place. We seem to be convinced that it has occult powers that can enhance the tolerability of any circumstance. To put it plainly, chocolate makes us feel good. To achieve the energetic and emotional stimulation of chocolate we will travel to supermarkets and specialty shops and even have it shipped to us in bulk. We crave it, but why? Have you ever wondered why we look to the “food of the gods” for comfort and a remedy for emotional turmoil? And just who were the first group of people who munched on cacao seeds and said, “oh I feel great?”
As early as 1900 B.C, “Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations found chocolate to be an invigorating drink, mood enhancer and aphrodisiac, which led them to believe that it possessed mystical and spiritual qualities. The Mayans worshipped a god of cacao and reserved chocolate for rulers, warriors, priests and nobles at sacred ceremonies” (Klein, 2014). These Mesoamerican natives have been credited with introducing cacao to the world. With that said, I have a question with respect to how much the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America understood about the chemicals included in cacao and whether they had knowledge of any psychotropic effects that the beans had on those who consumed them. Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of the book The True History of Chocolate, state that “psychologists tend to dismiss the possibility that any one of the myriad chemical compounds that constitute chocolate, or any combination of them, could have a physical effect on the consumer” (Coe, 1993), but what effects does it have on the mind? Does chocolate really affect one’s mood, and if yes, is it a psychotropic stimulant or an inhibitor? Cacao and its believed benefits were discovered centuries ago. Since that time the concentration of actual cacao included in drinks and edibles has been significantly reduced. In the United States, the FDA only requires that confections contain at least 10 percent cacao in order to be labeled as chocolate (Chocolate, As Defined By FDA, 2015). With this dilution of cacao, it seems arguable that the benefits received by consuming chocolate would be significantly decreased when compared to the euphoric or mind-altering reaction that the Mesoamericans would have experienced. This blog intends to focus on the psychological benefits of cacao, particularly on depression and whether it can be altered based of the levels of cacao concentration
Depression is one of the most common mood disorders in the United States. There are several types of depression. These types include persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia), postpartum depression, psychotic depression and seasonal affective disorder. The symptoms associated with these types of depression can range from mild “blues” to more severe and even suicidal actions. The National Institute of Mental Health lists the risk factors for depression as having personal or family history of depression, major life changes, trauma or stress and certain physical illnesses and medications (Depression, 2018). That being said, there are treatment options for even the most severe cases of depression. Most cases can be managed by antidepressant medications. The effects of these medications can take up to four weeks to be realized. It is suggested by medical professionals that patients continue taking their medication up to 12 months before stopping or requesting a decreased dosage. Studies show that holistic treatments for depression can be effective alternatives to pharmaceutical options. According to Dr. Hervé Robert, author of Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat, “the caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine that chocolate contains make it a tonic, and an anti-depressive and anti-stress agent, enhancing pleasurable activities, including making love” (Coe, 1993).
Live Science reports that though chocolate can induce a high from the stimulants that it contains such as tyramine and phenylethylamine, however the potency of these compounds is too low to serve as an antidepressant. “Chocolate may interact with neurotransmitter systems that contribute to appetite, reward and mood regulation, such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins, according to the 2013 article in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP). However, the authors noted, the effects may have more to do with chocolate’s taste and smell than its chemical effects” (Szalay, 2018). BJCP found that though “It is a common belief that eating chocolate can improve mood states and make people feel good. Chocolate is often associated with emotional comfort. This effect seems to be linked to the capacity of carbohydrates including chocolate to promote this type of positive feelings through the release of multiple gut and brain peptides” (Nehlig, 2013).
Though this research indicates that the euphoria associated with chocolate is all in our heads, contrast to these scientific findings, popular polling would conclude that consuming chocolate definitely has a major chemical affect. Bryn Mawr College student, Kristen Coveleskie, would agree that chocolate has healing powers. She wanted to research the best things to take to a friend in the hospital and found that “One of the more unique neurotransmitters released by chocolate is phenyl ethylamine. This so called “chocolate amphetamine” causes changes in blood pressure and blood-sugar levels leading to feelings of excitement and alertness. It works like amphetamines to increase mood and decrease depression, but it does not result in the same tolerance or addiction. Phenyl ethylamine is also called the “love drug” because it causes your pulse rate to quicken, resulting in a similar feeling to when someone is in love” (Coveleskie, 2004). Coveleskie also found that the effects of eating diluted chocolate to only nominal. Particularly, the United States only requires that a product contain 10% of cacao for it to qualify as chocolate, while other countries such as Germany have a higher requirement. She suggests eating chocolate that contains at least a 30% cacao.
In contrast to BJCP’s findings that chocolate is more of a comfort food than an actual emotional stimulant, A Moment of Science reports that chocolate is actually a drug, like cannabis or opiates. “Chocolate also contains a cannabinoid, a drug similar to the cannabis in marijuana, which produces feelings of euphoria and well-being. Other chemicals, that inhibit the breakdown of cannabinoids naturally produced by your brain, prolong this feeling long after chocolate is consumed. As if the opiate and cannabinoid high aren’t enough, chocolate also contains theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine, and phenyl ethylamine, a chemical thought to be related to the feeling of love. (Chocolate-a drug?, n.d.) An article posted on Everyday Health lists 10 delicious reasons to eat chocolate; fighting depression is one of them. The article says that good mood starts with good diet. Among the foods recommended in the article is dark chocolate. “Dark chocolate helps to release serotonin and relaxes the blood vessels of the cardiovascular system” (Myers, 2018). Another article on this site says that chocolate containing at least 65 percent cacao is the most effective.
With reports that supports chocolate’s mood lifting abilities and popular belief that like these, I was ready to establish in a lifelong regime of daily truffles and bon-bons, that was until a little more digging uncovered an article on Psychology Today that says more chocolate could mean more depression, and even an increase in suicide rates. The article faults added ingredients such as trans-fats and fillers, which has “detrimental effects on the brain” (Deans, 2015). This study subscribes to the idea that a higher the cacao content, means a higher flavanol and polyphenol concentration, which will be more beneficial to consumers. The article recommends a dose of cocoa containing 500 mg of polyphenols over a 30 day period in order to improve mood.
Chocolate, As Defined By FDA. (2015). Retrieved from Registrar Corp: http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate
Chocolate-a drug? (n.d.). Retrieved from Moment of Science: indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/mind-altering-chocolate
Coe, S. D. (1993). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson LTD.
Coveleskie, K. (2004). Chocolate On The Brain. Retrieved from Serendip.Brynmawr.edu: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro04/web1/kcoveleskie.html
Deans, E. M. (2015). Your Brain on Chocolate. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201505/your-brain-chocolate
Depression. (2018). Retrieved from National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml
Klein, C. (2014). The Sweet History of Chocolate. Retrieved from History.com: https://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate
Myers, W. (2018). 8 Foods That Fight Depression. Retrieved from Everyday Health: http://www.everydayhealth.com/depression-pictures/8-foods-that-fight-depression.aspx
Nehlig, A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.
Szalay, J. (2018). Chocolate Facts, Effects & History. Retrieved from Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/61754-chocolate-facts.html