Ever since the Spaniards discovered the new world, and along with it, discovered chocolate, chocolate consumption has been associated with medicinal benefits.
In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe tell us:
“the Spaniards had stripped [chocolate] of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, a medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered. It is hardly surprising to find that it was under this guise that chocolate travelled in Europe, from one court to another, from noble house to noble house, from monastery. But it soon became a medicine that was appreciated for its taste, its filling nature, and its stimulation.” (Coe and Coe 126)
We have several early Spanish attestations to medicinal properties of the newly discovered chocolate. Girolamo Benzoni, author of the History of the New World (1575), was among the first to write of chocolate’s beneficial effects on the body, though he did not exactly liken it to medicine or medicinal effects. He writes that chocolate “satisfies and refreshes the body” (Coe and Coe 110). These generalized benefits of chocolate consumption for the body soon developed into medicinal effects, as the Spanish began to encorporate chocolate consumption into their Galenic views of medicine (Coe and Coe 122). In 1570, Philip II had sent his Royal Physician Francisco Hernández to Mesoamerica on what would ultimately be a seven-year expedition to document native plants so that the Spanish might benefit from Mesoamerican medicinal practices, which were far superior to their own (Coe and Coe 122). Coe and Coe describe Hernández’s incorporation of chocolate into the Galenic system:
“Cacao and chocolate naturally attracted Hernández’s attention. The cacao seed is ‘temperate in nature,’ he says, but leaning to the ‘cold and humid’; on the whole, it is very nourishing […]. Because of its cool nature, drinks made from it are good in hot weather, and to cure fevers. Adding the mecaxochitl flavoring to chocolate not only gives it an agreeable taste, but because it, like most cacao spices, is ‘hot’ by nature, it ‘warms the stomach, perfumes the breath … [and] combats poisons, alleviates intestinal pains and colics,’ and so on.” (Coe and Coe 122)
Hernández’s description firmly set chocolate in the medicinal conversation of Europe forevermore.
The use of chocolate as medicine persisted in European history. The medicinal properties of chocolate beverages were cited by Francesco Maria Brancaccio in 1664 as an argument for why chocolate beverages should be permitted during times of ecclesiastical fasting (Coe and Coe 149). Most 18th century authorities believed that, as long as it was not consumed in excess, chocolate was on the whole very beneficial to one’s health.
Though much of the conversation about chocolate as medicine was centered around its physical benefits, people also began to suggest mental benefits of chocolate consumption as well. In his 1591 treatise on New World foods, Juan de Cárdenas asserted that chocolate consumption, among its other properties, could make one “happy” (Coe and Coe 123). Later, in the 1600s, marquise de Sévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, advises a correspondent who was apparently not sleeping that “chocolate will set you up again” (Coe and Coe 155).
These early attestations to beneficial psychological effects of chocolate consumption paved the way for modern beliefs in chocolate’s psychological effects, as a mood enhancer. The public’s belief that consuming chocolate will boost their mood has greatly impacted the modern chocolate market. A recent report by Mintel (2016) “found 24% of British consumers say they have bought chocolate confectionery in the last three months to boost their mood, while 64% of Chinese consumers agree that eating chocolate is an effective way to relieve stress” (Yu). Many chocolate companies advertise in such a way as to capitalize on the mood-enhancing effects of chocolate.
Many people seek out chocolate for its mood-enhancing benefits, but this essay will focus on a group of people who use chocolate for much more than cheering themselves up on a bad day: those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
For the purposes of this essay, it is useful to give a brief overview of what bipolar disorder, a mood disorder, entails. The International Bipolar Foundation describes:
“Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. […] Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swings– from overly ‘high’ and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these changes in mood. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression.” (“Learn”)
It should also be mentioned that people with bipolar have low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is considered to be a naturally occurring mood stabilizer (Peeke).
First, I will mention that the reason I picked this topic is because I am, myself, bipolar, and I, like many other bipolar people, have used chocolate to self-medicate. Many others with bipolar also use other, actual drugs to self-medicate (such as alcohol, cocaine, and heroin) and often develop substance abuse problems. I, however, never found comfort in a bottle. Chocolate was my self-prescribed mood-stabilizer, long before I had even received my diagnosis. It is my intention to share a little bit about my own use of chocolate as a mood-enhancer, before delving into the science and explicating why the use of chocolate as medicine, though not treating the same ailments as chocolate beginning in the 1500s, may actually have more clout than a simple urban myth.
I am not exactly sure when my bipolar disorder began manifesting symptoms, but in hindsight, I can definitively say that by junior high, it was definitely in full-swing. My pre-teens through early college life were categorized by all the typical signs: extreme mood swings with intermittent periods of normalcy, ‘bipolar rage’ (blind, irrational, near-violent anger with no traceable cause), crippling anxiety, et cetera. I am not sure at what point my childhood love of chocolate became a realization that eating chocolate helped my mood, but at some point, I began to associate my turbulent moods with a solution: the consumption of chocolate. It made me feel better, especially in the moment, but eventually I would come crashing down, as my mood spiraled downward. I would thus seek out more chocolate to ease that depression, and thus I became as dependent on chocolate as an alcoholic is on alcohol to self-medicate. I became so dependent on chocolate as my self-prescribed mood enhancing drug that I actually developed compulsive-eating and binge-eating disorders (see also a blog about another bipolar person’s experience with this). Even my family recognized the power that chocolate had to improve my moods, and when they saw that I was struggling on a given day, their go-to method of cheering me up was giving me something with chocolate in it.
I was not diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 20 years old, and it took until I was 22 to finally be put on the right dosage of the right medication: lithium. Lithium is arguably the oldest psychiatric medication around (in use during Classical times (Angst and Marneros)) and is a mood-stabilizer. Lithium will be very important in the science on chocolate as a mood-stabilizer that I outline below. Still, even though I am now on the right dose of the right medication, I still have mood swings, and when I do, my family still suggests chocolate as a remedy.
Many studies have been conducted on chocolate as a mood enhancer. According to UNH Staff in their article, “2 Chocolate Benefits for Your Brain: Improves Memory and Mood”, “chocolate has been shown to improve depression and anxiety symptoms and help enhance feelings of calmness and contentedness. Both the flavanols and methylxanthines are believed to play a role in chocolate’s mood enhancing effects” (UNH Staff). In addition, the article cites several studies that showed chocolate consumption improved mood, and another study in which participants “felt more calm and contented after consuming a daily dark chocolate drink containing a high amount of polyphenols” (UNH Staff). These studies show that chocolate does indeed have a connection to ‘good feelings’, much as Juan de Cárdenas had asserted that chocolate could make one happy centuries earlier.
Chocolate also contains phenylethylamines, which are a neurotransmitter that “in low levels, is associated with depression […] Phenylethylamines work by releasing endorphins in the brain and promote feelings of attraction and giddiness” (Chitale and ABC News Medical Unit). Between the low levels of serotonin, which cause cravings for carbs and sweets to spark pleasure centers in the brain and elevate mood (Peeke), and the low levels of phenylethylamines, people with mood disorders may actually be self-medicating with chocolate consumption, which compensates for those low levels.
I must here take a slight detour from the discussion of the science-supported benefits of chocolate to set precedent for my conclusion. The American Chemical Society put out a summary of research that was delivered at one of their meetings, in an article entitled “Good Mood Foods: Some Flavors in Some Foods Resemble a Prescription Mood Stabilizer.” The research is exactly what the title suggests: “New evidence reveals the possibility of mood-enhancing effects associated with some flavors, stemming at least in part from natural ingredients bearing a striking chemical similarity to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilizing drug” (“Good Mood Foods”). This suggests that some foods, far from simply providing a quick mood boost, could actually be used to medicate mood disorders, even if it were just as a supplement to actual medications.
Nuno Rodrigues-Silva considers the science behind the question: why do we crave chocolate? One view he considers argues that craving for chocolate is a “homeostatic response to nutrient deficiency (e.g., magnesium deficiency)” (Rodrigues-Silva 430). He goes on to explain why someone with magnesium deficiency would crave chocolate specifically:
“Chocolate has one of the highest magnesium levels reported of all foods, approximately 100 mg/g, except white chocolate which contains magnesium in much lower amounts, about 12 times lower than milk chocolate. Magnesium deficiency results in selective depletion of dopamine in the CNS [central nervous system], a major neurotransmitter involved in euphoria, satisfaction, and addiction. Additionally, magnesium deficiency is related to anxiety, and its administration has been related to reduced hyperexcitability in children and attenuated posttraumatic depression/anxiety in rats.” (Rodrigues-Silva 430)
However, Rodrigues-Silva fails to mention an important function of magnesium: magnesium is frequently used as a supplement to aid in sleep for those with sleep disorders (common for people with bipolar disorder), but most importantly, recent studies suggest that magnesium can produce improvements in bipolar disorder similar to the improvements seen in patients who take lithium (Lake). That would put magnesium on the list of mood-stabilizers.
You might remember how I said that the medication that stabilized my bipolar was lithium, and that before that, I was regulating my mood with chocolate consumption. If I, as a person with bipolar, craved chocolate when my moods were out of control, that would indicate that I might have been experiencing magnesium deficiency, according to Rodrigues-Silva. If magnesium, according to recent research, might be a mood-stabilizer, that would mean that when my bipolar disorder reared its ugly head, I was actually craving chocolate not as a quick mood enhancer but as a medication. I was, in all reality, actually self-medicating my bipolar with chocolate.
It is not just an urban myth that chocolate will boost your mood — chocolate has, now, a firmly rooted place as a medicine, just as the Europeans had claimed centuries earlier, though for different ailments.
So, what does this mean for the future of the chocolate industry? The chocolate industry already markets to and profits from people who believe that chocolate will boost their mood. Taking daily medications to manage mental illness is a hassle at best and impossible to remember at worst– and many people with bipolar simply do not want to take medication. Imagine if chocolate manufacturers began to market chocolate as an alternative or supplement to traditional mood-stabilizers. How many people would buy into that option? A lot of people, I reckon– and they would also need to consume chocolate en masse in order to get enough of a mood-stabilizing benefit day to day, sky-rocketing sales. It could be a great new direction for the chocolate market.