Have you ever noticed how chocolate acts as a natural mood-booster? You might have felt low or on edge and devoured chocolate for an instant “pick-me-up”.
So, it might be no surprise to you that good quality chocolate has been highly-regarded for its medicinal qualities for centuries with its first use dating back to as early as 460AD. Chocolate is one of the most commonly consumed substances in the world with consumption ranging from just 120g per person per year in China to a whopping 8.8kg in Switzerland; the average Australian scoffs about 5kg per year.
How chocolate works its magic as a mood-booster
- Dark chocolate contains magnesium which is a calming nutrient that performs many functions related to mood regulation. It is needed to make GABA, the important calming neurotransmitter, a deficiency of which may be linked to anxiety or an exacerbation of OCD symptoms. It’s mood-uplifting effects is often why many women crave chocolate during menstruation. The amino acid tryptophan also contributes to this effect. Aside from this magnesium also improves energy and relaxation.
- Cocoa or cacao powder, a key ingredient in chocolate, is one of the richest sources of polyphenols and antioxidants, more so than red wine or berries; these compounds increase blood flow to the brain, support the survival of neuronal cells, and protect the brain from the damaging ramifications of oxidative stress which is widespread in mood disorders.
- Studies have shown that iron-deficient anemia is common in mood issues such as depression, bipolar affective disorder and anxiety. Additionally, iron is important for make several key neurotransmitters in the brain. Iron is found in chocolate, its content being higher the darker the chocolate.
- Chocolate is often associated with mood because of its influence on romance. Its reported aphrodisiac properties are attributed to two amino acids, tryptophan which converts to serotonin (the well-known natural anti-depressant or “happy-hormone”) and phenylethylamine. Whilst there is little research to support this premise, it certainly keeps chocolate retailers and many lovers happy on Valentine’s Day!
- The high amounts of certain phytochemicals in cacao can improve neuroplasticity and protect brain cells against dysfunction and deterioration.
- Upregulation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor is enabled by theobromine, an important compound found in cacao; this supports the survival and function of neuronal cells.
- Chocolate contains other important minerals including calcium, zinc and potassium; these each play critical roles in brain function and hormonal balance to help keep your moods stabilised.
Other positive health benefits of chocolate:
- Much research supports the benefits of chocolate in lowering blood pressure and improving insulin sensitivity; obviously that’s not an excuse to over-indulge!
- Helps regulate the immune system and to keep inflammation in check.
- May help stimulate digestive enzymes, thus improving nutrient absorption.
- A clinical study found that 70% cacao chocolate improves cognitive function at a daily dose of 24g (about a quarter of a bar of real chocolate).
However, not all chocolate is created equal.
Unfortunately, not all chocolate is good for you. Many of the supermarket chocolate bars contain high levels of sugar (especially if that is the first ingredient listed), hydrogenated fats, artificial food additives – colours and preservatives, lecithin and flavours. Add to that the addictive nature of chocolate and you could easily find yourself demolishing a whole bar or 2 without a second thought.
All those intense, addictive varieties such as Mint or Cherry often have a selection of artificial additives (linked to adverse health effects) and absolutely no trace of real mint or cherries!
It’s far better to seek out the higher quality chocolate, usually made with real ingredients, higher cacao content and free from artificial additives. Or even make your own with raw cacao powder, maple syrup and cacao butter. You can add nuts, pomegranate powder, dried fruit or coconut to satisfy your taste buds – don’t be afraid to experiment. Delicious!
Detrimental health effects of chocolate
Whilst chocolate has some amazing mood-boosting benefits, it’s good to be aware of some of its less-desirable effects:
- Possible contributory factor in reflux or heartburn due to it reducing lower oesophageal sphincter pressure.
- May lead to weight gain, particularly if you are eating the more processed or sugar-laden ones or if you over-indulge.
- A potential factor in acne, particularly if the chocolate is in high in refined sugar and/or high dairy.
- Linked to migraine headaches.
- The lower the quality of chocolate bars the higher the cardiovascular risk.
- The caffeine in chocolate may be too stimulating for some, especially those with sub-optimal detoxification capacities and so may negatively impact sleep if consumed later in the day.
To enjoy the therapeutic benefits of chocolate, always choose a good, quality chocolate, avoiding the processed brands and consume in moderation, taking the time to savour and appreciate each heavenly morsel.
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Sumiyoshi E, Matsuzaki K, Sugimoto N, et al. Sub-Chronic Consumption of Dark Chocolate Enhances Cognitive Function and Releases Nerve Growth Factors: A Parallel-Group Randomized Trial. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2800. Published 2019 Nov 16. doi:10.3390/nu11112800
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