Chocolate - A True Mood Food

Back in a previous period of the natural products scene, chocolate was vilified, labeled unhealthy, relegated to the corner of bad-for-you vices. But those days are gone, and the silly talk of chocolate nay-sayers has been replaced by the light of scientific fact, and chocolate has emerged as beneficial indeed. This is especially so when it comes to mind and mood.

Chocolate is a complex material, possessing numerous compounds that act upon the brain, producing a sense of delight that no other substance can replicate. Chocolate is surprisingly good for health, especially for the heart. Cocoa, the primary ingredient in finished chocolate, is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, a group of protective chemicals found in many plant foods, including red wine and tea. 

Chocolate not only plays a role in fighting off free radicals, but it can affect both mind and mood. Caffeine, an alkaloid, is the most widely consumed stimulant on earth, and is present in chocolate. According to numerous medical studies, caffeine is beneficial to overall health. It stimulates the central nervous system, flow of blood in the brain and increases secretion of the very important neurotransmitter serotonin. Caffeine enhances alertness, facilitates thought formation and decreases fatigue. This alkaloid also improves mood overall, lifts the spirits and enhances both cardiovascular function and respiration.

Taken by adults at a dose of 300 mg/d or less, caffeine is safe and beneficial. Chocolate is a modest caffeine source, with a 50-g piece of dark chocolate yielding between 10 mg and 60 mg of caffeine, as compared with a 5-oz. cup of coffee, which can yield up to 180 mg. Modest amounts of caffeine in chocolate provide a healthy stimulant effect, suitable for consumption by all adults and children, except for the unusually sensitive or hyperactive.

Theobromine, caffeine’s chemical cousin, occurs at a greater concentration, about 250 mg in a 50-g bar of dark chocolate. Like caffeine, theobromine is a central nervous system stimulant, though it is milder in its effects. Theobromine is a stronger cardiac stimulant than caffeine and not nearly as well studied. This compound has a different chemical structure, and is presumed to possess unique mood enhancing effects. 

Chocolate gets right to the heart of well-being and sexual pleasure by increasing the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. Serotonin plays a major role in positive mood, emotional health, proper sleep and balanced appetite, contributing to numerous behavioral and physiological functions. Decreased serotonin is a well-known factor in cases of depression. Increased brain serotonin promoted by chocolate increases sexual excitation, desire and responsiveness.

Women have more serotonin in their systems than men and appear to be more sensitive to chocolate. Chocolate provides a mood boost to women during premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstruation, when serotonin levels are often down. It also puts women in the mood for love (wink).

Low serotonin levels are associated with many mood-related behaviors, including violence, aggressive behaviors and higher rates of suicide. Chocolate’s serotonin elevating activity helps to modify mood in positive ways and acts as a sexual sweetener.

Probably the most influential love compound in chocolate is PEA, phenethylamine. This chemical, which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of pleasurable opium-like compounds known as endorphins. PEA also potentiates the activity of dopamine, a neurochemical directly associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. PEA acts as a potent antidepressant in both sexes and rises during periods of romance. The giddy, restless feelings that occur when we are in love are due to a great extent to PEA, which significantly increases in the brain at that time. Some scientists dismiss this notion, claiming the PEA in chocolate is metabolized too quickly to produce a significant mood-altering effect, but others disagree. Why else would chocolate be so inextricably intertwined with love and romance? While there are a great many agents in nature that boost libido and enhance sexual function, chocolate alone actually promotes the brain chemistry of being in love. 

Cannabinoids, the prolific compounds found in marijuana, are found in two places besides the cannabis plant: One is in the human brain, where a mind-altering cannabinoid named anandamide is manufactured; and the other is in chocolate. Anandamide’s name derives from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Cannabis and chocolate and the human brain all share this bliss-inducing agent. In the human brain, anandamide binds to the same receptor sites as THC—or tetrahydrocannabinol, the infamous active ingredient in marijuana. Anandamide produces a feeling of euphoria. This compound may account for why some people become “blissed-out" when they eat chocolate. The human brain is a marvelous and mysterious organ. Tickle the right neurons with delicious chocolate, and all heaven breaks loose. Although, individual chemistry plays a major role in how people react to chocolate, as it does with almost everything else. Chocolate may produce a modest effect in some people, but it will make others swoon.   

This article's author, Chris Kilham, is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide.  His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France.

Article courtesy of Natural Products Manufacturers, posted 3/11/11, and is found here.

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