Chocolate is a sweet treat that most people love to enjoy. It’s given on Valentine’s Day, eaten on Halloween, left in stockings at Christmas, and snacked on for the rest of the year. Chocolate does, however, have the unfortunate reputation of being unhealthy, and receives a lot of criticism for its high fat and sugar content. What most people don’t know is that chocolate, eaten in moderation, is actually beneficial to one’s health. While this doesn’t mean that a half-pound chocolate bar should be eaten immediately on sight, it does mean that chocolate might have more benefits than what’s listed on the wrapper.
The Nervous System & the Brain
Chocolate has been enjoyed since the days of the Mayans and Aztecs back in 1200 BC, and continues to be a popular food item today. But exactly why is it so popular? There’s a lot to work with! Chocolate has over 300 different chemicals that affect the brain and nervous system in interesting (and positive) ways.
A study done by the University of Michigan determined that chocolate makes the brain naturally produce opioids, but it has also been proven that chocolate stimulates the production of natural chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and theobromine. Opioids and endorphins are certain chemicals that elevate a person’s mood and create feelings of happiness. Endorphins work in the body to lower stress, and serotonin is an anti-depressant, which helps stack up the good vibes already going from the opioids and endorphins. Theobromine is a mild, natural stimulant which acts on the nervous system by gently increasing alertness, and helps reduce coughing.
Chocolate also has a chemical in it called phenylethylamine, or PEA. PEA is a chemical that makes a person’s blood pressure and levels of blood-sugar rise, which results in a feeling of energy and contentment, which works in sync with the opioids.
Why Do You Crave Chocolate?
Some, like Debra Zellner of Shippensburg University, believe that people crave chocolate simply because it is a “forbidden food,” rumored to be packed with fat and sugar of all kinds, and that it’s the psychological temptation of wanting something that “shouldn’t” be eaten that makes chocolate so appealing. Given the nutritional contents of chocolate, it’s also possible that a craving for chocolate is a body’s way of forcing the brain to take care of a nutrient deficiency.
On a more immediate level, chocolate temporarily boosts blood sugar and releases chemicals to both relax and alert the body, resulting in a sort of “awake and relaxed” feeling. Combine that with the taste, texture, and all the endorphins it releases, and it’s no wonder people enjoy it so much!
How Does Chocolate Affect a Person’s Mood?
As mentioned above, the main effect of chocolate is a relaxed, awake feeling. It can lower blood pressure, which makes the body feel less stressed, and can even act as a sort of analgesic (a pain killer). About a half ounce of chocolate is enough to make a person feel better and function more efficiently, and when a craving strikes, it’s likely due to stress and body chemistry. Indulging in a square or two may actually be more beneficial to the person – and to everyone around if the person’s in a bad mood – than trying to ignore the call of the candy.
Chocolate can also make someone feel more pampered and special. American society tends to place a lot of emphasis on chocolate as a “luxury” item and something that is a symbol of love; when eaten, people therefore tend to associate chocolate with personal success or achievement, and this comparison additionally helps elevate one’s mood.
In addition to making a person feel great, chocolate has been proven to be good for the heart and immune system. Dark chocolate (chocolate with a higher cocoa content; usually more bitter than regular chocolate) can have more antioxidants than “super foods” like blueberries and green tea. Antioxidants work by protecting cells from things called “free radicals”, which are unstable molecules that can corrupt normally healthy cells. By neutralizing free radicals, the antioxidants can help increase blood flow, reduce blood pressure, and regulate cholesterol levels.
Chocolate also contains minerals and vitamins like copper, potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium, all of which work together to keep a body healthy.