Most women instinctively know that chocolate is a means to make them feel better. But with is this? Is it just because it satisfies a sweet tooth? Actually, chocolate boosts the levels of endorphins (natural opiates) and serotonin (a natural mood-altering chemical) in the brain. These can help us feel more relaxed and calm. Serotonin, which functions in the regulation of mood and contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness, is also increased by use of antidepressant drugs, meaning chocolate can act as a natural antidepressant. CNN even suggests that craving for chocolate may be a craving for a mood boost.
Chocolate contains tryptophan, an amino acid that is a building block for the body. During a chemical reaction in the brain, tryptophan is converted into serotonin, which is then used in both the brain (serotonin’s main function) and in the digestive system. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter (meaning it relays signals from one part of the brain to another), affects cells related to mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior. It is thought that an imbalance of serotonin “may influence mood in a way that leads to depression. This imbalance could be caused by a number of issues including low brain production of serotonin, lack of reception sites to receive the serotonin, inability of serotonin to reach the receptors or a shortage of tryptophan. With common antidepressants and chocolate, the balance of serotonin in the brain is altered in a positive way, leading to feelings of well being and happiness.
One of the times when women seem to crave chocolate the most is immediately before and during their menstrual cycle. Interestingly, during some women’s pre-menstrual cycle, serotonin levels in the brain drop, which is just one more reason to cue the chocolate during that time of the month. Another explanation for craving chocolate during pre-menstruation is due to a lack of magnesium in a woman’s body during that time. A bar of chocolate contains 25 to 50 mg of magnesium, which may lead to chocolate being used to provide that missing element.
Chocolate also increases levels of endorphins in the brain. Like serotonin, endorphins are neurotransmitters, however, these interact with opiate receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain. Endorphins not only lead to less feelings of pain, but also to feelings of euphoria, release of sex hormones, and fewer negative effects of stress, among others.
Another wonder ingredient in chocolate that provides extensive amounts of health benefits is flavonoids. Flavonoids, also found in red wine and tea, are antioxidants, which protect your body against free radicals, which cause damage to your cells. One top benefit of the flavonoids is that they have heart-protecting properties.
- They may reduce the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your bloodstream.
- They may reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as one-third
- They improve endothelial function. The endothelium is the “think layer that covers the inner surface of blood vessels”. Flavonoids have been shown to make the endothelium more flexible, which improves blood flow in the arteries.
- They improve platelet function by reducing the tendency of blood to clot.
- They improve hypertension.
Now, to explain a bit about the beneficial chocolate. Unfortunately, not all chocolate fits the bill for providing these added health benefits. The benefits of chocolate are directly related to the percentage of cacao (cocoa in its powdered form) in the chocolate. This means the darker the chocolate, the better it is for you. Most sources recommend eating at least 70 percent cocoa chocolate. White chocolate, which is not made from cocoa at all, provides none of the health benefits described. And while this may not be the fun part of this article, it is also important to keep control over the portion size of chocolate you consume. For most of these benefits, you need to eat approximately 1 ounce of dark chocolate a day, however since dark chocolate tends to be richer, it will be more filling than other lower quality chocolate.
Now, I am not sure about you, but all of these benefits of chocolate have me humming through my cupboard in search of a little snack… and I can totally justify a snack that only makes me feel happier, but also has some added potential health benefits to boot.