you're not imagining it, chocolate really makes you feel good

4 mins
05 Apr 2023
you're not imagining it, chocolate really makes you feel good

Turns out there’s a whole load of reasons to sink our teeth into

image Mars Wrigley

words Rhys Thomas

You’re sitting there, unwrapping the thin paper, peeling back the foil, and snapping off a smooth brown segment made from cocoa mass, cocoa butter, and sugar. Perhaps there’s milk powder, sea salt or nuts in the mixture too. You put it in your mouth, your insides start to smile, you salivate as the little mound slowly melts. It is creamy, toasted, warming. It is chocolate, and it makes you feel good.

While bars of the good stuff have only existed for a couple hundred years - a company from Bristol called Fry & Son made the first bar in 1847- humans have been drinking chocolate for thousands of years. There’s evidence of vessels used to prepare chocolate from as far back as 1,750 BC in the southeast of Mexico, used by pre-Olmec people. Chocolate was consumed in ceremonies, but also everyday life. These days, more than seven million tonnes of chocolate are eaten across the world every year. Willy Wonka was onto something.

We often talk about craving chocolate, especially during those times where we are not all that hungry, but something is missing. There is a gap in your mood and it can only be filled by a piece of chocolate. But why is that?

According to consultant dietician Ro Huntriss, much of it is chemical. She says that chocolate contains a number of compounds which, while found in small doses, can make us feel good or elevated in the short term. They include phenylethylamine, a chemical produced in the brain “when we experience feelings of pleasure and excitement,” says Huntriss. Nutritionist Mays Al-Ali adds that phenylethylamine “helps to soothe the nervous system”. The effects are similar to those of amphetamine.

Chocolate also includes tryptophan, an amino acid that is a "precursor to serotonin” says Huntriss. Tryptophan converts into 5-HTP which in turn becomes serotonin. Some research suggests it can aid sleep too.

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Anandamide, which Al-Ali says is “the bliss molecule is also known as ‘the workout high’” also appears in chocolate. Huntriss adds that “this is another neurotransmitter known to produce feelings of happiness and euphoria”.

Caffeine and theobromine can also be found in chocolate. Both of these act as stimulants that can improve alertness and mood, they bring a little buzz that puts a spring in your step, especially in these smaller doses.

Generally then, cacao brings natural stress relief says Al-Ali. It does so through a combination of endorphin and dopamine boosters, compounds that give us a lift but also offer a sense of calmness. A zen quality, you could say. Cacao is a seed from the cacao tree, it contains a butter and a solid, these two ingredients are the basis of all chocolate (except white chocolate, which just has the butter).

While Al-Ali says that specifically it’s the cacao in chocolate that makes us feel so good, and that therefore we could obtain these benefits (and other minerals and antioxidants found in cacao) by drinking cacao, most of us choose to eat chocolate instead.

Because eating chocolate means sugars and fats too and both are part of the feel-good factor in a bar of choccy. “Sugar can trigger a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure,” says Huntriss. Fats contain more energy than carbohydrates and proteins and when we eat them, we feel full faster – this makes our brains release hormones that help us to feel content. Getting fats and sugars in the same food is actually quite rare in nature, the only place that really has a bit of both is milk. The very food we were nourished on as babies. Life doesn’t get more comforting than that.

So yes, the power of chocolate as a little treat, a temporary self care tool, and a nice thing that we love to enjoy, is very real. Whether you’re looking to get some ceremonial grade cacao or just chomp on a… chomp! There are chemical and emotional reasons for it, neuroscience and nutrition alike say that chocolate (in moderation, as with most things) is good for you. A little something to remind yourself of this Easter (egg).

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