Chocolate – The Bittersweet Truth, The Psychoactive Treat

Chocolate – what is it about this bizarre concoction of South American beans and sugar that makes it one of the world’s most sought after treats?  Simply that it “tastes good,” has never been enough to satisfy the appetite of scientific minds, searching to unlock the mysteries of this most desired delectable.

The history of cacao dates back as early as 500 A.D., originating from the native South American cacao tree.  The cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, was named by the 17th century Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus – the Greek term theobroma literally meaning “food of the gods”.

Cacao beans were used by the Aztecs to prepare to hot, frothy beverage with stimulant and restorative properties. Chocolate itself was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests. The Aztecs esteemed its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Aztec taxation was levied in cacao beans. 100 cacao beans could buy a slave, 12 cacao beans bought the services of courtesan.  The celebrated Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova took chocolate before bedding his conquests, due to its reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac. Chocolate as we know it today dates back to 1879, with the inspired addition of triglyceride cocoa butter by Rodolphe Lindt. The advantage of cocoa butter is that its addition to chocolate sets a bar so that it will readily snap and then melt on the tongue. Today, chocolate is heavily cultivated in the Caribbean, Africa, South-East Asia, and some South Pacific Islands and cocoa beans are roasted, mashed, mixed with vanilla & sugar, tempered, and molded to form what we refer to as chocolate.  The result – an unmatched, sweet tasting, fragrant, mouth-watering delight.

But what is it about chocolate that would make some 50% of women reportedly claim to prefer it over sex?  Well, it turns out there’s a lot of interesting things in chocolate, and I’m not just talking bad gooey centers.  With more than 300 chemical compounds having been identified in chocolate, its psychochemical effects on the central nervous system are something to be explored.

Most chocolate contains some amount of sugar.
The effects of sugar on mood is controversial. Some researchers say that sugar will raise serotonin levels. For some people, the problem with consuming sugar is that it can cause an initial increase of insulin resulting in a lift in mood – the “sugar high” – followed by a rapid decrease a short while later. The rapid decrease in insulin results in the production of excess adrenalin and cortisol, two body chemicals that can cause anxiety. But chocolate clearly delivers far more than a brief sugar high. Like other palatable sweet foods, consumption of chocolate causes the release of endorphins, the body’s endogenous opiates. Enhanced endorphin-release reduces the chocolate-eater’s sensitivity to pain. Endorphins probably contribute to the warm inner glow induced in susceptible chocoholics.

For years people have claimed to be addicted to chocolate and now there is new scientific evidence that reveals there truly may be addictive qualities in the tasty treat. Researchers claim the same alkaloid compounds found in alcohol are also present in chocolate. This could explain why many recovering alcoholics use chocolate to curb their craving for alcohol, especially in early sobriety. Researchers found that ordinary cocoa, as well as chocolate bars, contain a group of alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, the same chemicals or neuroactive alkaloids linked to alcoholism, and which continue to be investigated for influences on mood and behavior.

Caffeine is one of the most well known chemical ingredients in chocolate, although it’s only present in small quantities. Theobromine, a weak stimulant, is also present, in slightly higher amounts. The combination of these two chemicals (and possibly others) may provide the “lift” that chocolate eaters experience after indulging. The bad news is, researchers have also found that caffeine can cause anxiety, sleep problems, heartburn, difficulty concentrating and restlessness. Withdrawal from caffeine can lead to headaches and fatigue. The caffeine in chocolate may seem like a small amount, but those small amounts can add up.

Theobromine is an alkaloid with about one-tenth the stimulating effect of caffeine. However, cocoa contains about seven times as much theobromine as there is caffeine. Although theobromine is a weaker stimulant than caffeine, it can increase the pulse rate and is now proving to be an effective fat burner.
On a side note, theobromine is the ingredient in chocolate that has been found to be toxic to dogs and other animals. One ounce of unsweetened chocolate can make a 10-pound dog ill.

Chocolate also contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid. It is the rate-limiting step in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Enhanced serotonin function typically diminishes anxiety.

Perhaps chocolate’s key ingredient is its phenylethylamine or “love-chemical”. . Researchers believe that our body releases phenylethylamine when we are in love, thus producing the uplifted mood associated with love. At one time, it was rumored that chocolate produces the same feelings because of the phenylethylamine it contains. Yet the role of the “chocolate amphetamine” is disputed. Most if not all chocolate-derived phenylethylamine is metabolised before it reaches the central nervous system.  Phenylethylamine is itself a naturally occurring trace amine in the brain. It releases mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure-centers and  peaks during orgasm. Because the phenylethylamine is related to amphetamines, which are strong stimulants, it can increase the activity of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in parts of the brain that control our ability to pay attention and stay alert. The down side to phenylethylamine, like amphetamines, is it may cause an initial lift in the mood, followed by a crash in mood a short while later. Phenylethylamine may also cause blood vessels to dilate in the brain, thereby causing migraines and other headaches for some.

While stimulants contribute to a temporary sense of well being, there are other chemicals and theories as to why chocolate makes us feel good. Perhaps the most controversial are that chocolate contains pharmacologically active substances that have the same effect on the brain as marijuana, and that these chemicals may be responsible for certain drug-induced psychoses associated with chocolate cravings.

Like Marijuana?
Chocolate contains another pleasure inducing compound called anandamide, as well as other substances believed to mimic the effects of marijuana. The anandamide found in chocolate is believed to act in the brain similarly to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), found in marijuana. Eating chocolate, however, doesn’t mean that will get you high, but rather that there are compounds in chocolate that may be associated with the good feeling that chocolate consumption provides. Anandamide, however, like other neurotransmitters, is broken down quickly after it’s produced.  Interestingly, though, chocolate also contains n-acylethanolamines, which may inhibit the natural breakdown of anadamide. This means that natural anandamide (or introduced anandamide) may stick around longer, making us feel good longer, when we eat chocolate.

Self-medication for Dietary Deficiencies
Other active substances in chocolate, like magnesium, are often suggested as potential contributors to cravings.  Acute monthly cravings for chocolate amongst pre-menstrual women may be partly explained by its rich magnesium content. Magnesium deficiency exacerbates PMS. Before menstruation, too, levels of the hormone progesterone are high. Progesterone promotes fat storage, preventing its use as fuel; and thus elevated pre-menstrual levels of progesterone may cause a periodic craving for fatty foods.  While only 15% of males appear to crave chocolate, as much as 40% of women do – and 75% of them claim that absolutely nothing other than chocolate can satisfy their appetite.

For most people craving chocolate is in no way harmful, but if it rises to the level of “binge eating” it can be a real problem. Chocolate is the food most desired by binge eaters because of brain chemicals that give them physical pleasure from the sweet indulgence.  Obviously, eating too much of any food may cause health problems. The cocoa butter in chocolate does contain saturated fat, which can increase blood cholesterol levels, and high cholesterol can contribute to heart disease. However, recent studies have found that chocolate carries high levels of chemicals known as polyphenols, which have been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease. Cocao, like coffee, tea, red wine and others foods high in polyphenols, have been studied intensively for their antioxidant benefits and their ability to reduce the oxidation of low density lipoproteins and thereby protect against heart disease.

So next time you reach for a chocolate treat when you’re feeling down, you’re on the right track. No longer a “forbidden food”, chocolate can boost your mood as well as provide you with a host of other benefits – just remember moderation.

Also – here are a few tips to help you enjoy the benefits of cocoa, while keeping the calorie count down.

Try dark chocolate. More pure chocolate means it contains less fatty cocoa butter. Look for 70% cocoa content.  Also try organic sugar free candy bars – some are remarkably tasty  – sure to satisfy any chocolate craving.  Just be careful of artificial sweeteners or high levels of sugar alcohols such as maltitol, which may cause gastrointestinal distress.

Look for richer chocolates, packed with flavor, so you can satisfy your sweet tooth with smaller amounts–and fewer calories.

Skip chocolate bars filled with caramel, marshmallow, and other fatty fillings.

Try satisfying your chocolate craving with a chocolate protein shake or meal replacement or even chocolate flavored soymilk.  You’ll get the health benefits not only of the shake, but also of the cocoa, without the fat in the chocolate bar.

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