The Mood-enhancing Effects of Chocolate

 By: Jill Smi
Eating chocolate is one of the world's most popular passions. The typical Swiss eats more than 21 pounds of this chocolate each year. Even the average Belgian or Brit downs some 16 pounds annually. In the United States, consumption weighs in at roughly 11.5 pounds per year. The earliest record of chocolate was over fifteen hundred years ago in the Central American rain forests, where the tropical mix of high rainfall combined with high year round temperatures and humidity provide the ideal climate for cultivation of the plant from which chocolate is derived, the Cacao Tree.

The Cacao Tree was worshiped by the Mayan civilization of Central America and Southern Mexico, who believed it to be of divine origin, Cacao is actually a Mayan word meaning "God Food", hence the tree's modern generic Latin name "Theobrama Cacao" meaning 'Food of the Gods'. Cacao was corrupted into the more familiar "Cocoa" by the early European explorers. The Maya brewed a spicy, bitter sweet drink by roasting and pounding the seeds of the Cacao tree (cocoa beans) with maize and Capsicum (Chilli) peppers and letting the mixture ferment. This drink was reserved for use in ceremonies as well as for drinking by the wealthy and religious elite, they also ate a Cacao porridge.

Chocolate is full of mood-enhancing chemicals. To start with, it is loaded with sugar, which is a carbohydrate and triggers the release of seratonin. Chocolate also contains fat, which in itself provides a feeling of satisfaction since it answers the urge for calories. Chocolate is also said to have the same mood-enhancing chemical that is found in marijuana, although in much smaller quantities. To test the theory that chocolate enhances mood, a study was conducted at the University of Pennsylvania. Students who felt the urge to eat chocolate were given either milk chocolate, white chocolate (which contains no cocoa, just cocoa butter and flavoring), and pills containing stimulants found in chocolate.

Researchers say the findings were predictable. The pill didn't do the trick, but both the white and milk chocolates did satisfy the students. The results suggest that it is not some secret chemical ingredient in chocolate that provides the euphoria, but the sensory experience such as the taste, the smoothness and the aroma. While some may be using chocolate as an energy booster, a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found a link between chocolate cravings and personality. Results suggest certain personality types are not only more likely to crave chocolate, but it may also improve their mood.

Researchers from the Black Dog Institute correlated results from an online survey completed by nearly 3,000 people. Of the respondents, 54 percent reported food cravings during bouts with depression, of which 45 percent specifically wanted chocolate, and 61 percent of these said chocolate improved their mood and reduce stress. It's believed substances in chocolate called endorphins and opioids, may be responsible for the mood enhancing effect. These compounds may make one feel more relaxed, thereby reducing stress and anxiety and improving mood.

Chocolates can also play a major role in a number of disorders, including bulimia, binge eating, and obesity. There's some hints that chocolate may possess natural analgesic properties. Studies indicate that eating high-fat, chocolate foods can trigger the brain's production of natural opiates. During the study, it showed that when a physician used a drug to block the brain's opiate receptors, a binge-eater's desire for sweet, fatty foods such as chocolate, dropped down. Still, there are questions left unanswered on the experiment, such as: Does the body simply desire anything sweet and fatty, or men naturally feel some special craving for chocolates?

The potential health benefit of chocolate is a popular area of study. Previous research has shown dark chocolate may be good for cardiovascular health and some scientists recommend them for reducing heart disease risk. The down-side is, of course, the calories. Chocolate is full of fat and sugar. While small amounts can be beneficial to your health, larger quantities are not so good. When using chocolate, even as medicine, moderation is the key.
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