We love chocolate and chocolate loves us back

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cacao tree.jpgAside from the guilt I feel as I sit here downing my king-sized Snickers bar, I am of course thoroughly enjoying my snack and experiencing a moment of true bliss.  All of you chocolate lovers (or just chocolate likers) out there know the feeling I'm talking about - chocolate really does seem to be mood changing...and science proves (for the most part) that it is!

Chocolate, which is derived from beans located on the inside of bright yellow and orange pods that grow along the trunk of the cacao tree, has a complex chemical make-up.  According to this website, the chocolate we eat contains over 600 chemicals.  Don't be alarmed by the sound of this - many of these chemicals are responsible for what enhances our mood when we eat it!

The chemicals present in chocolate trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters  in our brain.  For those of you who don't know, a neurotransmitter is a chemical that lets signals travel from one neuron to another.  Chocolate has proven to stimulate the release of many "happy" neurotransmitters - the ones that make us "feel good".  Because chocolate can increase the number of these "happy" neurotransmitters, and the amount of neurotransmitters present in the brain at a given time can strongly affect one's mood, chocolate can give a person an overall feeling of well-being. 

I wanted to learn more about each of these happy little signal messengers in our brain, and found extensive information about each one stimulated by chocolate in an online report.

I comprised a list for the intentions of this blog of the neurotransmitters that chocolate's chemicals stimulate:

Endorphins: Most of you are probably familiar with endorphins.  When these are released in the brain, pain and stress levels decrease.  Their release also results in a feeling of extreme happiness, or euphoria.


Serotonin: One of chocolate's chemicals, tryptophan, triggers the release of serotonin.  You may have heard about serotonin being linked to depression. Serotonin is an antidepressant; it is the feel good chemical that a person considered "depressed" lacks in his or her brain.

There are also some less common, but much more interesting neurotransmitters that are stimulated by chocolate.  When I say "more interesting", I am alluding to the fact that these ones have "feel good" effects that are scarily similar to some "feel good" drugs!

Phenylethylamine: Another brain component stimulated by chocolate!  Actually a neuromodulator, something very similar to a neurotransmitter, phenylethylamine changes blood sugar levels and blood sugar in a way that results in increased alertness and excitement.  It is very similar to the psychostimulant drug amphetamine as it also functions in decreasing stress and depression. 

Lipid Anandamide: This neurotransmitter found in chocolate activates the receptor in the brain that triggers dopamine release in a manner very similar to the way tetrahydrocannabinol (more commonly known as THC) found in marijuana does.  Dopamine release creates in our bodies the feelings we relate to being "high".  Anandamide is actually naturally present in the brain, but usually breaks down very rapidly after release.  Chocolate actually contains two other chemicals the slow anandamide's breakdown - thus extending the feelings of elation. 

                -To clear things up, the levels of THC in marijuana are much greater and react with a  much larger range of neurotransmitter receptors than is the case with anadamide in chocolate.  Chocolate obviously would not get one as high as if they smoked marijuana, and this is why.

It is not a neurotransmitter, but theobromine is another one of chocolate's 600 chemicals that can have mood-changing effects.  Theobromine directly affects the nervous system in a way that results in both mental and physical relaxation.

In my research, this website explained that despite all of these wonderful claimedchocbar.jpg mood-enhancers present in chocolate confections, there is very little proof that it actually enhances our mood.  I think most of us would agree that despite this lack of evidence, a piece of chocolate a day can provide any of us a minor pick me up!  However, do YOU think the mood enhancement is really a result of chocolate's ability to trigger "happy" neurotransmitter levels in our brain, or do you think it is simply our taste buds that are happy?

I don't believe tiny taste buds could possibly create the feelings of bodily euphoria that that Snickers bar just gave me!  I like to believe chocolate creates this neurotransmitter frenzy in our brain.


1 Comment

Megan, I would also like to believe that the chemicals in chocolate are responsible for the happiness it brings me instead of just my taste buds. I truly don't understand when people say they don't really like chocolate! How is this possible? I almost always have to finish off my dinner with something chocolatey even if it's just one hershey kiss. The connections you made between chemicals in chocolate and their reactions and chemicals in drugs that lead to the same kind of reactions but much stronger were very interesting. Thisarticle claims chocolate is the "love drug." Maybe that is why it is so popular on Valentine's Day.

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