Can chocolate make you happy?

23 June 2014

Question

Is chocolate like an antidepressant?

Answer

Next question, I think this leads on rather nicely. Does chocolate have an anti-depressant effect? In my experience, eating half a bar or even sometimes an entire bar of chocolate can make me feel much happier. Are there any neurochemical basis for that?

Martin - Yeah. I mean, chocolate raises blood sugar levels quite dramatically and quickly. That increases glucose delivery to the brain which is basically fuel to the brain among other nutrients. So, if you give the brain a short shot boost of one of its essential fuels and you can enhance the brain's happiness I guess.

Katie - We often hear reports of all sorts of wonderful qualities of chocolate which we all love to be absolutely true. Actually, there's a review that was done by (Hocker)(7:52) and colleagues that was just looking across what might be the anti-depressant effects of chocolate. There are some small levels of psychoactive substances in chocolate but it's in much smaller quantities and you find in lots of other foods.

Hannah - By psychoactive substances, are you talking like there's miniature traces of LSD type compounds in chocolate?

Katie - No. So, we're talking sort of stimulants like caffeine sort of stimulants in very, very small amounts.

Liz - I was really interested in how much of that is because we've been told that chocolate is good. It makes you feel good and the adverts are great and there are half-naked ladies and they're eating chocolate and how wonderful they feel. How much of that has gone into our minds if we've been told that carrots are, "My God! Carrots are only the best things ever!" How much is a feedback loop of what we've been told that chocolate is wonderful? But we have to remember that chocolate, it goes back thousands of years. And so, there were people in the jungle at one point who ate coco beans and for the reasons, it does do something chemically to you. But the chocolate that we eat, it's basically sugar. A little bit of coco, but the rest is sugar and blah, blah, so a huge effect must be to do with that.

Hannah - I had a quick search and there's a paper published in the journal of Chromatography A by Pollo Diaz and colleagues last year and they found that they did some clever chromatography mass spectrometry of a chocolate and they found that the highest serotonin content - so that's like a happy chemical in the brain - was found in chocolate with a coco mass content of over 85%. As well as one thing that serotonin, dopamine release in our brain, we also enjoy a fat and of the high milk content, and also the sugar burst.

Liz - Because actually, if you eat 85% chocolate, it's pretty unpalatable. It's really bitter and I quite like it, but there's a percentage beyond which most people really don't enjoy it at all and exactly said that there's a perfect ratio which I'm sure, all chocolate manufacturers spend all day trying to find which is the one that just ticks all the boxes. But I think advertising has a lot to work for here.

Martin - I think it's also the rapid metabolism, the rapid release as well because let's not forget, they've got complex carbohydrates like sugar is present. The healthier foods for example bananas are a high source of tryptophan which is a precursor for serotonin. But it takes a lot longer for the body to breakdown these chemicals and process them and deliver them to the system whereas with chocolate and coco has a sharp boost which also I think could result in the crash. It's like a post glucose crash.

Katie - Because actually that high sugar and the high fat content as well that you find in a lot of other foods that people eat that give you - you know, donuts and cakes and gives you that short shot boost.

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