Chocolate on the brain

Rachel Landman, LMHC & COO December 18, 2022

Does chocolate really make everything better?

Do you reach for chocolate when you’re feeling down or need an afternoon pick-me-up? Turns out, you’re onto something! Science tells us that chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, really does make us feel better – to a degree.

First, let’s look at some of the compounds that make up chocolate to better understand its health benefits:  

  • Chocolate lowers your blood pressure. You can thank flavanols, a form of flavonoids, for this one. Found in large quantities in dark chocolate, flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help protect the brain from free radical damage, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, prevent blood clots and fight cell damage. 
  • Chocolate improves our mood. Cacao beans are also full of phytochemicals, which stimulate the release of dopamine from the brain. Dopamine is one of our “happiness hormones” and it’s related to the feeling of pleasure and motivation. The production of feel-good endorphins from the brain are also boosted when we eat chocolate. Endorphins cause feelings of euphoria and they tend to reduce stress. Chocolate is also loaded with tryptophan, an amino acid that helps make melatonin and serotonin. Serotonin, yet another happiness hormone, helps regulate appetite, sleep, mood and pain. 
  • Chocolate keeps us sharp. Theobromine, a caffeine-related compound found in chocolate, is a stimulant for the central nervous system as well as a vasodilator. It increases mental alertness, improves memory and relieves mental fatigue by naturally lowering blood pressure, as well as increasing blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain and heart. 
  • Chocolate helps us relax. Anandamide gives chocolate its intense flavor, but it also reduces stress hormones. Referred to as the “bliss molecule,” anandamide stimulates happiness and mental wellness. Interesting facts: THC and CBD increase anandamide in the brain. Chocolate’s also high in magnesium, which plays a crucial role in supporting muscle and nerve function and energy production. Magnesium has also been shown to calm stress, improve mood and enhance sleep. 

Enjoy your chocolate, then cultivate inner happiness. 

These health benefits of chocolate are indeed good news so go ahead, grab a square of chocolate and savor it. But it’s worth noting that dependency on external things to “make us happy” can backfire, despite the many mood-enhancing benefits of our favorite treats.

Many things we engage with in life can provide us with some form of temporary happiness, from socially acceptable activities like working out or spending time with friends, to less lauded ones like addictions. What we seem to have created in our world are endless options to make us feel happy for a short period of time, by either distracting or subverting some negative feelings. The problem is, the more we distract or subvert those less desirable emotions, the more they build up and eventually explode. Meanwhile, we have also created a dependency on some external thing that we are convinced will make us “happy,” instead of cultivating inner happiness. 

Inner happiness –  how nice does that sound? Having the ability to just be happy when doing absolutely nothing, with nothing? Chocolate, although delicious and arguably good for you (in moderation, of course), is just like every other thing in the world that creates the temporary illusion of happiness; the negative emotions pile up internally and at some point come out pouring or exploding, normally sideways. 

So should I never again do anything that provides me with any kind of happiness or pleasure? No! By all means enjoy the things that make you happy, but try to use them to increase good feelings, not distract from bad ones. So go to the party or eat the treat when you feel good, to enhance your happiness. And when you’re not feeling good, pause and sit with those uncomfortable feelings, just for a moment. Be mindful of actions that cause the feeling to be subverted or distracted, allow the full flow of emotions to pass, and then move on to do whatever brings you joy. 

This simple pause allows us to exist and all of our feelings to be, preventing the pile up and possible external dependency for happiness. Once the moment is passed, the feelings improve, the happiness that will come when engaging with anything (like that chocolate bar) will feel so much better, as well as having the ability to just exist without needing anything external.

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