Many of us gravitate towards chocolate during periods of stress, but it can be hard to decipher if it's actually stress relieving or just something we want to believe because let's face it, it tastes so good!
The truth is, the world eats a lot of chocolate, and when I say a lot I mean over a 100 billion dollars worth of it.
But is it actually beneficial?
Beyond its rich, sweet, and mouth watering taste, it turns out that the science now confirms that chocolate contains many health benefits as well as stress fighting properties.
It's important to recognize, however, that not all chocolates are created equal. There is a difference between the types of chocolates that are available for consumers. Most chocolates on the market are high in sugar which is associated with poor health outcomes.
Dark chocolate on the other hand is what is linked to multiple health benefits including improving cardiovascular health, blood pressure, blood sugar control, brain function, insulin sensitivity, and mood (1)(2)(3)(4).
A study found those consuming dark chocolate released less cortisol and adrenaline than those eating white chocolate when faced with a stressor (5).
While milk chocolate has been shown to provide positive effects, darker chocolate tends to offer increased health benefits because it is the least processed and contains lower amounts of additional ingredients such as fat and sugar (6).
Let's explore how you can reduce your stress levels and feel calmer with this natural delicacy that your body and tastebuds will approve of.
The stress relieving and mood boosting effects of dark chocolate
Let's first get clear on what dark chocolate actually means. Dark chocolate means it contains a minimum of 70% cacao content with little to no milk solids.
When choosing a dark chocolate look for the least amount of ingredients possible, 70% cacao or higher, and cacao listed as the first ingredient.
Now, what makes dark chocolate so special?
Dark chocolate contains antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, and have been shown to lower stress hormones such as cortisol (7).
Cacao is known as one of the highest antioxidant foods on the planet and is particularly rich in flavonoids that help to combat free radicals, protect heart health, and support mood and cognition (8).
Research findings suggest that flavonoid rich dark chocolate can provide stress-protective effects by buffering stress reactivity from the adrenal glands (9).
One study found that the average flavonoid content of dark chocolate was five times greater than in milk chocolate (10).
The darker the chocolate the more bitter the taste and the more antioxidants it is likely to have (11).
Dark chocolate is known to make you feel good, and one of the reasons for this may be its serotonin enhancing effects.
As dark chocolate is a food source of the amino acid tryptophan, the precursor of serotonin, it may help to increase this feel good hormone and relaxant in the brain.
The carbohydrates in chocolate may also be responsible for increasing the amount of serotonin entering the brain, depending on the sugar added (12).
Another ingredient found in dark chocolate is theobromine. Though it has been shown to be toxic to dogs, for humans it may possess mood enhancing and anti-depressant effects (13).
Theobromine is said to have similar stimulating, though milder effects, as caffeine to help increase mental alertness, focus, mood, and energy by encouraging blood flow to the brain.
Chocolate may influence the release of neurotransmitters and endorphins such as serotonin and dopamine that are involved with the reward system and mood regulation (14)(15).
Chocolate contains tyramine, a compound that is derived from the amino acid tyrosine, and is associated with increases in dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure seeking chemical that makes us feel good.
Fat and sugar are known to stimulate the dopamine reward system, which is why higher fat and sugary chocolate options can be so difficult to resist and increase your desire for more (16).
The release of endorphins that chocolate can stimulate may be a likely factor to its popularity and desirability.
Magnesium status is highly associated with stress levels and anxiety (17). This mineral plays an important role in neurological health by regulating neurotransmitters and improving brain function.
Magnesium is often referred to as the "anti-stress" mineral as it has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress hormones (18).
Dark chocolate is a food rich in magnesium. In fact, dark chocolate, with 70% or higher cacao content, provides 36 mg of magnesium per 100 kcal serving, which corresponds to 9% of the RDA for middle-aged men in the U.S (19).
Lower levels of magnesium are associated with higher stress which is why it's important to obtain magnesium from your diet first and foremost, and that can include dark chocolate.
It may not come as a big surprise to you that chocolate can reduce stress and make you feel better, as it is a food that many of us tend to reach for during times of emotional distress.
Research confirms the many beneficial health effects that chocolate can provide, including stress relief, however it does matter what kind of chocolate you choose. The higher the cacao content, the healthier it is, though it can get quite bitter for most tastebuds so experiment with how high you can go to reap the benefits!