Is this you? Things are bad, and then they get worse, so you reach for the chocolate. You chew on the sweet melting mass. The rich cocoa butter coats your palette, the aroma fills you with pleasure, and even before you swallow, you are already visualizing the next chunk that you’ll slide into your mouth. You briefly feel better, but soon, you’re back to the — perhaps deeper — depression, and you reach for more chocolate.
It’s a cultural cliché that people eat chocolate when they feel gloomy. Why does chocolate impact mood? There are more than 600 chemicals in chocolate, and some of them influence the level of feel-good brain chemicals. For instance, studies have shown that chocolate stimulates the release of dopamine, otherwise known as the “love” hormone, and serotonin, which eases pain. Apparently, when you eat chocolate, the hypothalamus releases the neurotransmitter beta-endorphin which has an opiate effect on the body. According to Professor Gordon Parker of the Blackdog Institute in Australia, who led a 2007 study of the impact of chocolate on mood, “The opioids are morphine-like and lower pain and that also flows through into mental well-being.” But the opiate effect of chocolate does not necessarily lead to bliss or even relief, a new study concludes. While it’s clear that chocolate triggers the brain to release feel-good chemicals, the study found that chocolate may not really provide the relief that depressed people seek.
Certainly, depressed people do crave the treat — the study confirmed that fact. Dr. Beatrice Golomb, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Diego led the research. Her team surveyed more than 900 people about their chocolate consumption and overall diet. After screening out those who were taking antidepressants, the researchers found that people who weren’t depressed consumed an average of 5.4 portions of chocolate per month, with a portion defined as a small chocolate bar or an ounce of chocolate candy. Moderately depressed people consumed 8.4 servings per month, and those who were highly depressed consumed an average of 12.4 servings per month. In other words, the depressed subjects ate more than twice the amount of chocolate compared to the happier subjects, and this ratio held steady for both men and women.
Did the depressed people eat more in general? No. The researchers controlled for caloric intake, and they found that the depressed subjects had equivalent intake of calories, fat, and carbohydrates compared to the non-depressed subjects. Only the chocolate differential existed. This indicates some special and unique connection between chocolate and depression, but the researchers say the exact nature of that connection remains unclear.
Dr. Golomb theorizes that people might eat chocolate as a form of self-medication when sad. Well, that’s hardly news to the chocolate-feasting depressive. Again, it’s a cultural cliché, and as already stated, studies have indicated that chocolate elevates mood. But Dr. Golomb also says that chocolate might function like alcohol, making depressed people feel better in the short run, but having negative impacts on health and mood in the long run, especially if the chocolate tends more toward the high in saturated fats and ugly additives varieties, rather than the purer, organic dark chocolate.
A 2007 study by the Blackdog Institute in Australia may shed some light on this bipolar impact of chocolate on mood. According to study leader Professor Gordon Parker, the way chocolate affects your mood depends on your personality — whether you’re what he calls a â€˜craver,’ versus an emotional eater. He says that for cravers, “the anticipation of enjoying the chocolate and the pleasure in eating it seems to stimulate the dopamine system in the brain, and provides an enjoyable experience. But the emotional eaters, people who eat chocolate to relieve boredom, stress or clinical depression, are looking for an opioid effect to improve their mood and, sadly, for many this doesn’t work. At best, the chocolate only provides temporary relief. But this is quickly followed by a return to, or even a worsening, of their earlier negative state.”
Of course, the line between being a craver and an emotional eater may be thinner than a mitochondria’s membrane, but nevertheless, Susan Albers, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio believes that the chocolate fix may be anything but. “Emotional chocolate eaters may be looking for an immediate change that exercise or antidepressants can bring,” she says. But a “crash” often follows the chocolate rush, she says, and “the crash will make the depression worse.” She also says that exercise and antidepressants are superior to chocolate because they create lasting mood improvement, and while she’s right about the exercise, the advisability of taking antidepressants is open to debate, as I’ve mentioned many times before.
The problem at hand here, though, is that the “chocolate high” is so short lived, and as a salve for depression, it’s unable to sustain mood, especially for those who eat chocolate for emotional reasons. So as pleasurable as eating chocolate may be, there will inevitably be a letdown. Dr. Albers offers some advice on how to eat chocolate for maximum impact: “When we eat chocolate, we tend to think about the next piece before we finish the one we are eating. I teach people to slow down the process by opening up the chocolate slowly, listening to it crinkle, and slowing down the whole process so they actually taste it and realize that a small amount can make them feel a lot better.”
Then again, if you don’t want to listen to your chocolate wrapper crinkle, you can listen to the advice of yet another brilliant psychologist, Scott Bea, of the Cleveland Clinic: “If you crave chocolate a lot, examine your mood state and deduce if depression is a factor in your life.” On the other hand, if you’re not depressed, you can stop worrying, declare yourself a craver rather than an emotional chocoholic and listen to the wisdom of Charles M. Schultz, Snoopy’s creator: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”