12th of October 2020
Biting into a rich, silky piece of dark chocolate offers far more than just instant gratification for your tastebuds. It can be an emotional, mood-boosting experience triggered by chemical reactions, sensory stimulation, and good ol’ nostalgia. Even before that chocolate slips seductively past your lips, your brain is already lighting up in anticipation.
So, can chocolate make you happy? It’s a question many eager researchers—and many more chocoholics—have been attempting to prove for decades. The Mayas, Aztecs, and indigenous tribes of Ecuador likely already knew the answer thousands of years ago, without any formal scientific studies. Still, there’s a growing amount of evidence to show that chocolate, particularly 100% pure cacao, is loaded with natural compounds whose main mission is to make you feel good.
Here’s what we know—so far—about why chocolate makes you happy.
Theobromine is the star player in dark chocolate, and the reason we call cacao the “food of the gods.” The word itself is derived from Greek: theo meaning “god” and broma “food.” It’s a stimulant with a similar structure to caffeine. It increases heart rate and blood flow, lowers blood pressure, enhances performance, and improves your mood.
Theobromine’s stimulating effects are (paradoxically) gentle and calming to the nervous system. This means you won’t experience the same jitters, crash, or sleep disruption of caffeine. The most concentrated source of theobromine is found in the cocoa bean, so the darker the chocolate, the better.
Theobromine + Caffeine
Caffeine is also present in chocolate—a full dark chocolate bar can contain around 75 mg of caffeine (about 20 mg less than a cup of coffee)—and researchers think it could work synergistically alongside theobromine. The two compounds may be largely responsible for why we enjoy eating chocolate so much.
In one study, volunteers took a drink along with a capsule that contained the same amount of caffeine and theobromine typically found in a 50-gram bar of dark chocolate. The group ended up liking the drink more than when it was paired with just a placebo.
As a result of the thermal processing and fermentation of cacao, chocolate contains trace amounts of phenylethylamine or the “love drug.” This natural antidepressant stimulates the release of endorphins, which lock into the opiate receptors in our brains, reducing pain and boosting mood. PEA also triggers the production of “feel-good” neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. It raises blood pressure and heart rate and softly heightens our senses.
All of these effects unite when we fall in love—or from the sky. PEA levels skyrocket when you see your crush or jump out of a plane. Eating chocolate may not offer quite the same euphoric rush. It may not even pass the blood-brain barrier to reach the brain. Still, PEA could potentially play a vital role in boosting mood when combined with chocolate’s numerous other compounds.
Dark chocolate contains anandamide, which also occurs naturally in the brain. Taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss (hence its nickname, the “bliss molecule”), this lipid neurotransmitter activates cannabinoid receptors in brain cells, much like THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. It boosts dopamine production and increases feelings of happiness and elation.
Of course, the high isn’t quite the same—you’d have to eat about 25 pounds of cacao to get there—but chocolate does contain two other chemicals similar to anandamide that help slow its breakdown in the brain. This creates, a longer-lasting, if subtle, sense of bliss.
Tryptophan, Magnesium, Antioxidants, and More
There are over 300 more chemicals in chocolate, many that offer a range of health benefits, and some that still need to be studied. Dark chocolate contains the amino acid tryptophan, a well-recognized serotonin producer. It’s also one of the best food sources of magnesium, an important mineral that allows the body to relax.
A one-ounce serving of dark chocolate contains 64 mg of magnesium. That’s 16% of the recommended daily intake. Add to that an abundance of other essential minerals, antioxidants, flavanols, and prebiotic fiber—all which makes us feel better in more ways than one.
It Tastes Good!
As you’re fully aware, chocolate is extremely palatable, making the simple act of eating it a pleasurable experience. Palatability is also linked to the opioid system in our bodies. Opioids, such as endorphins, are released when we eat food that we like, enhancing our enjoyment even further.
The mouthfeel of chocolate is another major part of its appeal: the way the cocoa butter perfectly melts in your mouth and coats your tongue. The taste, sweetness, and aroma add to chocolate’s temptation as well. Researchers are still unsure whether such sensory properties are innate or acquired, and whether they may be affected by a person’s current state of mind.
The Power of the Mind
Beyond its extraordinary chemical composition, chocolate makes us feel good simply because we think it will. Its undeniable influence over our mood is something that’s been ingrained in our collective unconscious—possibly since as far back as cacao’s origins in Ecuador some 5,000 years ago.
From a more modern standpoint, we’ve all seen the film trope: the scorned lover drowning their sorrows in a box of chocolates. We’ve been programmed to view chocolate as a coping mechanism, a delectable cure for the blues, and one study set out to prove just that. The experiment, which had subjects listen to either sad or happy music, found that those listening to the sad tunes ended up eating far more chocolate.
Chocolate and Mood
Several of chocolate’s many health- and happiness-promoting compounds (theobromine, PEA, anandamide, etc.) have been isolated and tested separately. Still, it’s unclear how these chemicals, combined with our emotional and psychological connections with chocolate, all work together to impact our overall mood.
How chocolate makes us happy may still be a bit of a mystery among scientists. That it continues to give us joy—bite by bite—remains an indisputable fact for the rest of us.