It’s nearly a long weekend, which is reason to celebrate and try to relax. Since it’s Stress Awareness Month as well as Easter weekend, we wanted to unwrap the reasons why chocolate could be a helpful tool in managing mental health.
For some of us, chocolate is a relaxing treat. For others, the sugar high might become addictive, or trigger other health problems.
I remember hiding Easter eggs as a child to gorge on later. It was observed that I struggled to stop eating them. I remember a kindly aunt telling me “out of sight, out of mind” and the concept being alien to me. How would not seeing the thing stop me thinking about the thing? Chocolate gave me something other things around me could not. It soothed me, so why would I stop doing something that gave me pleasure when so much of the world seemed less pleasurable?
It was around this time I recall being bullied for being overweight. Eating disorders and I had an early forming relationship. Without sharing weights, which can be triggering for those in recovery, between the ages of 8 and 11 I was taken to the hospital in school holidays to being weighed and measured to plot the chart of my rapid weight gain. I learned there were “good” foods and “bad” foods and to lose weight was “good” and to gain weight “bad”. I was misinformed or perhaps I misunderstood.
There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods. In fact, chocolate, which I misunderstood for years to be in the latter category, is supported by research to be potentially good for mental and physical health. Chocolate contains antioxidants and other nutrients that can have positive effects on overall health. Studies have shown that eating dark chocolate and drink liquid cocoa lowers blood pressure and improves endothelial function. Further research indicates that dark chocolate(not white chocolate), not only decreases blood pressure but also improves insulin sensitivity.
While many studies show that dark chocolate can be good for your health, some have demonised milk and white chocolate into the fictious “bad” food category. However, a study suggest milk chocolate can reduce your risk of suffering a stroke. The study concludes that eating more chocolate means you’ll experience fewer strokes in your lifetime.
Chocolate also contains antioxidants which help heart health. Chocolate contains heart-healthy antioxidants called flavonoids, which may be responsible for some of its health benefits. Other studies have shown that eating a moderate amount of dark chocolate may protect against heart disease and also help with memory.
And when it comes to mental health, there is evidence to suggest that chocolate can have mood-boosting effects. An American 2018 study surveyed the chocolate eating habits and depressive symptoms of more than 13,000 American adults, aged 20 to 80, has found that those who regularly eat any amount of any type of dark chocolate significantly cut their odds of developing depressive symptoms compared to those who eat no chocolate at all.
For the purposes of this study, dark chocolate was defined as any chocolate containing 45% or more cocoa solids. People who didn’t eat dark chocolate or ate no chocolate at all showed no benefit to their mood. The results appear to mean those who eat chocolate cut the risk of “clinically significant” depressive symptoms by more than half. These results also seemed to be the case regardless of age, education level, income, body weight, health conditions, physical activity, alcohol intake and other factors that could impact depressive symptoms. It’s worth noting, however this particular study was a self-reporting one and these usually produce less reliable results.
However, all this seems to indicate reasonably conclusively, chocolate can be great for mental health and physical health. But why?
Chocolate could help prevent or reduce symptoms of depression because of a number of reasons. It contains psychoactive ingredients, including some that produce euphoric effects like those of cannabis. Chocolate also contains neurochemicals that play a role in the regulation of mood and depression and antioxidants that help fight inflammation, which may also factor into depression. And to many, eating chocolate induces feelings of pleasure simply because it tastes good. There are other certain chemicals in chocolate, such as theobromine, which can have a stimulating effect on the nervous system. But what if you’re hypersensitive to stimulus?
After a teenage life full of hospitalisations for anorexia and then hospitalisations due to attempts to take my life due to binge eating disorder, I now realise food is something I am sensitive too. Energy is something I am sensitive to. Sensory stimulus is something I am sensitive to. My eating disorders were a way for me to soothe my nervous system and comfort myself from the inside out. I sought warmth, a feeling of safety, from binge eating or bulimia. And in anorexia I sought a shut down, a defiance, non-compliance. So many say eating disorders are about control. It’s an oversimplification to say it’s just that.
We all of us have a complex relationship with food. It is the first external “substance” we can learn to use to change our nervous system responses. Hugs, warmth, soothing sounds are all first but then comes food.
I adore food nowadays. I’ve realised the sensory connection I’ve made between different flavours discovered at different times in my life. Food can take you to a time, a place, a feeling long forgotten. For me that is why I believe some foods sometimes give me a digestive issue – not all the time but at times of high stress. The digestive system is known as our second brain for a reason.
So, our second brain can be sensitive to what we put into it. And while the benefits of chocolate have been documented, there are some studies to show specific types of chocolate with higher sugar and fat content can have less positive effects. Like the best things in life, not all chocolate is created equal. Many types of chocolate are high in sugar and fat, which can have negative effects on overall health. A study showed that sugar consumption can cause inflammation and oxidative stress both of which can contribute not only to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety but also physical conditions such as cancer. Men with high sugar intakes have an increased chance of developing anxiety and depression. And a 2017 report published in Scientific Reports showed that common mood disorders were linked to high sugar intake.
And as my experience can attest, the consumption of high levels of sugar can cause blood sugar levels to spike, leading to a temporary energy boost followed by a crash. This can lead to mood swings and feelings of irritability or fatigue. For individuals with a history of eating disorders or other mental health conditions, the consumption of chocolate or other high-sugar foods may be especially problematic.
That being said, there are ways to mitigate the negative effects of chocolate consumption. Choosing dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids and low sugar content can provide the potential mood-boosting benefits of chocolate without the negative effects of excess sugar. Also stabilizing blood sugar levels through regular meals and snacks can help to regulate mood and energy levels throughout the day. I was once informed by a nutritionist to eat little and often, every 4 hours of so and generally find this does indeed help me regulate my mood and energy.
Finding balance is one of the great challenges of being human. A balance between pleasure and pain, stress and relaxation, balancing our lifestyles. Life is a balancing act.
Particularly during Stress Awareness Month and at the start of a hopefully relaxing long weekend, we can celebrate the soothing properties of chocolate. Many people turn to chocolate as a comfort food during times of stress or anxiety, and there is evidence to suggest that the act of eating chocolate can have a calming effect on the nervous system. In particular, the act of consuming something sweet can activate the release of endorphins in the brain, which can produce feelings of pleasure and relaxation. For some, like me, that can become addictive, while for others it will not. You lucky people you!
So this weekend I’ll be kicking back with some dark chocolate and lots of hugs from my nearest and dearest to help me relax. Whether you’re enjoying chocolate this weekend or not for whatever reason, enjoy yourself. And if you’re looking to take care of your mental health and eat a sweet treat too, the best advice is to choose chocolate wisely and consume it in moderation as part of a balanced diet. It’s a good thing therefore that there are lots of other lovely Easter treats to consume and enjoy, like time with loved ones, longer lie ins and hopefully even a little bit of sunshine. Fingers crossed anyway.
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