Chocolate, anxiety and stress
Chocolate/cocoa has been consumed for its purported healing properties since at least as early as 460 AD. The medicinal uses of cacao or chocolate either as a primary remedy or as a vehicle to deliver other medicines originated in Mesoamerica, where it was consumed by indigenous peoples, and diffused to Europe in the mid-1500s. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, well over 100 uses for cacao or chocolate, as a medical treatment, were documented.
Today, chocolate is lauded for its tremendous antioxidant potential. This has stimulated research on its effects in a number of areas including anxiety and stress management, ageing, and blood pressure regulation.
Not all chocolate is equal
When we talk about the stress and anxiety relieving benefits of chocolate, we're talking about dark chocolate only. Milk chocolate has almost no nutritional value, and white chocolate isn't even really chocolate.
Dark chocolate is best
The scientific evidence that dark chocolate and cocoa products may alleviate anxiety and stress is a relatively recent discovery.
Dark chocolate contains flavonols, which are antioxidants which are believed to benefit brain function by improving blood flow to the brain.
A 2011 study found that incorporating some dark chocolate into your diet may be helpful to some people in easing anxiety. One of the causes of anxiety is low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Eating dark chocolate has been shown to increase levels of the serotonin.
In a 2014 study of highly stressed individuals, participants reported significantly lower levels of stress after consuming 40 grams of dark chocolate every day over a two-week period. The researchers concluded that dark chocolate intake blunted the body’s response to the brain signals of stress. In particular, the response of the adrenal gland, which produces cortisol, was much less. These results were consistent with those of two other randomized controlled studies in which chocolate was shown to reduce stress in highly stressed as well as normal healthy individuals.
When you eat chocolate you may experience an improvement in your mood, albeit a temporary one. This is because dark chocolate contains the alkaloid Theobromine, which studies have shown has a positive, mood elevating effect on those that ingest it.
And that’s not all!
Dark chocolate also contains high amounts of magnesium, and studies are starting to find that magnesium may be one of the few nutrients that has a noticeable effect on anxiety. People often take magnesium supplements, but getting your magnesium through food is considered a much healthier overall option.
How to get the most from your dark chocolate
The CalmClinic offers these two recommendations for getting the most from your dark chocolate.
First, try to choose the finest, most natural dark chocolate. Remember, dark chocolate is the only valuable chocolate, and the more natural it is the more likely it is going to have the nutrients that supposedly help reduce anxiety.
Second, consider eating dark chocolate that has other ingredients that are also healthy. There aren't many, but one thing worth trying is dark chocolate covered almonds. Almonds are incredibly healthy, rich in magnesium, and delicious. Keep in mind though that almonds are also high in calories, so you'll need to make sure that you exercise and stay healthy.
Best eaten in moderation!
So overall the research that’s been conducted appears to support that, for some people, chocolate/cocoa can help reduce stress and anxiety. However, as cocoa is predominantly consumed as energy-dense chocolate, potential detrimental effects of over-consumption exist, including increased risk of weight gain. So chocolate is best eaten in moderation - 1.5 ounces is a reasonable serving size. The closer you get to pure dark chocolate the more likely the chocolate has benefits, and if you can get sugar free dark chocolate that's even better.
Don’t rely on chocolate alone to reduce your anxiety
So there you have it, dark chocolate is beneficial in lowering stress and anxiety due to its antioxidants and its ability to increase serotonin levels. However, when it comes to managing stress and anxiety you can't just rely on eating chocolate! You need to make sure that you're using effective stress and anxiety management tools, techniques and treatments that produce long term benefits.
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Wishing you a wonderful holiday weekend full of chocolate and calm.
REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."
Tony helps adults, teenagers and children live their lives free of unnecessary stress, anxiety and depression, and to build resilience.