12 Feb It’s Science! The Relaxation & Health Benefits of Chocolate
Get some of the relaxing and healing effects of massage from an unlikely source.
Chocolate has long been a comfort food. Many of us consider it a go-to friend in times of stress, or a decadent treat in times of celebration.
But it’s not just for breakups and birthdays anymore. In fact, scientists have been able to narrow down the components of chocolate to tell us why and how it makes us feel the way it does.
The Science Behind the Health Benefits of Chocolate
For the past several years, researchers have been slowly uncovering the hidden health and relaxation benefits of regularly eating small portions of chocolate. You know that euphoric, relaxed feeling you have after a massage? Experts have found that eating chocolate can unlock some of the chemicals in your brain that are released when you get a massage.
We have known for awhile that the antioxidants found in chocolate are higher than the levels found in red wine, another powerful antioxidant source. In fact, cocoa is one of the highest-scoring foods ever tested for antioxidants. This means chocolate can help you effectively battle free radicals and help keep your body healthy at the cellular level.
More incredibly, chocolate has been linked with helping people with dozens of medical conditions. It has been clinically shown to help regulate the effects of diabetes, reduce the possibility of stroke, improve cholesterol and lower blood pressure, and more. Heck, it can even help achieve weight loss and make your skin glow!
On top of all of these amazing benefits, chocolate also just makes you feel good, stimulating healthy brain chemistry.
But what’s actually behind the feel-good factor of chocolate? Well, it’s all in the chemistry. There are chemical components that are found naturally in chocolate that can promote relaxation and happiness. Let’s take a closer look and break it down.
The Love Chemical
Researchers have found that chocolate contains a stimulant called phenethylamine (PEA). PEA also occurs naturally in the brain, and additional PEA consumption causes the brain to release dopamine and norepinephrine. Together, these three chemicals can trigger relaxation, elation and euphoria.
They are sometimes even described as the “love chemicals,” thought to be responsible for creating that head-over-heels feeling of falling in love. This is also why chocolate is said to be an aphrodisiac. The link between love and chocolate goes back centuries, and now scientists have been able to pinpoint exactly why. Cool, right?
Caffeine’s Friendlier Cousin
The other component of chocolate that leads to relaxation is called theobromine, which has a similar effect to caffeine. However, theobromine is not nearly as strong a stimulant as caffeine. And instead of causing users to feel “the jitters,” theobromine induces a calming, relaxing feeling to go along with the gentle stimulant effects.
In fact, theobromine has such physically relaxing qualities that pharmaceutical researchers are currently developing cough suppressants using the chemical, which could replace more dangerous, opiate-based medications.
As a note, theobromine appears more prominently in dark chocolate, and is responsible for lending dark chocolate its bitter taste. This chemical is also what makes chocolate potentially toxic for dogs and other animals.
How to Take Your Chocolate: A Prescription
Here’s a few tips on how to get the most out of your chocolate-eating experience:
- Go for straight-up chocolate—not in cupcake or ice cream form. The less processed your chocolate, the better.
- Savor it. Enjoy your chocolate slowly. Don’t scarf down a whole Hershey bar all at once. Mindful eating can help you to achieve the relaxing and euphoric effects of chocolate.
- The darker the better. Darker chocolate contains more theobromine and typically less sugar. This will maximize the relaxation benefits and reduce the opposite effects of the sugar.
- Limit your portion. Have a bite-size piece as a treat after dinner. Don’t overdo it. Studies have shown that subjects who eat large amounts of chocolate experience weight gain, which leads to high blood pressure and increased stress.
- If you don’t care for bar chocolate, have it in liquid form. Hot cocoa can provide all the benefits of chocolate—just look for less-processed cocoa at the store, avoiding the mass-produced packets.
Just note, it is important to look for chocolate that has a high level of real cocoa. Highly-processed chocolate has not been shown to have the same beneficial effects as more pure variations.
It should go without saying that a diet consisting only of chocolate is not going to do you much good. But when part of a nutrient-rich diet made up of whole fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, chocolate can improve many medical conditions, boost your mood, and help you to relax.
The Link to Massage
Interestingly, even though you are not ingesting anything, massage has the effect of releasing helpful brain chemicals too. The experience facilitates the release of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. These three chemicals are essential in boosting your mood and giving you that loving feeling.
On the flip side, massage also reduces levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Reducing the levels of these chemicals leads to a more relaxed mood, and can actually open your body’s healing pathways, reduce the physiological effects of stress and increase viral immunity.
So, what do you think? Have you ever used chocolate to improve your mood? Have you ever felt like you were in love after eating a chocolate bar?
Let us know in the comments below!