In 2020, Mental Health Awareness Month coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus has caused a great deal of physical pain and loss for many, but it has also led to mental and emotional hardships. Concern over the health and safety of loved ones, quarantines, isolations, and loss of financial security can all lead to anxiety and depression. Mental illness can affect anyone and may develop anytime. Even before the pandemic, depression has been a significant issue worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects almost 300 million people. The primary therapies for depression include antidepressant medications and psychotherapies. However, psychotherapy services are limited, and compliance with antidepressants is low. Medication is not always ideal or effective for everyone. Lifestyle changes may be a better option. The positive effects of physical activity on depression is well established. Also, there is growing evidence that diet may have an impact on depression as well.
Many foods have been associated with mood enhancement, but none are as popular or as well-known as chocolate. However, there are only a few studies that illustrate the relationship between mood and chocolate. An article from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America is one such study. According to the study’s findings, people who consume chocolate, specifically dark chocolate, are less likely to develop depression. Unfortunately, the study has significant flaws. Despite the questionable validity of results, however, the theory that chocolate can alleviate depression may still hold true. Researchers have identified several mechanisms by which chocolate might affect mood. These mechanisms include orosensory characteristics, psychoactive components, and nutritional composition.
Orosensory (mouth-sensing) Characteristics
Chocolate’s highly palatable combination of sweetness, creaminess, and the optimal mouthfeel is believed to affect mood by providing an enjoyable experience. When chocolate is consumed and enjoyed, endorphin levels rise in the body. Endorphins (hormones that have a similar chemical composition to morphine) control how the body responds to pleasure, stress, pain, and addictions. It is the higher levels of endorphins that generate positive feelings.
Psychoactive Components (chemicals that affect the mind)
The psychoactive components thought to affect mood include methylxanthines (theobromine and caffeine), unsaturated N-acylethanolamines, and flavanols.
- Methylxanthines- are stimulants responsible for increased alertness, mental energy, and feelings of well-being.
- Unsaturated N-acylethanolamines- bind to the same receptors in the brain as cannabis, resulting in similar feelings of heightened sensitivity and euphoria
- Flavanols- the effects on mood are not well understood, but there are a few theories
Flavanols are antioxidants (substances that prevent cell damage) and are anti-inflammatory; their actions may prevent mood-altering hormonal imbalances caused by free radicals (unstable atoms that cause cell damage) and inflammation
Flavanols cause the blood vessels to relax thus altering blood flow to the brain; some research shows that blood flow can affect feelings of anxiety and mood. Studies show that reduced blood flow is linked to depression and other mood disorders. However, too much blood flow can increase anxiety.
Flavanols have been found to increase the availability of mood-altering neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain) such as dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine
Some research proposes a relationship between chocolate’s carbohydrate and magnesium contents and the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain (similar to that of flavanols). The carbohydrates in chocolate increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is associated with energy and alertness. Magnesium, if depleted in the body, can lower both serotonin and dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness and satisfaction). Stress can cause levels of magnesium to drop; however, chocolate, which is rich in magnesium, can help.
The appearance of mood-altering effects consistently occur after whole chocolate is consumed rather than individual constituents: this suggests mood effects are derived from the combination of chocolate’s orosensory characteristics, psychoactive components, and nutritional composition.
There is no undisputed evidence that shows that chocolate can be used as an antidepressant. However, the research on chocolate may be one step into discovering how we can use food to aid in the treatment of mood disorders. Some scientists have named this research “Nutritional Psychiatry.” You should not use chocolate as a treatment for mental illness. Mental illness should be treated under the guidance of a professional. But if you are simply having a bad day, you can go for a walk, talk to a friend or loved one, or eat a little dark chocolate (in moderation). You may feel a bit better. To reap the benefits without unnecessary sugar and fat, make your own “mood-boosting” chocolate dessert like the one below.
Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding (2 servings)
Equipment: bowl, sifter, whisk, measuring cups
· 1 cup unsweetened plant milk (soy, almond, oat, etc.)
· 2-3 tbsp cacao/cocoa powder
· 2-3 tbsp maple syrup
· 1/4 cup chia seeds
optional ingredients: a pinch of sea salt, a pinch of cinnamon, and a splash of vanilla extract
1. Sift cacao into a bowl (to remove clumps)
2. Add maple syrup, milk, and optional ingredients
3. Whisk until smooth
4. Add chia seeds and whisk again
5. Cover the bowl and leave in the fridge for 2-4 hours until the mixture becomes thick
Tip: if you don’t like the tapioca consistency, try putting the pudding in the blender to get a smoother texture
Do you or someone else that you know need help?
If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others:
Visit the Disaster Distress Helpline, call 1-800-985-5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746.
Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889