Research suggests that if you ate a little over 25 pounds of chocolate (the weight of an average 2 year-old toddler) at once, you could get high… and probably very sick. However, for most of us who could not stomach quite that amount, why does chocolate make us happy? Chocolate contains more than 300 chemicals, including caffeine. There is also tryptophan, phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and a bunch of other chemicals, equally as hard to pronounce. In layman’s terms, these chemicals affect which emotions your brain releases, ultimately making you happy!
Phenylethylalanine, also referred to as the ‘love drug’, is a key ingredient of chocolate-based happiness. This chemical stimulates emotions linked to the initial high of falling in love, such as excitement, nervousness and (hopefully!) joy. However, the benefits of the ‘love drug’ do not stop there, as a reaction with dopamine – a naturally occurring chemical in the brain – causes the substance to act like an antidepressant. Another chemical that stimulates happiness is tryptophan, an amino acid your brain uses to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that stabilises mood and promotes happiness - as if we needed another reason to eat chocolate!
Chocolate has been found to have the same effect as marijuana on the brain, except chocolate’s effect is much more mild. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is a key ingredient in marijuana, and stimulates brain cells to produce dopamine, creating a feeling of bliss, or ‘high’. Chocolate has its own equivalents, theobromine and anandamide. Theobromine has a very similar structure to caffeine and works in tangent with it to provide the feel good, relaxing effect you experience when snacking on a bar of chocolate. For any chemists reading this, theobromine does not actually contain bromine, and is instead derived from the word ‘Theobroma’ and gets the ‘–ine’ from its chemical family, which also includes caffeine, morphine and cocaine! Anandamide, the other chemical mentioned, activates the receptor that produces dopamine, the same receptor activated by THC. However, anandamide and THC do not quite work the same way, hence why you would need to eat so much chocolate to achieve that ‘high’.
Chocolate cravings are also more complex than one might think. The Neurosciences Institute of San Diego, California found that: “chocolate contains pharmacologically active substances that have the same effect on the brain as marijuana, and these chemicals may be responsible for certain drug-induced psychoses associated with chocolate craving”. This means that, when our bodies are lacking those feel good chemicals, it craves a chocolate fix to get back into balance.
Sadly, I have some bad news about chocolate-induced happiness. A study conducted by Match & Mueller (2007) in the journal of Appetite, found that the euphoric effect only lasts 3 minutes! To add to this, in another study by Macht & Dettmer (2006), it was shown that the feeling of joy was soon followed by feelings of guilt.
So, is eating chocolate still worth it? For me the answer is simple - yes!
Original Image by Harriet Gould.