When you’re feeling down, there may be a reason why you reach for chocolate to chase away the blues.
The relationship you have with food goes far beyond just providing your body with fuel. What you eat impacts almost every organ of your body — including your brain.
When you’re feeling down or depressed, or if you live with a mood disorder, reaching for a chocolate boost might seem instinctual.
Sure, chocolate is a “comfort food,” but there may be more to your craving than just indulgence.
Mood disorders, sometimes referred to as affective disorders, are mental health conditions that impact your mood.
In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5), these disorders are broken into two groups:
- depressive disorders
- bipolar disorders and related disorders
Within these two groups are eight conditions that can affect your mood:
- major depressive disorder
- persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)
- disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD)
- premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- bipolar disorder I
- bipolar disorder II
- cyclothymic disorder
- other disorder (substance/medication-induced disorder; disorders that don’t meet the criteria for specific diagnosis)
Mood disorders are often accompanied by depressed and elevated mood changes, irritability, and symptoms of physical discomfort.
There are different ways chocolate might give you a mental boost.
Comfort food means something different to everyone. For you, it may mean a piece of chocolate cake. For your partner, it could mean a slice of apple pie.
Comfort foods are often linked to nostalgic memories. While you might genuinely enjoy a flavor, it’s often the deeper meaning linked to that food that boosts your mood.
The power of comfort foods on the mind may be so strong, in fact, that the smell alone could be enough to bring about mood-boosting activity in the brain, suggests
Serotonin and tryptophan
Serotonin and tryptophan are two neurotransmitters in your body known to influence mood.
For many decades,
According to some evidence from a 2015
Carbohydrates, like those found in chocolate, can increase the amount of tryptophan entering the brain.
In serotonin theory, the more tryptophan that crosses the blood-brain barrier, the more your body synthesizes serotonin and the fewer depressive symptoms you may experience.
While some research suggests food cravings can be linked to nutrient deficiencies, this doesn’t seem to be the case with chocolate.
The pull cocoa products have on you may be more closely related to withdrawal than a need for vitamins and minerals.
Study data suggests removing something from your diet, like chocolate, will likely result in short-term cravings. Over time, however, those cravings will diminish regardless of your diet’s nutritional content.
Part of your short-term cravings may be attributed to habit. If you’re accustomed to having chocolate after a meal, for example, you may not feel satisfied until you meet that routine.
The other part of your short-term cravings may be linked to the addictive properties of chocolate’s ingredients.
A 2020 review showcases chocolate’s drug-like properties, including the presence of fatty acids and biogenic amines that are considered to be psychoactive agents.
Whether through habit or addiction, satisfying cravings is just that — satisfying.
Mood disorders and inflammation have been closely linked, though they aren’t yet well-understood.
Research notes inflammation markers are present in as many as 50% of mood disorder cases, and up to 80% of chronic inflammatory diseases have comorbidity with a mood disorder.
If you feel like your symptoms from a mood disorder improve after eating chocolate, it could be because chocolate is rich in flavanols.
Flavanols are known for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties. In 2013, a study noted the flavanols in cocoa products might be able to counteract the effects of depressive brain disorders.
Mood disorders can all come with symptoms of depressed mood. This may be in the context of major depression, or it could mean you’re experiencing a depressive episode while living with bipolar disorder.
Chocolate can’t replace traditional treatment options for depressive feelings with mood disorders, but science may support its role in your diet.
Similarly, consuming cocoa products was linked to a short-term boost in mood in a recent 9-study review.
Are you one of the many women living with PMDD? In 2010, a study revealed women experiencing PMDD reported positive emotional responses when they consumed high sweet, high fat foods like chocolate.
Too much of anything has the potential to be unhealthy. Chocolate is no exception to the rule, but the question is: how much chocolate is too much?
Remember that not all chocolate is created equal. Most of the chocolate used in research is dark chocolate, which has a higher percentage of pure cocoa compared to milk chocolate.
Cocoa is what’s responsible for many of chocolate’s health-boosting ingredients, like flavanols and antioxidants.
Also keep in mind that the amount of chocolate that’s “healthy,” depends on why you’re eating chocolate. If you’re looking to boost your brain power, 1 to 1.6 ounces per day is the recommended dose.
On the other hand, research suggests that if you’re looking for the heart-health benefits, up to 100 grams of chocolate might be the way to go.
Not everyone can sustain a diet with 100 grams of chocolate per day. How much you eat also depends on your calorie intake. If eating chocolate results in too much weight gain, you may start to counteract some of the benefits.
Currently, there aren’t any dietary recommendations for chocolate consumption related to mood disorders.
If you’d like to incorporate chocolate into your diet to naturally boost your mood, a healthcare professional or dietitian can help create a diet plan that works for you.
Chocolate works on mood in a number of ways, making it a delicious way to relieve short-term depressive symptoms.
Cocoa products aren’t a substitution for traditional therapies, however.
Many of the symptoms of mood disorders can be serious and impact day-to-day functioning. They may require more than a chocolate boost to get you through the day.
Chocolate may not be effective on other symptoms associated with mood disorders, and consuming too much chocolate could lead to counterproductive health challenges, like obesity.
Having a piece of chocolate when you’re feeling down is OK. Having chocolate all day, every day to self-treat a mood disorder may not be in your best interests.
When symptoms of a mood disorder feel overwhelming, a mental health professional can help. You’re not alone.
If you need help finding a therapist, try our tool to find one that’s a best fit for you.