Chocolate is a psychoactive food. It is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao
tree, Theobroma cacao. The cacao tree was named by the 17th century Swedish naturalist,
Linnaeus. The Greek term theobroma means literally "food of the gods". Chocolate
has also been called the food of the devil; but the theological basis of this claim
More recently, a study of 8000 male Harvard graduates showed that chocoholics lived
longer than abstainers. Their longevity may be explained by the high polyphenol levels
in chocolate. Polyphenols reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoproteins and thereby
protect against heart disease. Such theories are still speculative.
Placebo-controlled trials suggest chocolate consumption may subtly enhance cognitive
performance. As reported by Dr Bryan Raudenbush (2006), scores for verbal and visual
memory are raised by eating chocolate. Impulse-control and reaction-time are also
improved. This study needs replicating.
A "symposium" at the 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science - hyped
as a potentially "mind-altering experience" - presented evidence that chocolate consumption
can be good for the brain. Experiments with chocolate-fed mice suggest that flavanol-rich
cocoa stimulates neurovascular activity, enhancing memory and alertness. This research
was partly funded by Mars, Inc.
Coincidentally or otherwise, many of the worlds oldest supercentenarians, e.g. Jeanne
Calment (1875-1997) and Sarah Knauss (1880-1999), were passionately fond of chocolate.
Jeanne Calment habitually ate two pounds of chocolate per week until her physician
induced her to give up sweets at the age of 119 - three years before her death aged
122. Life-extensionists are best advised to eat dark chocolate rather than the kinds
of calorie-rich confectionery popular in America.
Chocolate as we know it today dates to the inspired addition of triglyceride cocoa
butter by Swiss confectioner Rodolphe Lindt in 1879. The advantage of cocoa butter
is that its addition to chocolate sets a bar so that it will readily snap and then
melt on the tongue. Cocoa butter begins to soften at around 75 F; it melts at around
More than 300 different constituent compounds in chocolate have been identified.
Chocolate clearly delivers far more than a brief sugar high. Yet its cocktail of
psychochemical effects in the central nervous system are poorly understood. So how
does it work?
CHOCOLATE : the Psychoactive Cocktail
Chocolate contains small quantities of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid
found in the brain. Sceptics claim one would need to consume several pounds of chocolate
to gain any very noticeable psychoactive effects; and eat a lot more to get fully
stoned. Yet it's worth noting that N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine,
two structural cousins of anandamide present in chocolate, both inhibit the metabolism
of anandamide. It has been speculated that they promote and prolong the feeling of
well-being induced by anandamide.
Chocolate contains caffeine. But the caffeine is present only in modest quantities.
It is easily obtained from other sources. Indeed a whole ounce of milk chocolate
contains no more caffeine than a typical cup of "decaffeinated" coffee.
Chocolate's theobromine content may contribute to - but seems unlikely to determine
- its subtle but distinctive psychoactive profile. Surprisingly, perhaps, recent
research suggests that pure theobromine may be superior to opiates as a cough medicine
due to its action on the vagus nerve.
Chocolate also contains tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. It is
the rate-limiting step in the production of the mood-modulating neurotransmitter
serotonin. Enhanced serotonin function typically diminishes anxiety. Yet tryptophan
can normally be obtained from other sources as well; and only an unusually low-protein,
high-carbohydrate meal will significantly increase its rate of intake into the brain.
Like other palatable sweet foods, consumption of chocolate triggers the release of
endorphins, the body's endogenous opiates. Enhanced endorphin-release reduces the
chocolate-eater's sensitivity to pain. Endorphins probably contribute to the warm
inner glow induced in susceptible chocoholics.
Acute monthly cravings for chocolate amongst pre-menstrual women may be partly explained
by its rich magnesium content. Magnesium deficiency exacerbates PMT. Before menstruation,
too, levels of the hormone progesterone are high. Progesterone promotes fat storage,
preventing its use as fuel; elevated pre-menstrual levels of progesterone may cause
a periodic craving for fatty foods. One study reported that 91% of chocolate-cravings
associated with the menstrual cycle occurred between ovulation and the start of menstruation.
Chocolate cravings are admitted by 15% of men and around 40% of women. Cravings are
usually most intense in the late afternoon and early evening.
Cacao and chocolate bars contain a group of neuroactive alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines.
Tetrahydro-beta-carbolines are also found in beer, wine and liquor; they have been
linked to alcoholism. But the possible role of these chemicals in chocolate addiction
One UK study of the human electroencephalographic (EEG) response to chocolate suggests
that the odour of chocolate significantly reduces theta activity in the brain. Reduced
theta activity is associated with enhanced relaxation. This study needs replication.
Perhaps chocolate's key ingredient is its phenylethylamine (PEA) "love-chemical".
Yet the role of the "chocolate amphetamine" is disputed. Most if not all chocolate-derived
phenylethylamine is metabolised before it reaches the CNS. Some people may be sensitive
to its effects in very small quantities.
Phenylethylamine is itself a naturally occurring trace amine in the brain. Phenylethylamine
releases dopamine in the mesolimbic pleasure-centres; it peaks during orgasm. Taken
in unnaturally high doses, phenylethylamine can produce stereotyped behaviour more
prominently even than amphetamine. Phenylethylamine has distinct binding sites but
no specific neurons. It helps mediate feelings of attraction, excitement, giddiness,
apprehension and euphoria; but confusingly, phenylethylamine has also been described
as an endogenous anxiogen. One of its metabolites is unusually high in subjects with
There is even a phenylethylamine theory of depression. Monoamine oxidase type-b has
been described as phenylethylaminase; and taking a selective MAO-b inhibitor, such
as selegiline (l-deprenyl, Eldepryl) or rasagiline (Azilect) can accentuate chocolate's
effects. Some subjects report that bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban) reduces their chocolate-cravings;
but other chocoholics dispute this.