Can Chocolate Really Help Anxiety and Depression?
Jul 6, 2023, 7 min read
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like chocolate. This sweet treat is a favourite around the world, and is used in everything from cakes to pastries to ice cream, and even savoury foods too. It’s known as an instant mood-booster… but is it really?
We’re lifting the lid on chocolate as a potential tool to help with anxiety and depression by looking at its history, any links to mood, its relationship with anxiety and depressive conditions, and whether or not it’s actually possible to be a "chocoholic".
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about tools that could help with anxiety and depression, we’re here to help.
Why does everyone love chocolate so much?
Chocolate is thought to have been first created in ancient Maya (where it was used for everything from religious and cultural rituals to currency) using the beans of the cacao tree, and the original version of chocolate was actually quite bitter rather than the sweet snack found on supermarket shelves today. It later became popular in Europe and America, and evolved to become the sweeter version we know and love.
Aside from the fact that it’s super tasty and can be used in a variety of foods, chocolate has long been known as a way to cheer up, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to support this. It is often touted as a mood booster for people experiencing period pains and premenstrual stress, and despite this being thought of as an old wives’ tale, there may actually be some science to back it up.
Is there any link between chocolate and mood?
Chocolate has been found to provide many brain-focused benefits, such as its ability to influence cognitive performance and provide neuroprotective effects. It has also been found to influence mood, with a study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology finding that participants who ingested a polyphenol-rich chocolate drink once a day (around 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate) reported feeling more calm and content than the control group.
Polyphenols are a naturally occurring chemical compound, commonly found in plant based foods, which work as antioxidants in the body (meaning they can combat environmental harm such as UV damage and pollution) and can even help to combat specific health conditions - so anything rich in polyphenols is generally a good thing!
Our mood tends to affect our food intake and choices, and our food choices also influence our mood in return, so there can be a significant link between chocolate and mood.
What about the simple fact that people feel happy when eating their favourite foods?
If a food makes you happy in the moment, then there’s no reason you can’t enjoy it in moderation to boost your mood temporarily. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that certain comfort foods provide a biological boost in mood.
In one study of the effects of comfort foods on our mood, it was found that eating comfort foods provided mood improvements, but no more so than other foods. It is commonly believed that comfort foods will provide us with comfort, as the name suggests, but there are no specific mood benefits to eating these foods that can’t also be attained by eating healthy foods. We may be giving comfort food the credit for making us feel better, even though we would have begun to feel better on our own anyway.
Ultimately, studies have suggested it is unclear whether the mood benefits of chocolate are actually down to the sensory characteristics of chocolate (i.e. the fact that it’s delicious!) or to its pharmacological abilities.
Often, the key to getting happiness from chocolate can come down to mindfulness. In one study which asked participants to eat either chocolate or crackers, those who were asked to eat their chocolate mindfully (for example, slowing down and savouring it) had a larger increase in positive mood compared to those who did not mindfully eat their chocolate, or who ate crackers instead.
Does it matter what type of chocolate?
If you are looking to introduce more chocolate into your diet with the aim of boosting your mood, it may depend on which type of chocolate you choose to eat; white, milk, dark, or another variation.
Studies have found that gut microorganisms can have effects on our brain function, behaviour, and more. In human studies, it was determined that people with altered gut microbiota showed some psychiatric changes related to modulation of the gut-brain axis, and so a controlled trial was carried out to determine whether eating dark chocolate could influence mood in healthy adults with regulation of the gut microbiota.
In the study, daily consumption of dark chocolate significantly reduced negative affect in those eating 85% cocoa, but not in those eating 70% cocoa. Based on these results, it would appear that perhaps sticking to dark chocolate with a minimum of 85% cocoa could be the best way to benefit from the potential positive effects of chocolate.
What is it about chocolate that can boost mood?
Eating dark chocolate has been known to reduce stress thanks to both its emotional and chemical impact, and it does this in a number of ways:
- Chocolate possesses multiple compounds that can influence the brain and create a feeling of delight
- Cocoa beans are one of nature’s most concentrated sources of theobromine, a molecular variation of caffeine, which is thought to have mood-boosting properties
- Cocoa is high in antioxidants, and contains phenylethylamine, which helps to increase the activity of neurotransmitters
- Chocolate elevates serotonin activity which helps to boost mood
- Chocolate is loaded with positive neurotransmitters such as oleoylethanolamide and N-linoleoyl ethanolamide, which produce active psychological effects
- Chocolate contains tryptophan, which has been linked to the production of serotonin and is known to diminish anxiety
- Chocolate contains an amino acid called gamma-aminobutyric acid that is also said to reduce anxiety
Can chocolate make you depressed or anxious, and vice versa?
Chocolate certainly won’t cure depression or anxiety, but there have been links between the two that make chocolate a very interesting food to research. For example, past studies have determined there is no association between chocolate consumption and a reduction in depression symptoms, but this is not true of dark chocolate.
Participants in a study who ate dark chocolate had 70% lower odds of reporting clinically relevant depressive symptoms than those who did not eat any chocolate. It was also determined that those who ate the most chocolate, regardless of whether it was dark, milk or something else, were less likely to report clinically relevant depressive symptoms than those who did not eat any chocolate.
Although the above research is fascinating, further research is needed to find out the direction of causation; does depression simply cause people to lose interest in eating chocolate? Or are there other factors that make certain people both less likely to eat dark chocolate and to be depressed?
Is there really such a thing as a “chocoholic”?
We might jokingly call ourselves a “chocoholic” from time to time if we eat a lot of the stuff, but is it really addictive? And as a result, could it be causing depression? Addictive behaviour is typically associated with drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and other activities that — in large amounts — could be seen as being bad for us. Chocolate is thought to bring on similar mental health and behavioural reactions in those susceptible to addictive behaviours.
The Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) measures food addiction and how addictive some foods can be, and one study of 500+ adults found chocolate was consistently ranked as one of the most problematic foods for those with addictive eating behaviours. Another study of 100 children who were considered overweight stated chocolate was their most addictive food.
It is believed that the sensory elements of eating chocolate, such as the sugary taste, texture and smell, are likely to have a lot to do with chocolate cravings. For this reason, chocolate cravings can often fluctuate as our hormones change before and during menstruation, which is why many women associate their chocolate cravings with their period.
In summary, although the sensory aspects of chocolate are most likely responsible for its high consumption, there is some evidence to suggest that psycho-active ingredients in chocolate may contribute.
Should you use chocolate to self-medicate for low mood?
The short answer is, no. Dark chocolate may be a handy, potentially mood-boosting snack to keep in your cupboard for a rainy day, however if you require help with any mental health condition or concern, such as anxiety, depression or low mood, you should speak to either your GP or a qualified professional with experience in treating these conditions.
You may find it helpful to speak to a therapist through Augmentive who can offer advice and support specific to your personal circumstances. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists with experience helping those with anxiety, depression or low mood.
If you have a question question about anxiety, depression or low mood, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps. Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments and reviews to broader mental health care: join us today.