On Valentine's Day 2008, the British chef and author Nigella Lawson appeared on the National Public Radio show "All Things Considered" to discuss chocolate. During the interview, Lawson gave several reasons why she believed chocolate is so thoroughly intertwined with Valentine's Day: "It gives [people] a feeling that's meant to be comparable to the feeling you get when you fall in love," she said. "It's like giddiness, feeling of excitement, feeling of attraction. So, in other words -- perhaps without knowing it -- we're giving people a love drug" [source: Lawson].
Lawson, although lacking any formal training in neurology or molecular biology, is pretty much dead on. Chocolate does, indeed, contain several compounds that have been shown to act on the brain in myriad ways, and most of them induce pleasure. It's also long been believed that chocolate, which is processed from the cocoa plant and is found growing in such far-flung areas of the world as Malaysia, Ghana and Guatemala, bestows heightened feelings of sexuality upon the eater. This would make chocolate an aphrodisiac, a notion that the Aztec ruler Montezuma reportedly bought into. He's said to have drunk goblets full of a chocolate drink called xocolatl ("bitter water") to provide stamina for his sexual conquests [source: Blythman].
There's also a widely held belief that chocolate can produce a euphoric feeling akin to a runner's high. Our understanding of euphoria-producing compounds, put together with the modern concept of addiction, has even led some to believe that that one can be a chocolate addict.
Is that even possible? Can a person become addicted to chocolate? Before we get ahead of ourselves, perhaps we should answer whether chocolate can even give its eater a high.
The Chemistry of Chocolate
There's actually more than one compound found in chocolate that could potentially make a person high. For starters, the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world is found in chocolate [source: Fackelmann]. The compound 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine -- better known as caffeine -- occurs naturally. It produces a stimulating physiological effect by exciting the central nervous system, which, in turn, increases heart rate and contracts muscles. It's a lot like the fight-or-flight response. Caffeine acts on dopamine and adenosine receptors in the brain, which then release their respective pleasure-producing chemicals.
A compound that's closely related to the active ingredient in marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol-9) is also found in chocolate. Fatty acids called cannabinoids hit the CB1 and CB2 receptors found most predominantly in the frontal cortex and the parts of the brain responsible for motor function and memory. When cannabinoids hit these receptors, a person starts to feel intoxicated and relaxed as a result [source: Medscape].
As if that one-two punch of psychoactive stimulant and depressant weren't enough, chocolate also packs another surprise in its glove for people who eat it. Phenylethylamine is often called the "love drug," since it releases the same chemicals that are introduced into the human body when love comes to call [source: Millward]. The compound produces a similar effect to the one produced by amphetamines, and is classified as a hallucinogen. It also is aces ate releasing the pleasure-producing chemicals dopamine and serotonin. The combination produces an exciting high, much like the one generated by the designer drug ecstasy [source: Hanson, et al].
With all of these wonderful chemical compounds triggering a flood of endorphins and other pleasure-inducing hormones, one can't help but wonder why people aren't in the streets bumming change to get a chocolate fix. Which still raises the question: Can chocolate actually get you high?
Chocolate and the Brain
Chocolate has all of the ingredients needed to make it a wonder drug. After all, it contains compounds similar to those found in ecstasy, morphine and marijuana. By all rights, eating a bar of chocolate should send you into orbit. So, why isn't this stuff regulated by the FDA? Why aren't chocolate bars sold from locked cabinets behind the pharmacy counter? The truth is, while there are indeed pleasure-inducing and stimulating chemical compounds found in chocolate, the amounts of most of these compounds are relatively small.
As a result of the energy drinks, coffee, cigarettes and, yes, chocolate humans consume these days, our brains have become quite accustomed to the effects of drugs that release pleasure-inducing chemicals. Compounds that act on receptors in the brain that release pleasure-generating neurotransmitters (like dopamine) work in two ways: They either bind to the receptor, causing it to release the neurotransmitters, or they bind to the site to prevent the re-absorption of those neurotransmitters. Either way, there's a lot more of the chemical floating around in your bloodstream.
This process is how chocolate (or any other substance, for that matter) gets its eater high. It's also why chocolate doesn't have much of an effect on us. As the brain is exposed over and over to a barrage of compounds, the number of receptors available for the compounds to bind to actually decreases and the ones that remain are less easily triggered. The reason for this reaction to drugs is the body's natural state of seeking equilibrium (a balance between all of the processes and chemicals found in the body at any one time). In other words, there's only supposed to be so much dopamine or other pleasure-producing chemicals in the body. When hormones are released artificially by the compounds found in chocolate or any other drug, the body seeks balance by shutting down the receptors that release the hormones. As a result, we become desensitized to the effects of these compounds over time [source: University of Texas].
Still, there are pharmacological compounds that produce feelings of pleasure and stimulation in human beings. Considering the worldwide fervor for chocolate and the cravings for it that many people experience, it clearly has an effect on some people. Perhaps, one should live a relatively clean life to get all the benefits that chocolate can bestow.
Chocolate and Emotions
Even if the compounds found in chocolate may be too minute for some of us to get a chocolate happy high, the beloved food can still affect our happiness.
Psychologically speaking, happiness -- specifically, hedonism -- is the goal of our own self-interests. We actively pursue happiness, which is, at its core, pretty selfish. However, we can seek out our own happiness and make others happy at the same time. Charitable giving is a prime example of this: A 2007 study using functional MRI machines showed that acts of giving money to charities activate the reward center in the brain in the same way that it's activated when we receive money [source: ASRT Scanner].
The category of self-interest that encompasses our pursuit of happiness -- hedonism -- definitely includes eating chocolate. We gain feelings of pleasure, comfort and gratification from it. The act of eating chocolate is hedonistic; when we eat it, we're seeking pleasure and alleviating pain, which are the hallmarks of hedonism.
As we've seen, measuring the exact effect of chocolate on our happiness can be difficult. Most people, however, believe that such an effect exists. In fact, happiness pills that resemble pharmaceuticals made from chocolate are available for sale. What's more, one Canadian study examining the link between chocolate and happiness ended with no conclusive results because the control group that received no chocolate ended up raiding the refrigerator where the chocolate used in the study was stored [source: Chan].
While scientists have yet to discover what causes the relationship between chocolate and happiness, studies have managed to turn up correlations. One 2007 study surveyed 1,367 respondents -- all men in their 70s with similar socioeconomic backgrounds -- and asked questions about their health, satisfaction in life and emotions like happiness and loneliness. They also snuck in a question that asked what kind of candy they preferred. Those who preferred chocolate showed lower frequencies of depression and loneliness and had a more optimistic outlook on life [source: Strandberg, et al].
Even if science never quite figures out what chocolate does to our moods, does it really matter? If eating chocolate makes you happy, go for it.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Aydin, Ani, MD. "Incapacitating agents, cannabinoids." eMedicine. February 11, 2008. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/833828-overview
- Blythman, Joanna. "Chocolatissmo!" Guardian. March 23, 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2002/mar/23/foodanddrink.shopping
- Bristol University. "Phenylethylamine." Accessed May 19, 2009. http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/webprojects2001/millward/phenylethylamine.htm
- Catchpole, Heather. "Caffeine." ABC. April 27, 2006. http://www.abc.net.au/health/library/stories/2006/04/27/1829125.htm
- Hanson, Glen R., et al. "Drugs and Society." Jones and Bartlett Publishers. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=CYVnE2grkusC&pg=RA1-PA368&lpg=RA1-PA368&dq=phenylethylamine+love+drug&source=bl&ots=kRrUBQ395M&sig=Oomt1U3-19qutPeBzmTVMWw3tcw&hl=en#PRA1-PA368,M1
- Facekelmann, Kathleen. "Can caffeine protect against Alzheimer's?" USA Today. November 6, 2006.http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-11-05-caffeine-alzheimers_x.htm
- Morris, Kristen and Tarren, Douglas. "Eating your way to happiness: chocolate, brain metabolism and mood." Karger Gazette. Accessed May 18, 2009. http://www.karger.com/gazette/68/morristaren/art_3.htm
- National Public Radio. "Nigella Lawson: Valentine's chocolate indulgence." February 14, 2008.http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18912133
- University of Texas. "Dopamine - a simple neurotransmitter." Accessed May 19, 2009. http://www.utexas.edu/research/asrec/dopamine.html