Widespread frigid temperatures, mounds of snow and days of gray skies have millions spending this February 14th hunkered down at home with the winter blues, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Lack of sunlight and cold temperatures trigger a change in brain chemistry that turn SAD sufferers into drowsy, depressed eating machines. Chocolate cravings reportedly increase in the winter months so Valentine's Day couldn't come at a better time than the dead of winter when gifts of red hearts loaded with nature's most craved anti-depressants are given as tokens of love.
Chocolate is more than a sweet treat for your sweetie, it's a complex conglomeration of chemicals that stimulate and satisfy the senses. Loaded with over 400 distinctly different substances, the unique mix creates chocolate's familiar aroma and taste. Cocoa butter, the fat-rich component of chocolate, conveniently changes from solid to liquid form at exactly mouth temperature, providing the senses with the characteristic melt-in-your-mouth quality unique to chocolate. The sensation of melting chocolate triggers the brain to release a flood of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers, causing a temporary feeling of warmth and euphoria. The sugar found in chocolate stimulates brain production of serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that regulates mood and provides a sense of calm and well-being. Within minutes, the chocolate eater feels a wave of calm satisfaction and warm inner glow. Chocolate may help chase the winter blues by raising serotonin levels, which bottom out in the winter months and may contribute to SAD.
Some of the natural substances in chocolate may also influence mood. Chocolate contains theobromine, which is chemically similar to caffeine. It is absorbed quickly and mildly stimulates the nervous system to increase the heart rate. Nibbling on a piece of chocolate may cause a quick lift but won't have the same effect as a giant coffee.
When some say they love chocolate, they mean it. Part of the reason may be chocolate's high content of phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA levels are enhanced in people in love, so eating chocolate may mimic that effect, at least temporarily!
Chocolate does contain some cannabinoid (marijuana) like substances. It was thought that these chemicals might produce a purple haze sensation, but alas, one would have to eat 27 pounds of chocolate at one sitting to get this effect...I wonder how long one sitting is?
Dark chocolate in particular is packed with protective antioxidants like flavanols. Also found in red wine, blueberries and green tea, antioxidant flavanols may reduce risk of
heart disease and cancer. Dark chocolate is also an excellent source of the trace minerals magnesium and copper, both are essential to bone health, cell function and neurotransmitters that regulate mood.
There is a down side to chocolate...it is rich in calories and may trigger headaches or allergic reactions in some. However, research has shown that 1 ounce of chocolate a day may have health benefits. So if you are feeling SAD this Valentine's Day, give yourself a kiss or two of chocolate and savor the moment for spring is just around the corner.
Photo credit: M. Bartosch. http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=681