What Is It About Chocolate? What are those brain neurochemicals that make us feel so good?

By: Holly L. Thacker, MD • Posted on March 30, 2021

What Is It About Chocolate? What are those brain neurochemicals that make us feel so good?

Why do we Crave and Think About Chocolate?

Whether it is Valentine’s Day, Easter or Halloween, thoughts of chocolate goodies dance in children’s minds - and many women! Eating chocolate helps boost the levels of endorphins (a feel good neurotransmitter) released into the brain, which is why so many consider chocolate a comfort food. Simply, when we eat chocolate it makes us feel better. As we always say, food affects mood.

What are the 4 Types of “Happy Hormones” AKA Neurotransmitters?

There are four major brain chemicals that some have dubbed as “happiness hormones.” They are not really classic sex steroid hormones (which also can affect mood, behavior and appearance), but they are important neurotransmitters that affect our brain, mood, gut, perceptions, and even our cardiovascular system.

1. DOPAMINE

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps us with drive, energy, attention and is associated with reward and pleasure.

2. ENDORPHINS

Endorphins called ‘endogenous morphine” are an opioid-like neuropeptide that reduce pain and induces a sense of well-being.

3. OXYTOCIN

Oxytocin is a hormone that acts like a neurotransmitter. It induces labor (Pitocin® is the medicine sometimes used to start labor) and it is the hormone that releases breast milk and fosters mothering, infant bonding, relaxation and trust.

4. SEROTONIN

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with satiety and emotional stability. Low levels can lead to anxiety, depression and pain syndromes.

4 Ways to Boost Happiness Levels via Boosting Neurotransmitters

1. DOPAMINE

  • Dopamine is boosted with good sleep, exercise and eating tyrosine rich foods like nuts, seeds, beans and dairy.
  • Boost magnesium intake (with food and/or supplement if no kidney failure) and limit caffeine.
  • Medicines like bupropion (Wellbutrin®) boost dopamine which helps with climax, energy and depression.
  • Having a sexual orgasm requires adequate dopamine and also boosts dopamine levels!

2. ENDORPHINS

  • Endorphins are boosted with laughter, intense exercise (“runner’s high”), chocolate and sex.
  • Hot peppers and green chilis may boost endorphins.
  • Prescription opiates are very potent and addictive and have to be used only under strict medical supervision for severe, acute pain and some types of chronic pain.
  • Yoga and meditation may boost endorphins

3. OXYTOCIN

  • It is not just labor and breastfeeding that gives you an oxytocin boost.
  • Watch an emotional movie or read an emotional passage in a book or poem.
  • Give and receive appropriate hugs, pats on the back, and even deep tissue massage.
  • Orgasms boost endorphins.

4. SEROTONIN

  • Serotonin is boosted by bright light.
  • Most people feel happier when the sun is out.
  • Folks with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) benefit from 10,000 lux of light for 30 min in the morning during the months September through April.
  • Several medications like SSRIs treat low serotonin syndromes like depression, migraines and PMDD.
  • Foods rich in tryptophan like turkey, milk and tuna may boost serotonin. Tuna, which is rich in Omega 3 also boosts mood.
  • Exercise can increase serotonin and with appropriate stretching and strengthening can reduce pain syndromes like fibromyalgia.
  • The vitamin L-methylfolate can boost serotonin.
  • Too much serotonin can reduce the ability to climax.

What are Flavonoids?

Flavonoids are naturally-occurring compounds found in plant-based foods that offer certain health benefits. They are part of the polyphenol group found in plants with more than 4,000 flavonoid compounds, which are found in a wide variety of foods and beverages, such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, chocolate, onions, tea and red wine.

Flavanols are a type of flavonoid, specifically found in cocoa and chocolate. These substances may boost mood and even memory. Flavanols, which give cocoa a strong, pungent taste, may be lost during cocoa processing. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce the pungent taste. But the good news is some chocolate manufacturers are studying ways to keep higher levels of flavanols in their products while still producing a yummy-tasting chocolate!

Are all Types of Chocolate Healthy?

Before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavonoids.

Your best chocolate choices are dark chocolate over milk chocolate, especially milk chocolate that is loaded with other fats and sugars. Another healthier chocolate choice is cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing. Dutch processing is cocoa that is treated with an alkali to neutralize its natural acidity since the cocoa bean is not a real bean.

There are Kosher chocolates for spring Passover celebrations and of course lots of chocolate Easter eggs. Chocolate is part of so many holidays, celebrations and traditions, which is probably another reason why we love it so much!

What about all that fat in chocolate?

Not all fats are bad fats. Plant-based fats are heart healthy. The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of equal amounts of:

  1. Oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil)
  2. Stearic and
  3. Palmitic acids

Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. But some research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. Although palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate. Still, this great news does not mean you can eat all the dark chocolate you’d like.

Be careful about the type of chocolate you choose. Watch out for those extra ingredients that can add lots of extra calories! While there is currently no established serving size of chocolate to help you reap the cardiovascular, mood and brain benefits, you no longer need to feel guilty if you enjoy a small piece of dark chocolate once in a while for a mood boost.

Other Flavonoid-Rich Foods

So for some, enjoying moderate portions of chocolate (e.g., one ounce) a few times per week is fine BUT don’t forget to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like:

  • apples
  • red wine
  • tea
  • onions
  • cranberries

We all deserve a mood boost, so don't feel guilty about enjoying a little chocolate or red wine. But do remember to get regular exercise - and sexual activity does count as exercise!

For even more mood boosting, try a chocolate herbal tea, or anti-oxidant-rich green tea and be generous with your hugs. Don’t forget the effect that bright lights, scents, and scenery a well as meditation can have on your mood and happiness quotient.

Be Strong, Be Healthy, Be in Charge!

-Holly L. Thacker, MD

Holly L. Thacker, MD, FACP is nationally known for her leadership in women’s health. She is the founder of the Cleveland Clinic Women’s Health Fellowship and is currently the Professor and Director of the Center for Specialized Women’s Health at Cleveland Clinic and Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Thacker is also the Executive Director of Speaking of Women’s Health and the author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Menopause. Her special interests and areas of research including menopause and related medical problems including osteoporosis, hormone therapy, breast cancer risk assessment, menstrual disorders, female sexual dysfunction and interdisciplinary women’s health.


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