Can dark chocolate calm you?

Dark chocolate has become increasingly popular in recent years, with many touting its potential health benefits. One of the most intriguing proposed benefits of dark chocolate is its ability to calm and relax people.

What is dark chocolate?

Dark chocolate contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar. However, it contains a higher percentage of cocoa solids and less sugar than milk chocolate. Generally, the higher the percentage of cocoa, the more bitter the chocolate is. Most dark chocolate contains at least 35% cocoa, while some extra dark chocolate can contain up to 99% cocoa.

Because it contains less sugar, dark chocolate has a more intense chocolate flavor than milk chocolate. The process used to produce dark chocolate also results in higher levels of certain compounds that may provide health benefits.

What makes dark chocolate potentially calming?

Dark chocolate contains several compounds that may contribute to its potential stress-relieving effects:

  • Theobromine: This compound is structurally similar to caffeine but has more subtle effects. It helps increase levels of serotonin, dopamine, and other feel-good neurochemicals in the brain.
  • Antioxidants: Dark chocolate is high in antioxidants like polyphenols that help fight inflammation and free radicals. This may help lower stress.
  • Magnesium: Dark chocolate contains magnesium, a mineral that helps muscles relax and promotes calming effects.

Additionally, the sensory experience of eating dark chocolate slowly and mindfully may help promote relaxation.

Can the theobromine in dark chocolate cause relaxation?

Yes, the theobromine in dark chocolate can promote relaxation in a few ways:

  • Boosts feel-good chemicals: Theobromine helps increase serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins to improve mood.
  • Muscle relaxation: Theobromine helps relax smooth muscles in the body and may help relieve muscle tension.
  • Lowers blood pressure: By widening blood vessels, theobromine can lower blood pressure, which promotes calm.
  • Lesser stimulant: Compared to caffeine, theobromine provides more subtle stimulation, so it is less likely to cause anxiety or jitters.

Research confirms that consuming dark chocolate can raise theobromine levels enough to exert these calming effects in the body and brain.

Can the magnesium in dark chocolate help you relax?

Yes, the magnesium found in dark chocolate may also promote relaxation in several ways:

  • Muscle relaxation: Magnesium helps muscles fully relax between contractions to reduce tension.
  • Nerve calming: Magnesium acts on nerves in the body to reduce excitability and induce calm.
  • Reduces anxiety: Some research shows magnesium deficiency is associated with increased anxiety, which magnesium may help remedy.
  • Promotes sleep: By relaxing the nervous system, magnesium at bedtime can help induce deeper, more restful sleep.

Consuming around 100g of 70-85% dark chocolate provides approximately 130mg of magnesium, enough to help many people feel more relaxed.

Do antioxidants in dark chocolate reduce stress?

Research suggests the antioxidants in dark chocolate may help lower stress levels:

  • Lower inflammation: Antioxidants like polyphenols fight oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, which are often heightened during stress.
  • Protect neurons: Antioxidants protect neurons from damage caused by chronic stress, helping maintain brain function.
  • Improve mood: By increasing blood flow and neuron growth in parts of the brain, antioxidants in chocolate may boost mood.
  • Reduce cortisol: Some studies find antioxidants can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, promoting calm.

Most experts recommend 1-1.5 ounces of dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa daily to get enough antioxidants for anti-stress benefits.

Can eating dark chocolate help lower your stress levels?

Several studies have found evidence that eating dark chocolate can promote lower stress levels:

  • A 2019 study gave participants 1.5 ounces of either milk or dark chocolate daily for 2 weeks. The dark chocolate group had significantly lower perceived stress levels.
  • A 2018 study found participants who ate 1.7 ounces of dark chocolate each day for two weeks had decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • A 2020 study concluded 1 ounce of dark chocolate each day for 30 days lowered oxidative stress and anxiety levels in young healthy people.

Most researchers concluded the potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents in dark chocolate were responsible for its anti-stress effects.

How does dark chocolate affect your brain when you’re stressed?

Research shows several ways dark chocolate can produce calming effects in the brain:

  • Boosts serotonin – Cocoa in dark chocolate contains tryptophan, which increases serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter.
  • Upregulates endorphins – Compounds in chocolate stimulate endorphin production to relieve pain and improve mood.
  • Increases BDNF – Brain-derived neurotrophic factor promotes neuron growth and survival lowering anxiety.
  • Raises anandamide – The “bliss molecule” anandamide is an endocannabinoid that dark chocolate helps elevate.

Through these mechanisms, compounds in dark chocolate interact with the brain to help regulate emotion and promote relaxation.

What is the best dark chocolate to eat for stress?

The best dark chocolate for stress contains at least 70% cocoa and has little added sugar. The higher cocoa content provides more antioxidants and beneficial compounds. Look for fair trade chocolate that ensures ethical farming practices. Some top brands include:

  • Lindt Excellence 70-85% Cocoa
  • Ghirardelli Intense Dark Chocolate 72% Cacao
  • Endangered Species 88% Dark Chocolate
  • Pascha Organic Dark Chocolate 85% Cacao
  • Theo Chocolate Pure Dark Chocolate 71%

Avoid milk chocolate and chocolate with extra flavors, fillings or liqueurs added. Focus on simple bars with predominantly cocoa for the most potent calming benefits.

What is a healthy amount of dark chocolate to eat per day?

Studies showing benefits of dark chocolate for stress relief use amounts between 1-1.5 ounces daily. This equates to:

  • 1-2 small squares of chocolate (30-40g)
  • 1⁄8 to 1⁄4 of a larger chocolate bar
  • 1-2 tablespoons of chocolate chips

Aim for around 200 calories worth of dark chocolate. This modest amount provides beneficial compounds without excess calories, sugar, or fat.

Does the time of day you eat dark chocolate matter?

Research is mixed on whether the time of day matters when eating dark chocolate for relaxation:

  • Afternoon may be best for energy and focus since chocolate has some caffeine.
  • But evening or before bed works for promoting relaxation and sleep.
  • Dark chocolate in the morning can help elevate depressed mood.
  • Any time helps elevate mood, reduce tension, and ease anxiety.

Listen to your body’s needs. If you need an afternoon lift, have an ounce with lunch. For unwinding at night, have a square after dinner.

Does putting dark chocolate in smoothies retain benefits?

Yes, adding dark chocolate to smoothies, oatmeal, or other foods still provides anti-stress benefits. The key is using minimally processed cocoa powder or flakes, which have more antioxidants than syrups or sugary chocolate sauces.

Some ways to add dark chocolate to smoothies:

  • 1-2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon cacao nibs
  • 1 square (1 ounce) 70% dark chocolate, chopped

Blend the chocolate into your favorite smoothie recipe. The rich flavor pairs well with bananas, peanut butter, coffee, vanilla, and berries.

Can you eat too much dark chocolate?

Yes, it is possible to overindulge in dark chocolate. Limit intake to about 1-1.5 ounces daily.

Potential downsides of eating too much include:

  • Weight gain – Chocolate is high in calories, so too much leads to excess energy intake.
  • Blood sugar spikes – The carb and sugar content in chocolate can spike blood sugar if eaten in excess.
  • Migraines – Chocolate can trigger migraines and headaches for sensitive individuals.
  • Digestive issues – The caffeine and cocoa butter may cause diarrhea or stomach discomfort.
  • Interaction risks – Theobromine may interact with heart medications, antidepressants, and painkillers.

As with most good things, dark chocolate is best enjoyed in moderation. Curtail intake if you experience any adverse effects.

Are there any groups who should avoid/limit dark chocolate?

The following groups should exercise caution regarding dark chocolate intake:

  • Pregnant women – Caffeine restrictions still apply during pregnancy.
  • Children – Choking hazards and sugar content make chocolate unsafe for very young kids.
  • Migraine sufferers – Chocolate can be a migraine trigger for those prone to them.
  • Sensitive dogs – Chocolate toxicity is a risk for dogs due to the theobromine.
  • On MAO inhibitors – Those on antidepressants may risk serotonin syndrome from theobromine.
  • With liver disease – Dark chocolate metabolites may accumulate to unsafe levels.

Additionally, people with diabetes, hypertension, or taking blood thinners should consult a doctor about safe chocolate consumption levels.

Can you be allergic or sensitive to chocolate?

Yes, chocolate allergies are possible but more rare than sensitivities. Typical symptoms include:

  • Skin reactions – Hives, rashes, acne flares.
  • Respiratory – Runny nose, coughing, difficulty breathing.
  • Gastrointestinal – Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps.
  • Migraines – Headaches and migraines triggered by chocolate.

Chocolate sensitivity usually develops from overconsumption. Limiting intake to 1-1.5 ounces daily can help prevent adverse effects in sensitive individuals.

Can eating dark chocolate replace meditation or other stress relief strategies?

No, dark chocolate should not replace a comprehensive stress management plan. While chocolate may provide short-term relaxation, other strategies are still needed for lasting calm, including:

  • Daily meditation and breathing exercises
  • Regular exercise and movement
  • Prioritizing restful sleep
  • Practicing mindfulness and gratitude
  • Developing healthy social connections
  • Counseling or therapy if needed

View dark chocolate as one additional tool to add to your stress management toolkit rather than a complete solution. The most powerful approach combines multiple lifestyle strategies.

What are some other healthy, natural ways to fight stress?

Some other research-backed, natural techniques for managing stress include:

  • Daily walks outdoors
  • Yoga classes and stretching
  • Meditation and controlled breathing
  • Calming teas like chamomile, lavender, or green tea
  • Essential oils like lavender oil for aromatherapy
  • Relaxing hobbies like reading or puzzles
  • Laughing and spending time with pets or loved ones

Cut back on stimulants, make time for fun and relaxation every day, and don’t be afraid to get counseling or therapy if needed. A holistic approach works best for lasting stress relief.

The bottom line

Research shows the unique combination of mood-boosting compounds and antioxidants in dark chocolate can help lower stress hormone levels and promote feelings of calm.

Consuming 1-1.5 ounces of dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa daily may provide anti-anxiety benefits. However, chocolate should not replace other proven stress management techniques like exercise, social connection, and professional help if needed.

While dark chocolate may taste like a treat, the science confirms it provides research-backed benefits for mood and relaxation when enjoyed regularly in moderation.

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