A Physiological Insight on the Holistic Health Benefits of Chocolate

Credit: Charisse Kenion / Unsplash

How is chocolate produced?  What is considered the healthiest chocolate?

Chocolate is ancient as it dates back to 2000 B.C. when the Mayans of Central America were the first chocolate brewers who drank it as a bitter fermented concoction paired with spices or wines.  

  •    Today chocolate bars begin as a cacao pod (Fig. 1) which is larger than the circumference of your hand.

(Fig. 1) Credit: Dandelion Chocolate

 The seeds (aka beans) are extracted from the pod, fermented, dried, and roasted into cocoa beans. (Fig.2)

(Fig. 1) Credit: Dandelion Chocolate

 These cocoa beans are shelled so that the meat or cocoa nibs (Fig. 3) is separate from the outer layer.  

(Fig. 3) Credit: Foods Alive

These nibs are then ground into a solution called chocolate liquor and then the liquid is filtered from the fatty portion or as some call cocoa butter (Fig. 4) which is used in many hair and beauty products.  

(Fig. 4) Credit: Queen Helene Natural Cocoa Creme

The remnant liquor is refined to fabricate into solidified chocolate that we consume today.  The outer shell that is separated from the nibs is used for baking or beverages.

*Recommended Serving* = 1 ounce or 2 dark chocolate squares per day.

The darker the chocolate, the more cocoa is in it, and the more bitter it will be.  However the darker the chocolate the better it is for your overall health outcomes.

What is Chocolate Composed of?

-Dark Chocolate: 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar.

-Milk Chocolate: 10-50% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and one of the varieties of sugar.

-Lower quality chocolates may add butter fat, vegetable oils, or artificial colors or flavors. 

*White Chocolate: excludes any cocoa solids and is made simply of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.*

Chocolate is Vastly Rich in:

  • Iron– important in production of hemoglobin.
  • Copper– helps produce hemoglobin, maintain neurons, and the immune system. Assists in the formation of collagen, the absorption of iron, and assists in ATP production.
  • Magnesium– assists in biochemical reactions, helps care for the nervous system, and muscular function, enhances the immune system, maintains the rigidity of the skeletal system, monitors a steady heart beat, regulates A1C levels, and aids in the production of ATP and protein. 
  • Zinc– immune responses to viruses and bacteria, cellular production of proteins and DNA, critical for proper wound healing and for appropriate sensory input of taste and smell.
  • Phosphorus– assists calcium in skeletal production of bones, structural emphasis for nucleic acids and cell membranes, ATP production role.  (Your body  absorbs less phosphorus when calcium levels are too high, and vice versa= they balance each other out)
  • Flavanols– metabolites with antioxidant benefits reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, asthma, and stroke.

Both Women and Men crave for chocolate as a result of  a drop in Blood sugar; furthermore, the sugar within the chocolate temporarily provides the body with ATP.

Why do women crave chocolate prior to menstruation?

-mood swings




-7 days prior to menstruation women experience a drop in serotonin and low blood sugar drops (especially in between meals).

How does chocolate affect the brain? 

Chocolate releases neurotransmitters (“brain signals”) that affect endorphin levels.

  • Endorphins= Your happy Chemicals 😃=  lessen pain and decreases stress.

+ High amounts of Endorphins= produce a sense of euphoria both emotionally and physically.

Low Amounts of Endorphins= indicative of those in pain or anxious state of mind.

    1. Serotonin= Antidepressant; released after consuming Carbohydrates.

  • Function: Obsessions, Compulsions and Memory Recall.Credit: Everyday Health
Credit: Exeryday Health
Credit: Wikipedia Images

    * Tryptophan= Found in Chocolate*

  • an amino acid that is essential within the nitrogen cycle.
  • Creates Niacin aka Vitamin B3 which  produces the neurotransmitter Serotonin.
Credit: Wikipedia Images

     2.  Phenylethylamine= “chocolate amphetamine.”

  • Causes changes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels= Leading to feelings of excitement and alertness.
  • Acts as mood increaser and a decreases depression when combined with dopamine (this does not result in the same addiction as dopamine).
  • “the love drug”= causes pulse to quicken; equivocated to the feeling of being in love.
Credit: Lonegecity.org

    3. Anandamide= A Lipid

Credit : Wikipedia Images
  • resembling tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) 

                        – THC is a chemical found in Marijuana.

                        – synthesized in areas of memory, thought processing and the execution of voluntary muscle movement. It has a learning and memory making role in short term nerve cell interconnections.

Credit: Natural Canabis

                         -Both THC and Anandamide activate the production of Dopamine(feel good hormone; when you feel “high”).

Anandamide Functions:

  • Helps feel good brain waves to transmit quickly by opening the synapses
  • Breaks down very quickly = 2 Chemicals within Chocolate slow this Process Down:

         A.) N-Acylethanolamines

                   -results in heightened sensitivity and euphoria.

                   -over Cannabinoid Receptors= pain sensation, mood, appetite and memory.

Credit: Wikipedia Images

         B.) Theobromine (chemical): Bitter element of Chocolate

                   -Affects Nervous System

                   – Properties leading to mental and physical relaxation.

                   – acts as a stimulant alike to caffeine

                   -increases alertness and can cause headaches (dilates blood vessels in the brain; can trigger migraines).

Credit: Supplementpolice.com

Current Evidence Based Research :

I highly recommend being updated in current research studies if it concerns your health and professional practice.  The medical field is constantly evolving so we must keep up as health informers.  Below I have included some articles I used within my research as well as some additional research studies focused on the physiological benefits of chocolate.  

1.  Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications

Magrone, T., Russo, M. A., & Jirillo, E. (2017). Cocoa and Dark Chocolate Polyphenols: From Biology to Clinical Applications. Frontiers in immunology, 8, 677. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.00677

The following diagrams below illustrate several studies that investigated the beneficial uses of chocolate for the respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, digestive and how chocolate decreases obesity.  I found it fascinating that our body can block inflammatory responses that take place.  I was extremely shocked that chocolate actually decreases the need to consume food as the view of chocolate is that it can contribute to weight gain.  In the case of neural connections our brain has the ability to stimulate an increased proportion of synapses with the stimulus of chocolate acting on our nervous system. For further information on the tests see the article as cited.  

According to NCBI, ” Major effects of cocoa and dark chocolate on the cardiovascular system. In response to cocoa and dark chocolate ingestion, a cascade of events takes place based on the nitric oxide (NO) and cyclic guanosine monophosphate (cGMP)-induced vasodilation and prostacyclin-mediated anti-inflammatory effects.”

 Diagram expands on this concept below

Dark chocolate is extremely high in flavanols, which are antioxidants that can improve blood flow and lessen buildup of bad cholesterol.

B.)   The effects of coca-enriched diet on human microbiota. Cocoa diet modifies the intestinal microbiota, thus leading to a tolerogenic pathway with release of the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin (IL)-10.  This assists in fighting a variety of respiratory pathologies that produce an inflammatory reaction.

 Diagram expands on this concept below

C.)  Mechanisms of action of cocoa flavanols on obesity development. Increased expression of peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR)-γ and adiponectin leads to reduction of lipid deposition and insulin resistance. Diagram expands on this concept below.

  • Cocoa contains stearic acid, which slows digestion and controls the appetite.
  •  Dark chocolate can have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar levels (A1C Levels) because it is low on the glycemic index.

2.  Daily Consumption of Chocolate Rich in Flavonoids Decreases Cellular Genotoxicity and Improves Biochemical Parameters of Lipid and Glucose Metabolism

Leyva-Soto, A.; Chavez-Santoscoy, R.A.; Lara-Jacobo, L.R.; Chavez-Santoscoy, A.V.; Gonzalez-Cobian, L.N. Daily Consumption of Chocolate Rich in Flavonoids Decreases Cellular Genotoxicity and Improves Biochemical Parameters of Lipid and Glucose Metabolism. Molecules 2018, 23, 2220.

 A research double blind study of 84 young volunteers evaluated the manipulation of genetic coding in buccal epithelial cells by flavonoids from cocoa in dark chocolate showed to significantly prevent DNA damage and improved the rigidity of the cellular nucleus.  The biochemical parameters (total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL-cholesterol level in blood) and anthropometrical parameters (waist measurement) utilized within the test showed a significant improvement following 6 months of daily intake of 2g of dark chocolate with 70% Cocoa.  In essence the progress seen in the biochemical parameters of lipid and glucose metabolism could be related to the antioxidants within dark chocolate that decreased cellular stressors that increase the chances of  atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. 

3. Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease.

Katz, D. L., Doughty, K., & Ali, A. (2011). Cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease. Antioxidants & redox signaling, 15(10), 2779-811. 

Cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods due to epicatechin which is one of many Flavonoids over antioxidant activity.   Flavonoids are pigments commonly seen in a variety of plants, but are also seen in chocolate.  The epicatechin in chocolate supports the vascular endothelium and as a result influences both acute and chronic maintenance of the nitric oxide production.  

Additional Cardiovascular effects are seen via anti inflammatory conditions within cocoa polyphenols and is seen by the activity of NF-κB. These antioxidant effects of cocoa may directly  influence insulin resistance and as a result reduces the risk for diabetes.  In other words Cocoa can stimulate alterations via redox sensitive signaling pathways over gene expression and immune response.

Within the Nervous System and Integumentary System:

The role of cocoa goes beyond inflammation and is seen to play a protective role within our nervous system and integumentary system.  Cocoa also plays a protective role within the nervous system by protecting the nerves from injury and inflammation. The Integumentary System is assisted by cocoa as it protects the dermis from UV damage.  This is critical for athletes to recognize due to their risk for musculoskeletal injuries that are directly interrelated with the nervous system and the risk of skin cancer as a byproduct of overexposure to the sun’s rays.  

In addition Cocoa is seen to increase satiety, cognitive function, and mood which is related to the Nervous and Endocrine Systems which govern hormones.

Moderation of chocolate is still highly encouraged due to overconsumption producing an increased risk of obesity but for the most part the benefits of moderate cocoa or dark chocolate consumption likely outweigh the risks.

4.Food-related behaviors among individuals with overweight/obesity and normal body weight

Brytek-Matera, A., Czepczor-Bernat, K., & Olejniczak, D. (2018). Food-related behaviours among individuals with overweight/obesity and normal body weight. Nutrition journal, 17(1), 93. doi:10.1186/s12937-018-0401-7

However in some cases chocolate is seen as an emotional eating coping mechanism for social anxiety or depression in both normal and obese individuals. The presented results show that among people with varied BMI categories, emotional eating is connected to craving chocolate and avoidance of social situations related to food and body exposure that plays only the role of mediation. In addition, snacking is crucial for this relationship among the group with normal body weight. For more information access the article cited above.

5. Dark Chocolate Effect on Serum Adiponectin, Biochemical and Inflammatory Parameters in Diabetic Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial

Jafarirad, S., Ayoobi, N., Karandish, M., Jalali, M. T., Haghighizadeh, M. H., & Jahanshahi, A. (2018). Dark Chocolate Effect on Serum Adiponectin, Biochemical and Inflammatory Parameters in Diabetic Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. International journal of preventive medicine, 9, 86. doi:10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_339_17

Dark chocolate is even being investigated as a snack supplement to coexist with treatments for Diabetes Mellitus (type 2) Patients.  It is crucial that is assist in their progression due to the strictly facilitated diets.  The study is geared to evaluate the effect of dark chocolate on a inflammatory scale, serum adiponectin, and certain biochemical factors in patients with type 2 diabetes (T2D).

For more information access the article as cited above.

Dark Chocolate: Opportunity for an Alliance between Medical Science and the Food Industry?

Petyaev, I. M., & Bashmakov, Y. K. (2017). Dark Chocolate: Opportunity for an Alliance between Medical Science and the Food Industry?. Frontiers in nutrition, 4, 43. doi:10.3389/fnut.2017.00043

This article discusses an upcoming opportunity to revamp chocolate as a supplement that can be functionally utilized within the medical field for treating patients.  The overall benefits for the heart, nervous system, etc. seen by Dark chocolate are broadening with research.  But now it is critical to address the concerns related to sugar content discussed by dieticians and how we can produce dark chocolate to be reasonably supplied with flavanol and other essential nutrients that provide benefits for public health care.

Additional References:

Shmerling, R. H. (2017, July 25). Your brain on chocolate. Retrieved from       https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/your-brain-on-chocolate-2017081612179