Liana Werner-Gray is the founder and owner of The Earth Diet, author of diet-related books and an advocate for natural healing using a healthy diet and lifestyle. Check out her books: Cancer-Free with Food, Anxiety-Free with Food, The Earth Diet, and 10-Minute Recipes. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram @lianawernergray.
Are you feeling overwhelmed with the stress of the holidays this year? It’s easy to lose sight of self-care, and I have one simple hack to incorporate into your daily routine - chocolate! That’s right, eating chocolate can help to reduce stress and anxiety almost immediately. However, not all chocolate is made equally. You want chocolate made from pure cacao, which is chocolate in its purest form, and it should be sweetened with natural sugars like coconut sugar or honey only for the best results.
Cacao is remarkably high in magnesium — 40 times more than blueberries. The cacao bean is chocolate in its natural state before it’s heat-processed to become cocoa, and then chocolate. All of the chocolate I make at home is made with cacao powder, including the recipes in my books. In my previous book, Cancer Free with Food, cacao is ninth on the list of anticancer foods due to studies pointing toward its antitumor effects and ability to help prevent brain cancer. It’s an excellent source of good, healthy fats, and flavonoids.
Cacao Effect on Moods
Cacao improves our mood almost instantly by releasing uplifting endorphins. Just the smell of it can activate feel-good brain chemicals and influence brain activity in a positive manner. An experiment was done on human subjects in which researchers found that the aroma of chocolate was associated with deep relaxation. There have been countless studies on cacao—as well as cocoa and dark chocolate—proving that it helps to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and inflammation.
Antioxidant Benefits of Cacao
Cacao is one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants on earth. Flavonoid-rich chocolate can enhance the endogenous antioxidant activities of the body, resulting in reduced oxidative damage. In one study, changes in self-reported anxiety and other undesirable emotional and energetic states were recorded as a function of having eaten chocolate just after consumption and up to one hour later! Another study showed that daily consumption of milk or dark chocolate for just two weeks reduced perceived stress in subjects. White chocolate, which does not contain flavonoid-rich cocoa solids, did not have the same effect on the subjects. It’s no wonder we crave chocolate, and no wonder we feel better when we eat it!
Cacao for Brain Health and Anxiety
Not only does chocolate help with stress, it is also neuroprotective, meaning it can help keep the brain healthy and high functioning. The neuroprotective effects of cacao and its influence on cognitive performance can be attributed to its widespread stimulation of blood flow to the brain. Its antioxidant molecules, mainly flavonoids like epicatechin (think dark chocolate and green tea), are responsible. It’s beneficial to eat dark chocolate on days when you know you are going to be under stress. The flavonoids in chocolate induce positive moods. In addition, flavonoids signal cascades of brain chemicals to be released that inhibit the death of brain cells—thus, reducing anxiety.
The cacao bean is one of the most concentrated sources of theobromine, which is a methylxanthine similar to caffeine. But unlike caffeine, which is extremely stimulating, theobromine has only a mild stimulatory effect on the central nervous system. Cacao is also a good source of several other compounds with biological activity, biogenic amines (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, tryptophan, tyrosine, tryptamine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine.
Choosing the Right Chocolate
When consuming chocolate it is important to ensure it is in a high quality form. Unfortunately, most people think chocolate is unhealthy because they equate it with sweets and believe sweets are bad for us. As a result, they try to suppress their cravings for chocolate. In reality, the health issues associated with chocolate come from the white sugar, poor-quality dairy, and soy lecithin used to make most poor quality chocolate. That type of chocolate will do damage, and, in fact, can increase our anxiety because of the other ingredients mixed with the cacao, specially because of the white sugar. Some people, even experts, have been known to say, “All sugar is sugar.” I will wholeheartedly debate this; it’s common sense that eating a tablespoon of white sugar and eating an apple result in quite different effects on the body. A 2009 study supports this, demonstrating that rodents fed sucrose were more likely to show symptoms of anxiety than others fed honey, which is high in antioxidants.
This is why I recommend finding chocolate that is sweetened with honey or coconut sugar as these affect the body differently than white sugar. High-quality chocolate can heal and restore us. Some chocolate dishes are even savory—think of the mole sauce in traditional Mexican cuisine. It’s an elixir of yummy goodness.
Trust your gut instincts to discern if cacao is the right healing food for you. And also keep track of how you feel right after eating it, then an hour later, and even up through the next day. Cacao beans contain low variable amounts of caffeine, a well-known psychostimulant, meaning it stimulates the central nervous system. Avoid it if it makes you feel terrible. But if you are feeling less stressed when eating it, then add chocolate into your daily routine!