The idea that chocolate relieves stress is a fairly common one. After all, chocolate is something that many of us turn to when life becomes a little bit too difficult to handle. Sure, chocolate does contain a range of natural compounds that help use feel good and may even promote health. But, does chocolate relieve stress or is this something that we just trick ourselves into believing?
Additionally, is any benefit only true for milk chocolate or can dark chocolate relieve stress too?
For many people, dark chocolate might not taste as appealing as milk chocolate but it does contain a larger amount of healthy compounds, including flavanols, which may even help to improve cognition. This means that dark chocolate could actually be better at relieving stress than milk chocolate, even though people often don’t view dark chocolate as a way to relieve stress.
One recent study (Kuebler et al., 2016) looked into this topic by considering the impact that flavanol-rich dark chocolate had on the way the body reacted to intense psychological stress. Specifically, the authors were interested in the inflammatory response that can occur as the result of stress.
The Study Itself
The participants in the study were healthy males aged between 20 and 50 years old. These individuals were placed into two groups. The first group contained 31 participants and consumed 50 g of flavanol-rich dark chocolate. The second group contained 34 participants and consumed 50 g of flavanol-free chocolate.
The chocolate used for the two groups looked identical, so there was no way for participants to know which of the two groups they were in.
Two hours after chocolate consumption, the groups went through a Trier Social Stress Test.
The Trier Social Stress Test is a laboratory approach that can reliably induce stress in humans and has been widely used in stress research. The test tends to last for 15 minutes and is divided into three phases. These care called the anticipatory, presentation and mental arithmetic phases.
The authors of the study then looked at a range of biological markers and stress hormones in the blood and saliva. Overall, the authors found that high flavanol dark chocolate helped to fight inflammation and reduced the way that inflammation responded to stress.
The authors argued that this outcome supports the anti-inflammatory effects of dark chocolate and may also have beneficial impacts on cardiovascular health.
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Strengths and Limitations
One of the key strengths of this study was that it was experimental in nature.
Experimental studies are a particularly effective type of study, allowing researchers to test for cause and effect. In this case, the authors were able to clearly see the impacts that the flavanols in the chocolate had on responses to stress.
In this particular study, the fact that the authors looked at chemical outcomes was also an advantage. This allowed the authors to see what impact the procedures had on participants without having to rely on self-reported information, which can sometimes be inaccurate or biased.
Additionally, the study made use of an experimental and a control group. This allowed the authors to see how the outcomes varied between participants that consumed the flavanol chocolate and those that did not.
However, the choice of experimental and control groups in the study was also a limitation.
In particular, both groups received dark chocolate. This means that it was not possible to see whether inflammation responses were affected by dark chocolate itself. This limitation is particularly significant as flavanols are not the only compounds in dark chocolate that may have a positive impact on health.
Another potential limitation of the study was the sample group chosen.
In particular, all of the participants were male, were healthy and were 20-50 years of age. This type of sample is actually an advantage and a limitation.
The advantage is that a sample like this has relatively little variation compared to the population as a whole. This is especially significant in this case, as the authors only used male participants.
Using a sample with limited variation makes it easier for researchers to see the effects of their experiment. In this case, the choice of sample population may be a key reason why the authors were able to find the mechanism that they did.
However, the chosen sample also makes it harder to apply the outcomes of the study to the population as a whole. For example, the study is unable to provide any information about whether similar effects would also be observed for females.
Does Chocolate Relieve Stress?
The emphasis of this study was not on stress itself but on the impacts that stress has on the body. In fact, the authors controlled for stress hormone changes, so it is not possible to see whether dark chocolate consumption did reduce stress.
Instead, the study outcomes indicated that the high-flavanol dark chocolate played a key role in fighting the inflammation that arose because of stress.
This outcome is still beneficial for stress. After all, one of the bad things about stress is that it can take a toll on your body. Anything that can reduce that impact may well be good for your health, especially as dark chocolate is associated with other health benefits anyway.
However, it is important to note that the observed outcomes were for flavanol-rich dark chocolate and not for the flavanol-free chocolate. This strongly suggests that the flavanols in the chocolate were the reason for the observed impacts.
Now, most dark chocolate that you buy in stores will fall somewhere between those two extremes. This means that the chocolate will contain some flavanols but not as many as the chocolate that was used in this study. It also means that the impacts of chocolate on inflammation are going to be stronger for dark chocolate than milk chocolate.
After all, one of the key differences between dark and milk chocolate is that dark chocolate tends to contain more flavanols.
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What do you think of dark chocolate? Do you like it?