The link between food and mood is not new. People have associated eating certain foods with a person’s mood. This has been long established, even in Ayurveda. Research over the last two decades has brought a deepened understanding of brain chemistry together with effects of food on behaviour and mental health.
Certain constituents of food alter the neuro-chemical messengers called the neurotransmitters, which help in brain functioning and carrying signals between nerve cells.
The three main neurotransmitters which have been commonly associated with food include dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are produced in the brain from certain components of food. While dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with alertness, serotonin has a calming, relaxing and a feel-good effect. There is another set of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters are endorphins. These positively influence mood and appetite, decrease pain sensitivity and stress. Endorphins are released during starvation and prolonged exercise.
Changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters lead to alteration of moods and state of mind. Food high in carbohydrates increase the production of tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin. This explains why people often crave for carbohydrate food like sweets, breads, rice and pasta, and seek these as comfort and calming food. Interestingly, it also explains the drowsiness that sets in after eating a carbohydrate rich meal. Infact, the effect goes beyond calming. It has been suggested that serotonin has a role to play in appetite control and may inhibit eating. Scientific human and animal studies have shown that serotonin reduced caloric intake by reducing hunger and increasing satiety.
Chocolate consumption increases the release of serotonin and endorphins into the body, which together produce a relaxing and euphoric feeling. Another reason why chocolates help in elevating mood is its fat and phenyl-ethylamine content. Fat and phenylethylamine are associated with endorphin release and as mentioned sugars improve the serotonin secretion, so it’s not surprising why many crave chocolates when feeling depressed.