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Dark Chocolate and Serotonin

By Gail Morris

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects mood. One such mood disorder is depression, which is a medical disorder that affects the mind and the body. This disorder is not a sign of weakness but is a chronic illness that sometimes requires long-term treatment with medication and counseling. Another brain disorder that is affected by serotonin is obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. There are several means of affecting the levels of serotonin in the brain. Dark chocolate is one that many find pleasurable.

Role of Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is synthesized from an amino acid protein molecule called L-tryptophan. The neurotransmitter can be found in the intestinal wall, large blood vessels and the central nervous system. Within the brain it functions to regulate arousal, temperature regulation, mood, appetite, sleep and pain. In the absence of serotonin, your behavior becomes aggressive. Medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used to treat depression by increasing the amount of serotonin in the extracellular space, thus positively affecting mood.

Dark Chocolate and Milk Chocolate

The difference between milk and dark chocolates is based on the processing of the cocoa and the ingredients added. To be called dark or bittersweet chocolate, it must contain at least 35 percent or more cocoa liquor, the essence of the cocoa bean. The higher the amount of liquor, the lower the percentage of sugar. Dark chocolate can range as high as 84 percent cocoa liquor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that milk chocolate have 10 percent or more cocoa liquor. Milk or cream is added to soften or mask the taste of the liquor.

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Effects of Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate has many health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol levels and improving blood flow to the brain and heart. These benefits may be derived from the flavanol antioxidants that are in the dark chocolate. Dark chocolate also increases the amount of serotonin in the brain, according to Diana Walcutt, Ph.D., at PsychCentral. Because dark chocolate increases serotonin in the brain, researchers are investigating the potential that it can increase the amount of serotonin in the gut, which would boost your immune system. Walcutt cautions that before you grab an ounce of dark chocolate, you should put down the glass of milk you were going to drink with it. Because of the chemical reaction between the two, drinking the milk with the dark chocolate will reduce any benefits your body will receive from the chocolate.

Too Much of a Good Thing

While there are benefits to increasing your serotonin levels, you may also get too much chocolate or too much serotonin. Walcutt cautions that too much dark chocolate can cause complications for migraine sufferers, increase weight gain and lead to kidney stones and heartburn. You may also get too much serotonin in your body, which leads to side effects such as gastrointestinal disturbances, anxiety and insomnia, according to Stephen M. Stahl, M.D., Ph.D., of the Clinical Neuroscience Research Center in San Diego and the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego.

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