Dark Chocolate, Health, and Stress Relief

chocolate splash

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Dark chocolate has been connected with some positive physical health benefits. This sweet treat has been linked with better cardiovascular health, for instance, thanks to the way it improves blood pressure and helps protect blood vessels.

Yet, there is additional good news for chocolate lovers everywhere, as dark chocolate has also been found to help relieve stress. One of the ways in which it works to lower our stress levels is by affecting our body's release of cortisol.

Dark Chocolate and Cortisol Levels

Cortisol is the body's primary stress hormone. Among its many functions, it prepares you to respond when faced with a stressful situation. Although this is good, if your cortisol levels stay high due to chronic stress, it can actually harm your health. Dark chocolate might help blunt some of those effects.

For example, one study involving dark chocolate and stress looked at 65 healthy men. Thirty-one of them consumed 50 grams of dark chocolate and 34 consumed the same amount of white chocolate that was colored to look like dark chocolate but without the flavonoids. 

Flavonoids are compounds found in plants that have been associated with a number of health benefits, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's), type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Two hours after eating the dark or "fake" dark chocolate, the men engaged in two stressful situations: a mock job interview and completing a math problem in front of an audience. Their stress hormones were measured before and after these stressors to see if the chocolate had an effect.

While all of the men's bodies reacted to the stress, the ones eating dark chocolate released less cortisol. They also released smaller amounts of epinephrine (adrenaline), another stress hormone. In simple terms, this means that their body reacted less severely to the stress.

Do Other Types of Chocolate Help Reduce Stress Too?

The study mentioned above suggests that dark chocolate is better than white chocolate for relieving stress. But what about other types of chocolate? Can they also help the body better respond to stress? According to one study, the answer may be yes.

This one involved 60 people—both men and women—who ate either 40 grams of dark, white, or milk chocolate every day for two weeks. Again, eating white chocolate did not appear to positively impact stress. However, milk chocolate seemed to help.

This study noted that the people eating either dark or milk chocolate lowered the stress they felt by two to three points. Researchers also found that the stress-relieving effects of these two chocolates was greater for females than males.

The thing to remember when choosing a chocolate type for lower stress is that dark chocolate tends to offer more health benefits than other types because it is the least processed. It is also often lower in fat and sugar.

How Much Should You Eat?

If you want to try dark chocolate as a stress reliever, the studies above used a daily "dose" of about 1.5 ounces. Note that even dark chocolate delivers a lot of calories—about 160 for this daily serving—so don't overdo it if you're watching your weight.

Eating Dark Chocolate To Decrease Stress Without Increasing Weight

It's reassuring news that dark chocolate can be so beneficial, especially since the body's normal stress response may make us crave more sweets. Yet, if we give in too often and engage in emotional eating, we can gain a lot of weight if we're not careful.

To enjoy dark chocolate without fear of what it will do to your waistline, eat it mindfully. Do nothing else while eating the chocolate piece so you can fully savor its taste and the feel in your mouth. The more you are engaged in this process, the less inclined you are to overeat.

Some refer to this mindful eating practice as a chocolate meditation. This is a form of meditation in which you pay complete attention to how the dark chocolate tastes, smells, and feels while performing deep breathing exercises.

Additionally, the higher the cocoa content, the better it is for your health, so aim for a dark chocolate with 80% cocoa or higher. Though, the more cocoa, the more bitter the chocolate. So, try a few and see how high you can go without sacrificing taste.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.