Chocolate and Exercise Share a Key Ingredient

Along with potatoes, avocados and maize, the Americas gave chocolate to the world. When the conquistador Cortez came to Mexico, he asked for treasure and was led to mountains of stockpiled cocoa beans. He managed to explain that he meant gold. 

The Mayans and later the Aztecs believed that cocoa was the food of the gods. They roasted the cocoa beans and then pounded them to a paste. The paste was mixed with spices, capsicum pepper and flavorings and diluted with water and drunk or was used to make cakes. They used the chocolate to give them strength and vigour and during religious ceremonies as an aphrodisiac. Cortez tried it and he liked it. After he returned to Spain in 1527, he was known to keep a full chocolate pot on his desk. Christian nuns on missionary to Central America believed that the diabolical powers of chocolate were due to the chili peppers and spices, so they replaced them with vanilla, sugar and cream with delightful results. 

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By 1660, chocolate houses were the vogue in Britian and the drink was popular in French court circles. In a letter dated Feb. 11, 1671, the Marquise de Sevgine advised her daughter to drink chocolate if she had not slept or was not feeling well. When her daughter later became pregnant, she condemned chocolate because the Marquise de Coetlogon, who was known to have drunk copious quantities of chocolate during her pregnancy, had given birth to a black baby. ( The color of the child’s skin was attributed to chocolate and not to the young, African slave who served her the chocolate). 

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), an internal stimulant and antidepressant similar in composition and action to epinephrine and amphetamines. This explains why good chocolate has such mood elevating and addictive properties. PEA is made in our brains from tyrosine, a component of protein. 

Levels of PEA and it’s metabolite are often low in the biological fluid of depressed people. Chocolate seeking behaviors by depressed people may be a form of unconscious self-medication. Chocolate and exercise have something in common! Preliminary research has now found that exercise increases PEA levels. 

The term “Runner’s High” was coined to describe the euphoria experienced after an exercise bout. The accepted wisdom has been that this is due to increased blood levels of natural opiates called endorphins. However, for the past 15 years the scientific community has debated whether endorphins are responsible for this elation. Endorphins are not thought to cross the blood brain barrier. Also, when chemicals were administered which block the binding of endorphins to their receptors, the runners still experienced the subjective high. 

British Researchers may have solved the riddle. The link between exercise and good mental health is well established. They suggested that PEA, which can cross the blood brain barrier, may be responsible for the beneficial psychological effects of exercise. 

In a first look at the question, they took twenty, healthy young men accustomed to regular exercise and had them run on a treadmill at 70% of their maximum heart rate for 30 minutes. Urinary levels of the PEA metabolite were found to have increased by an average of 77%.One individual experienced an increase of 572%.He must have really been soaring! 

The results are certainly interesting. However, this is only one study so no definitive conclusions can be drawn. More research needs to be done on individual variability and how duration and intensity of exercise affects PEA levels. 

From the time my son was very young, he linked my moods to exercise. He knew that Mommy was in a good mood and acted really nice when she came back from a run. The days when I got up on the wrong side of the bed, he would advise me to “go away and run”. He learned that from my husband. 

In place of drugs, exercise is increasingly being prescribed for physical and mental health and used to lift low moods. It may help you cut down on chocolate too.

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Text copyright © by Deborah Shulman, Ph.D. 
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