Depending on who you ask, you might hear that “Chocolate appears to promote the neurotransmitter serotonin release as well, thereby producing calming, pleasurable feelings,” (Chocolate as Medicine).
Hernando Cortés, the Spaniard who took control of the Aztec empire, also noticed it’s stimulating effect, saying that “A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.”
The general sense of positivity might come from biogenic amines like phenylethylamine or the cannabinoid anandamide, while theobromine is almost certainly the stimulant. There’s probably also a psychological component. Chocolate is associated with holidays and special events, love and happiness. Those associations inform the feelings we experience when we eat chocolate, in addition to whatever chemical effect it has.
The Bitter Aphrodisiac
When first introduced to Europe, chocolate was hailed as an aphrodisiac—reportedly it was a favorite drink of Casanova. One account claims that Madame de Pompadour, a mistress to Louis XV, used chocolate to “become hot-blooded” when the king claimed she was a “cold fish.” Another report claims that the roles were reversed and Pompadour recommended it to the king, who was otherwise “cold as a dead duck.” Madame du Barry, the last official mistress to Louis XV, also provided chocolate to her numerous lovers.
If you want to improve your mood with chocolate, you should know that the effect probably won’t last. At least one researcher has found that while people enjoy anticipating and eating chocolate, that pleasure doesn’t negate depression and it is often followed by guilt.
Literally, these are “amines produced by living organisms or biological processes,” and they show up all over the place in biological systems. In the human body, various biogenic amines serve as neurotransmitters regulating everything from sleep and appetite to motivation and addiction.
Some of the biogenic amines present in chocolate affect the vascular system, causing symptoms like blushing and blood pressure variations. It’s possible for their effects to be more severe, though, ranging from headaches to potentially-fatal cardiovascular shock. Fortunately, the quantity of biogenic amines in chocolate is small, though it may increase slightly with extra roasting.
Perhaps the best-documented single biogenic amine in chocolate is phenylethylamine, which triggers the release of dopamine and noradrenaline in humans. Some people think it is responsible for chocolate’s aphrodisiac effect, because dopamine is associated with infatuation and love. Others claim it may delay fatigue and increase stamina—something people have believed about chocolate since the early colonial era, if not before.
Some chocolate experts, however, argue that the amount of phenylethylamine in cacao is so minuscule that it’s effect on neurochemistry is negligible. So far, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to definitively sway the argument in either direction, and it’s complicated by the differences between individuals and the brain’s ability to acclimate to stimuli.
Another biogenic amine that could be responsible for the joy people derive from chocolate is anandamide. That’s because it is a cannabanoid compound; it activates the same receptors in the human nervous system as the THC in cannabis. It’s unlikely you’ll get high off chocolate, though—like phenylethylamine, anandamide shows up in chocolate in very low concentrations. If you try to reach an altered state of consciousness by eating cacao, you’ll probably only be conscious of a full stomach.