Why We Crave Chocolate Under Stress

As with anything else in life, stress can be good and stress can be bad – it really depends on its dosage, duration and the resources you have available to deal with it. However, for the sake of this post, we’re going to focus on those situations in which stress threats our health and wellbeing.

I usually say that stress is a mind-body reaction, meaning that its consequences affect and are expressed on both our mind and body. The big trouble nowadays is that we spend much more time in our mind than in our body and, therefore, we rarely take into account the physiological consequences of stress. Some of these consequences are:

  • our brain’s size, structure and function are reduced
  • our immune system fails and overall inflammation takes place
  • our digestive system normality is violated and we may experience bloating or heartburn

All these changes occur because, when we are under stress, we release three particular chemical substances: cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. Such substances help us to stay alert and they also prepare our body for immediate action (that’s why it’s so important to start working on our body awareness). For instances, if a bear comes through your office door right now, the stress of perceiving that your life might be in danger will release these substances that I am talking about. As a result,  your body and mind will literally “wake up”, so a response from you can emerge (- now hopefully you will come up with something clever).

So everything is ok so far – whenever there’s a real danger, a self-protective system is activated. However, when such system is activated over and over again, that’s when things start to crumble. If you’re constantly under stress and producing these substances, that means your mind and body will be active all of the time and, of course, your brain functions will soon start to deteriorate and other negative consequences (e.g. high blood pressure) will follow.

One of such negative consequences is that your appetite will get all messed up. High levels of cortisol increase our appetite for high-density foods such as cookies, crunchy candies, ice-cream and, of course, chocolate. This kind of food is obviously rich in sugar and sugar makes us release dopamine, another chemical substance which activates our brain’s rewarding system. And just like the name suggests, this is the part of our brain that  makes us feel good!

Quick recap:

  • Stress makes us release cortisol and other substances that allow us to be “awake” and respond to danger
  • However, cortisol messes up our appetite and makes us look for sweet things
  • Sugary food makes us release dopamine
  • … and dopamine makes us feel good

As you can see, our system is intelligently designed. Sweet foods can actually be a quick-fix for stress, because it gives us comfort and a good feeling. The problem is, again, when we are exposed to stress for a long period of time and we keep insisting on a quick-fix approach to stress, like having that chocolate piece of cake or a whole tablet of chocolate. This solution doesn’t work in the long run, because even though dopamine keeps being released, we become more and more intolerant to sugar’s effect, needing thus increasing doses of sugar to achieve that same “good feeling” we felt before. That’s why we will see ourselves not being satisfied with only one slice of cake – if we don’t become aware, we will end up eating the whole tray!

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