The Psycho-Active Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Before she had any idea what I had in mind for this column, Candace suggested that I call it “The Psycho-Active Benefits of Dark Chocolate.” Candace is a mind reader. She is also a generous person with others, but stingy when it comes to herself. So when she permits herself to have a small piece of the dark “food of the gods,” as the fruit of the cacao tree is known, it is a big day. 

I also like dark chocolate. I hesitate to use the word, but I am “addicted” to it. I do not have Candace’s restraint. I keep eating to beyond the point my head is pounding. I do not consider its potential anti-oxidant effects which are now reported to be higher than blueberries, the new dietary darling. I don’t care that the contained flavinols might be lowering my “bad” cholesterol and preventing plaques in my coronary vessels. I eat it because I like the taste.

Does my brain know that? Recent research suggests that in addition to the energy boost we get from the theobromine (caffeine’s cousin) in dark chocolate, and from small amounts of caffeine itself, there is also phenylethylamine. This is the stuff that releases endorphins, the natural “feel good” chemicals in the brain.

But what about the “sugar rush” that causes blood sugar to yo-yo and makes some people think they are hungry when they have just eaten? Not from dark chocolate. It’s reportedly low glycemic index means that sugar gets into the cells more quickly sparing us from the emotional ups and downs of bouncing blood sugar levels. 

Maybe I should be prescribing dark chocolate for all the residents at Spruce. Like the ketchup on Prairie Home Companion, the “natural mellowing agents” would be good for everyone. In fact, I do prescribe dark chocolate- metaphorically speaking. The dark chocolate I prescribe (and subscribe to) is the therapeutic program itself.

The therapeutic program at Spruce is a mixture of powerful ingredients: structured community living, observant staff, encouraging milieu, consistent behavioral consequences, the expectation of progressive skill acquisition, and time. Each individual piece is important of itself, but not nearly as potent as the whole. Without the backbone of what we call the SMI Continuum, our other efforts would have a low therapeutic index; no anti-oxidant effect, no brain stimulation. And they wouldn’t taste good.

Can any of the above be scientifically measured?Probably not. Can it be meaningfully measured, in “human terms? I think so. For outcome studies when treatments are compared, researchers look for what is called the Effect Size which is a measurement of the difference between treatment and placebo divided by the standard deviation. Using that metric, Spruce vs. No-Spruce divided by our resident’s resilience, I bet my dark chocolate on Spruce.BIO Dr. Richard Bernstein

Dr. Richard Bernstein is the consulting psychiatrist at Spruce Mountain Inn.