Chocolate is something many of us love and is something many pregnant women crave for. Those chocolate cravings could be doing more than just fuelling sugar cravings and dopamine receptors, they could actually be contributing to a healthier you and a happier baby.
Pregnant women throughout time have tried to tweak their lifestyles during pregnancy in their quest to make happier, healthier and even smarter babies. For the most part, many of them are complete and utter bunkum or just entirely misleading marketing wank. Chocolate, however, appears to have some surprising properties that make it beneficial to both mothers and their babies.
In a study of 300 women in Finland, participants were asked to rate their levels of stress and chocolate consumption whilst they were pregnant. They then followed up with those mothers when their babies were 6 months old and asked them to rate their infants’ behaviour. The results were all in favour of the chocolate eaters – they were more likely to report happier and more active babies and were more likely to report that their babies had lower levels of fear in new situations.
Another study conducted at the Nestle research centre, giving it a biased slant and dubious credibility, showed that “regular consumption of chocolate” (of course it would say that) can help reduce the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Whilst lacking the impartial credibility, this is good news for the chocolate lovers amongst you because as we know from week 122 – a mother shares her stress with her baby – so lower levels of cortisol, equals lower levels of stress and thus, less stress shared with baby.
Yet another study showed lower odds of preeclampsia were found in those that partook in regular chocolate-eating episodes. It also showed lower levels of gestational hypertension, but only for those who were regular chocolate eaters in the first trimester.
Chocolate contains a whole plethora of interesting compounds that may explain these studies and many more besides. Now we (meaning Jamie) would love to go into all of these this week – including endogenous cannabinoids similar to THC – the active ingredient found in cannabis, and neuroactive alkaloids that are found in beer and wine and have been linked to alcoholism. But instead, we’ll (Bev will) save you a very deep rabbit hole, and we’ll stick to some of the more relevant ones to today’s fact!
Tryptophan is an amino acid and the precursor to a very important hormone and neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as “The Happy Hormone” – serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and anti-depression medication directly targets that. Serotonin cannot be directly consumed in food and has to be synthesised in your body from tryptophan found in foods. Dark chocolate is known to have high levels of tryptophan, as are eggs, cheese, salmon, turkey, nuts, seeds and many more, it can also be found in breastmilk, something we found out in week 57.
Phenylethylamine, or PEA, is a powerful stimulant and acts like an amphetamine – stimulating your brain to release dopamine. Our bodies release PEA when we fall in love and has been known as the “love drug”, it is thought to be responsible for the intoxicating feeling associated with falling in love. PEA is also known to be a trigger for some people’ migraines. Chocolate is packed full of PEA and is why it is thought to have aphrodisiacal properties. However, because of the way PEA is broken down when we ingest it – by an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) – only a very small amount of it is passed on to the central nervous system, making it unlikely to have a noticeable effect on the brain.
Theobromine probably has the largest impact upon the addictiveness of chocolate due to its high concentration in chocolate. Theobromine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain – adenosine is a chemical that acts as a central nervous system depressant, it increases in our brains every hour that we are awake, creating a build-up that causes the need to sleep, and when we sleep the levels of adenosine rapidly drop. By blocking the drowsiness that adenosine brings – especially when coupled with caffeine – makes theobromine’s effects on wakefulness far more potent. But theobromine is not all good – it is a plant alkaloid, and nearly all alkaloids are poisonous in large quantities. Plant alkaloids include morphine, cocaine and nicotine – by looking at that list, the addictive qualities of theobromine should be evident.
BONUS FACT – There is a dark side to chocolate too and not in the more cocoa sense. When it comes to man’s four-legged best friend, the high levels of theobromine in chocolate can have a toxic effect. For an average adult, the lethal theobromine dose equates to approximately 1000mg per kg of body weight, whilst for dogs that dose is less than a third – at 300mg per kg of body weight. With dogs being considerably smaller than us and their lethal dose being so much smaller than ours, it makes chocolate a no-no for many. With a good dark chocolate containing as much as a 1000mg of theobromine per 100g of chocolate, it can make it easy for a small dog to have too much. A small dog weighing 3kg could easily overdose on just a single bar of dark chocolate!
Caffeine behaves in a similar way to theobromine on adenosine receptors but is far less toxic. Caffeine also has psychoactive properties and is in fact, the worlds most widely consumed psychoactive drug. Caffeine consumption when pregnant should be limited and the common consensus is to limit it to less than 200mg per day. But how much is 200mg? Well a cup of filter coffee contains about 140mg, a cup of instant comes in at 100mg, a cup of tea is around 75mg and chocolate contains different amounts – the higher the cocoa content, the higher the caffeine. Milk chocolate is around 20mg per 100g and a dark 85%, can be as high as 150mg per 100g.
Polyphenols have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-carcinogenic properties, to name a few. They are thought to protect from oxidative stress and diseases. Polyphenols are known for being touted as of the awesome chemicals – found in high levels – in red wine, green tea and coffee. Polyphenols are divided into several groups, one of which is represented by flavonoids. Chocolate contains the flavonoids epicatechin and gallic acid, which are antioxidants known to, amongst other things, help protect blood vessels, promote cardiac health, and prevent cancer.
Cocoa is jam-packed full of polyphenols, with a higher number of these compounds than most fruits, even beating green tea. An average serving of good dark chocolate (around 50g) can provide more polyphenols than a large glass of red wine.
Whether you’re a chocolate lover or a chocolate hater (Do they even exist?), the benefits of a small amount of chocolate every day are pretty good for those of you who are pregnant and the happiness of your baby once born.
Small amounts of chocolate can lift you with low doses of theobromine and caffeine, tryptophan can boost your mood with its anti-depressant effects and then there are the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cancer prevention properties of polyphenols.
The bottom line is that chocolate can and does improve a pregnant woman’s mood, can be beneficial to the pregnancy, and contribute to less fearful babies. However, those chocolate bingers amongst us (Jamie being one), should remember that you should refrain from eating for two (116) and using this week’s fact as an excuse to binge – as the benefits soon turn into negatives once you move into larger quantities. So eat well, enjoy a piece of chocolate every day and reap the benefits of a happier, healthier baby.