Dark Chocolate for Depression? Science Says Yes

Good news for the chocoholics out there: New research finds that this yummy food may help those with depression symptoms.

by Stephanie Stephens Health Writer

There's no question that we love chocolate, with industry experts estimating that Americans eat 2.8 billion pounds annually, or 11 pounds per person. It's always a perk when consuming something you love may also help you in other ways—as is the case with a new observational study that suggests eating dark chocolate may boost mood and decrease symptoms of depression. Rejoice, chocolate lovers!

Depression affects approximately 16 million American adults each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tried-and-true treatments include things like talk therapy and antidepressants. But could adding a little dark chocolate to your daily diet also help your symptoms? Here’s what you need to know.

The Type of Chocolate Really Does Matter

The new research, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first of its kind to investigate the relationship between depression and the type of chocolate study participants consumed. The study divided its 13,626 American participants into three groups: those who ate no chocolate, those who ate dark chocolate, and those who ate non-dark chocolate.

The ones who ate dark chocolate were 70% less likely to report depressive symptoms than non-chocolate eaters. Also, the 25% who consumed the most chocolate (of any kind—dark or non-dark) were less apt to report depressive symptoms than non-chocolate consumers in general. But for the non-dark chocolate group as a whole, the researchers say there was no significant link to clinically relevant depressive symptoms.

But how much dark chocolate should you eat per day? As with anything in a healthy diet, moderation is key. Another study found that people who ate 6 grams of dark chocolate per day had a reduced risk of heart disease (yep, another chocolate benefit!)—so that’s a good place to start. But remember, 6 grams is actually not much at all—it’s about half a square of a typical chocolate bar. That said, if you’re trying to make dark chocolate a daily treat, savoring a square or two after dinner is probably fine.

Why Chocolate Is 'Good' for Your Mood

As to why and how dark chocolate is beneficial for depression symptoms, the authors cite previous research pointing to flavonoids, which are a type of nutrient containing antioxidants. They reduce inflammation and may positively influence your memory and cognitive function.

It’s also possible the "psychoactive ingredients" in chocolate play a role, the authors say, pointing to other previous research. These ingredients include one chemical called anandamide, the effects of which are similar to those of cannabinoid, a component of cannabis.

Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a neuromodulator that regulates mood. Going back to the basics, the researchers note that eating chocolate is simply a pleasurable experience, and frankly, it just tastes good. And doesn’t it make you feel better when you treat yourself to something tasty?

No study is perfect, and the authors acknowledge the limitations of this one—for example, it was an observational study that analyzed data at a specific point in time (their survey took place over two 24-hour periods). That means the measure of chocolate consumption in their study may not accurately reflect average intake over a prolonged period since chocolate is not typically consumed every single day—well, for most people. As might be expected, the authors suggest further research to dive deeper into how chocolate consumption affects depressive symptoms.

Other Ways to Help Your Depression

Again, the two most common treatments for depression are psychotherapy and medication. You should seek help from a professional as soon as possible if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression. But in the meantime, there are some simple things you can try on your own that may help, says the National Institute of Mental Health.

  • Get moving. When you’re depressed, it can be hard to get out of bed some days, let alone exercise. But making effort to do things, including workout out, can make a big difference in your mood.

  • Take baby steps. Be realistic about your goals. Try not to beat yourself up for not accomplishing a huge task right away. Instead, break it down into small steps. And show yourself compassion when things don’t go quite as planned.

  • Be gentle with yourself. It’s OK to say no—avoid over-committing and make time for self-care activities, like taking a warm bath or reading your favorite book. Don't make major decisions that impact your life while you're depressed.

  • Be with people and share your feelings. Consider joining a reputable support group, online—but be very choosy and careful—or ideally, in person.

  • Educate yourself. Learn as much as you can about depression so you understand it better. Knowledge is power, and you’ll learn how to better take care of yourself.

Again, if self-help isn't enough—and for many, it’s not—talk to your primary care provider, a nurse, or another trusted figure in your life. They may suggest you see a mental health professional to discuss other treatment. You can also contact your insurance company to see if they can recommend a therapist in your area.

Stephanie Stephens
Meet Our Writer
Stephanie Stephens

Stephanie Stephens is a very experienced digital journalist, audio/video producer and host who covers health, healthcare and health policy, along with celebrities and their health, for a variety of publications, websites, networks, content agencies and other distinctive clients. Stephanie was accepted to THREAD AT YALE for summer 2018 to author and produce an investigative series. She is also active in the animal welfare community.