Chocolate And Alcoholism

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Weirdly, I just learned that recovering alcoholics, especially those who are early in the recovery process, are recommended to eat chocolate to curb their craving for alcohol. According to my sources, this recommendation is included in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, which is also known as "The Big Book" to those who are in recovery. Why is this?

Some people hypothesize that chocolate is helpful because it contains a variety of alkaloids that are linked to alcoholism, so by eating chocolate, the alcoholic can get these same substances without ingesting alcohol. Further, it is hypothesized that these same biochemicals cause "chocolate addiction". But in investigating this claim regarding "chocolate addiction" further, it came to my attention that this phenomenon is nothing more than wishful thinking. In fact, a researcher is planning to present this very argument at an upcoming meeting in England.

Of course, this scientist is making an argument based on other people's research, but his argument is based upon the fact that, even though chocolate contains pharmacologically significant amounts of theobromine, phenylethylamine, tryptophan and anandamide, there are plenty of other foods out there that contain these same substances, and in greater quantities than does chocolate, yet these other foods are not nearly as er, "addictive" as chocolate.

But to understand this argument more fully, it is first important to understand what these biochemicals do when they are in your body. Theobromine is structurally related to caffeine, but is a much less powerful stimulant than what you get in a cup of coffee. Additionally, due to dilution, theobromine concentrations are very very low in milk chocolate and thus, are not physiologically significant.

Phenylethylamine is another stimulant found in chocolate. Its molecular structure is similar to amphetamine, and it also induces an elevated mood. However, it is not known how much (if any) of this substance actually reaches the brain after passing through the powerful acid-bath in the stomach.

Another biochemical, tryptophan, is actually an essential amino acid, which is involved in the production of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that causes people to feel calm and satisfied. However, there are plenty of other food sources that also provide tryptophan in pharmacologically significant concentrations, but they aren't foods that people typically associate with "addition".

Anandamide acts similarly to marijuana to produce an emotional "high" by binding to the THC receptor in the brain. However, like phenylethylamine, stomach acids probably destroy it before it manages to reach one's brain THC receptors to trigger any happiness.

So based on this information, Peter Rogers of the University of Bristol in England will argue at the annual BA Festival of Science, held at the University of York, that because these other foods are not addictive, chocolate likewise is not addictive. (However, let me point out that Rogers is not the first person to make this argument).

"A more compelling explanation lies in our ambivalent attitudes towards chocolate," Rogers said. "It is highly desired but should be eaten with restraint (nice but naughty). Our unfulfilled desire to eat chocolate, resulting from restraint, is thus experienced as craving, which in turn is attributed to 'addiction.'"

Chocolate is made by crushing seeds from the tree, Theobroma cacao. Perhaps as a celebration of chocolate's wonderful qualities, "theobroma" is the Greek word for 'food of the gods'. The Aztecs originally prepared a bitter but refreshing drink known as chocolatl from a combination of crushed cacao beans mixed with spices. Then the Europeans got hold of cacao and began to add other things to it, such as sugar and milk. Currently, milk chocolate is the world's best selling variety of chocolate, for reasons that escape me: some people, like me, prefer our chocolate to be dark.

But in his presenation, Rogers will instead argue that chocolate's appeal is due to the sugar and fat it contains. Unfortunately, one argument that Rogers apparently will not address is how chocolate and the substances it contains are capable of relieving one's craving for alcohol.

So what are your experiences with chocolate? I am especially interested to hear from those of you who are recovering alcoholics (you can remain anonymous if you wish).

Sources

Chocolate and Craving

Measuring Brain Activity In People Eating Chocolate Offers New Clues About How The Body Becomes Addicted.

ABCNews.

FoxNews (quotes)

BBCNews.

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Peter Rogers of the University of Bristol

Amusing to note that the University of Bristol was founded in part by money from the Fry family who had made their fortune from chocolate (and arguably made the first eating chocolate in 1847). The original founder was a pharmacist.

As I understand it, with an excess alcohol intake over a long period your body becomes used to the high level of sugar that alcohol is converted to. Thus the advice to eat some chocolate regularly when trying to reduce or stop drinking is to satisfy the sugar part of the craving. If you attend an AA meeting you'll always find cookies and other sweets on the table. It's really about sweets. Chocolate is just the most desirable sort of sweet.

Trinifar nails it.

Don't over-analyze. Chocolate is intensely sweet and sweet things mitigate the desire for alcohol.

This even works for non-alcoholics (like me). If you're a wine drinker try eating some chocolate (or ice cream or apple pie) and then return to the red wine you enjoyed with the beef. It's been ruined.

Some random observations: having lived with an alcoholic I noticed she hated sweets while drinking. I even recall a night out with others at a Spanish restaurant when she was extremely unhappy about the fact that our host had ordered pitchers of Sangria for everyone. Sangria is wine plus sugar plus fruit.

Having written on alcoholism and including a chapter on alcoholic authors I've always been intrigued by the fact that F Scott Fitzgerald had eaten a bar of chocolate just before he had his fatal heart attack. Had he tried AA and had he been told of the chocolate trick to fight craving? In those years AA was much more secretive and less understood than today. One thing I know, if he was still an active alcoholic he would have long ago taught himself about sweet foods' ability to "ruin" a good stiff drink.

Putting addiction aside for a moment, there is very good evidence that alcohol and chocolate end up effecting similar neural signaling pathways - perhaps most importantly, opioid signaling, which you don't mention in your piece.

The reinforcing effects of alcohol depend in substantial measure upon their ability to cause release of endogenous opioids (Endorphins are probably the best known endogenous opioids, though there are others, such as enkephalins, which may be more important for alcohol's reinforcing effects). Opioid signaling is in fact one of very few targets for pharmacological treatment of alcoholism; the nonspecific opioid antagonist naltrexone (marketed as Revia) acts through antagonism of endogenous opioid signaling.

Sweets, including chocolate, seem to cause opioid release in ways that are very similar to alcohol. Certainly they are affected by antagonists in a similar way - administration of naltrexone suppresses consumption of highly palatable foods, which are typically those that have lots of fat and sugar. Naturally, this includes chocolate.

It's not clear how alcohol or desserts actually cause opioids to be released. It's likely that neural taste pathways play a central role for desserts, as taste cues are one of the main ways in which we detect deliciousness, and neurons in these pathways are full of endogenous opioids. Alcohol taste might cause opioid release through similar pathways - there is some evidence in favor of this - or it could be a direct pharmacological effects of the ethanol molecule itself. Not clear.

I'm apparently not affected by chocolate addiction, even though (or perhaps because?) I love sweets in general. I watch people's compulsive reactions to the stuff with some bemusement.

IIRC, "food of the gods" was what chocolatl meant in Aztec. The trailing phoneme is presumably unrelated to the Latinate lacto-, but I wonder if it subliminally suggested the idea of putting milk in the stuff.... ;-)

Interestingly, I'm not usually much of a drinker, but I've been drinking a bit more lately -- just as I've been laying off the sweets more.... (Digression: I recently got a dramatic Proustian flash from trying rye whiskey -- going back some 15 years to when I used to cook rye (the grain) in with my oatmeal.)

By David Harmon (not verified) on 14 Sep 2007 #permalink

I know people who eat oreo's while drinking beer. How does this fit with this theory?

Now about the sugar and fat...I make chocolate all the way from cacao nibs up (only way to eat it) and use very little sugar and have no recipies that are really that high in fat. You should try making your own....you can get the darkest of dark. It's delicious.

I'm convinced that one can be addicted to chocolate. I've always considered myself a "chocoholic" jokingly, but in the past, I felt I could easily live without it. Recently I've noticed that my chocolate intake has an enormous effect on my mood.
I'm generally a happy person and have been searching for the source of my relatively frequent mood swings (as of the past year). At first it didn't even enter my mind that chocolate closely followed my mood pattern, but recently I've noticed that after two or three days without chocolate I become depressed and unable to work or concentrate effectively. I always end up running to the nearest store to buy chocolate and then scarfing it down without hardly tasting it. I know it sounds crazy, but the link is so clear to me now.
Is this even possible??

I am an alcoholic in recovery. I am also one of those people who would rather indulge in sugary foods than savory. But my love for sugar reached a whole new level in the first three months or so of my sobriety. It was like I was stoned or something. I'd go to the grocery store and buy a piece of pie and ice-cream...and some M&M's to eat on the walk home b/c I couldn't wait to get there to get the sugar in me. I still crave sugar intensely now at nine months sober, but I can make it home first and go with half so much crap. So I don't really think it's the chocolate, so much as the sugar in chocolate. Although I'm sure that any addict appreciates all that other speedy/soothing stuff. Reality is a hard place to be and it makes sense that someone would start to crave foods that or more inclined to tinker with neurotransmitters if they can no longer get fucked up.

I think the combination of Chocolate And Alcoholism for a diabetic subject would be fatal. It would be better if lower and lower doses are inhaled before loosing the addiction.

By Swaranjit Sing… (not verified) on 06 Dec 2009 #permalink

I think the point is missed here- it's not what is contained in chocolate, but that it's what that which is contained has the brain produce: dopamine!

Dopamine is a neurohormone released by the hypothalamus which has several functions, one of which is increasing sexual arousal by inhibiting the release of prolactin from the anterior lobe of the pituitary. High amounts of prolactin are suspected to be responsible for impotence and loss of libido, so it makes perfect sense that ingesting chocolate and the effect it elicits in the brain, is addictive.

I stopped drinking and yes started to crave chocolate but I gained weight now. : ( Now I am trying to get off the food cravings cause my weight is going up and I feel even worse than when I was drinking all the time.