Speaking the other day to a client suffering CRPS, I was a little taken aback as she listed her current daily medication regime: Zomorph, Oramorph, Capsaicin cream, Mirtazapine, chocolate…
Chocolate?! She was keen to emphasise that this was not just any old chocolate, but rather 90% cacao chocolate. “It just makes me feel better” she said, “and if I don’t have it I’m miserable.” In terms of her pain levels, she says that “it helps take the edge off.”
As a firm believer in the principle of ‘if it works for the individual…’, I have to say that I was fairly open minded about this and a little further research suggests that, in fact, it may well have a solid pharmacological basis.
The medicinal benefits of cacao
The narcotic effect of cacao, which is the active ingredient in chocolate, have long been known. The Mayans and the Aztecs were drinking a cacao concoction (sometimes mixed with human blood!) long before the arrival of the conquistadors. One Spanish missionary recorded: “This cacao when much is drunk, when much is consumed, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one.”
Numerous health benefits are claimed for cacao, from preventing premature ageing to improving mood, lowering blood pressure, helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke, osteoporosis, Type II diabetes and tooth decay, as well as apparently being beneficial for healthy nails, hair and skin. In fact, Googling “the health benefits of cacao” can quickly lead to the conclusion that a modest daily consumption will put you on the road to immortality!
Cacao is rich in natural antioxidants called flavonoids, as well as magnesium and a number of other substances beneficial to health. However, can it really benefit those suffering chronic pain?
Cacao and chronic pain
There are in fact a number of foods that, primarily as a result of their anti-inflammatory properties, are recognised as natural painkillers. These include olive oil cherries and coffee. Similarly, cacao is a known anti-inflammatory. But research has shown that in addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, cacao can improve blood flow, which in itself can reduce pain.
However, it may be the greatest benefit to pain is the effect that cacao has on the brain. Ingesting cacao results in the release of endorphins which activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect.
Cacao also hits the brain’s cannabis receptors and increases levels of serotonin which can have a positive effect on mood and wellbeing by releasing a natural amphetamine called Phenylethylamine. Interestingly, Phenylethylamine is also known as the ‘love drug’!
In addition, cacao contains Tryptophan, which has a soporific effect, and Anandamide, a mild stimulant which produces euphoric feelings and is sometimes used in the treatment of depression.
Having read this, you could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the Spanish missionary was not too far off the mark! However, with its natural anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antidepressant properties among others, perhaps high cacao content chocolate does indeed have a place as a pleasurable, additional supplement to a regular, mainstream, medication regime.
Of course, there is a downside to eating chocolate which need not be mentioned. However, high cacao chocolate tends to contain less fat and sugar than regular dark and milk chocolate and, as the saying goes, everything in moderation!