By Carissa Weber
Today was a beautiful and gorgeous day in Wisconsin for Easter! Hey, any Easter without snow is a good Easter, am I right? Along with that beautiful weather and excited kids, came along my love-hate relationship with chocolate. So many of us have favorite foods around the holidays, but not many people know why they become our favorite foods. In this sweet little post, I will build on a couple of my previous blog posts (and ones to come) and talk about why that chocolate Easter Bunny (or your favorite food of choice) is so hard to say no to.
We outlined in the past posts, that our brain is always looking for things to make us feel good and reward us for doing things that keep us alive. Because of this, our limbic system has us trained to reward us for anything related the food, drinking, staying warm, and procreating. In the cases of our favorite foods, our brain rewards us in a special way.
Let’s start with that darn amygdala. When we first see our favorite food, let’s say that tasty and notorious chocolate Easter Bunny, it connects with our thalamus who sends the message to our hypothalamus via a neurotransmitter called glutamate to release memories associated with chocolate. For the majority of us, this process happens within 6 seconds of our senses telling us that chocolate is present.
The interesting part of this process is that our darn amygdala does a little mini adrenaline dump. What does this mean to you? This means our heart starts to race a little bit, our pupils dilate, and we cannot stop thinking about chopping off that Easter Bunny’s ears (or their cute little butt, whichever side you start on).
As we are closing on our chocolatey prey, our amygdala signals the release of dopamine and endorphins. Both of these neurotransmitters continue our brains impulsivity to reach out and take a sweet nibble of that bunnies nose. Once that chocolate leaves its sweet scent in our nose, our brain starts to cascade endorphins into the thalamus and throughout the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and prefrontal cortex. This chemical reward essentially tells our mouth ” you have found sweet food! Eat it now! You deserve it!” What do you do? You take a bite of course!
Once that sweet chocolate reaches your tongue, taste buds relay a message to your Thalamus to release oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter commonly associated with women in labor and breastfeeding, but it is so much more than that! Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that helps us physically connect with other humans in our life, as well as reward our brain for doing something that physically brings us pleasure. The oxytocin dump from eating a bite off of that Bunny’s head is equivalent to an orgasm. How amazing is that?
This burst of oxytocin only lasts a few minutes, between 5 and 7 minutes to be exact. When you mix that with the endorphins swirling in your amygdala? That is an awesome 5 to 7 minutes! Once that oxytocin is released, serotonin continues to be produced, and reminds us why chocolate is the food of Gods! This is what makes our favorite Easter treat, chocolate, so damn addicting! Even after you said you would just eat that bunny’s ears, have you found yourself going back for an additional bite? Are you too embarrassed to admit you may have in the past(or this morning with your coffee) eaten a whole bunny and not realized it? Maybe you find yourself craving chocolate for days after that first bite? You can blame your darn amygdala for continuing to release oxytocin and serotonin, rewarding your brain for every bite you take. It doesn’t care about the consequences, it doesn’t care about the sugar crash that will happen, it just cares about that amazing and positive reward.
This process is the basic building blocks to addiction (on a smaller scale). That darn amygdala found out that chocolate helps reduce stress, makes us happy, and helps improve our memory (true story: dark chocolate has chemicals to help with our memory health. Look it up at Why Do I Crave Chocolate All the Time? Here’s What Science Says (spoonuniversity.com). This is also why when we become very, very stressed (and the stress hormone cortisol is running our life), so many of us turn to those favorite foods (mostly those carb and sugar-rich favorite foods). That release of oxytocin and serotonin for those short minutes gives our brain a break from the cortisol (a.k.a. – the stress hormone), adrenaline, and noradrenaline that comes from chronic stress.
In short, this is why that chocolate Easter bunny doesn’t last long in my house (or in anyone’s home). But how do we make it last longer? If you are like me, I am looking for ways to fight that craving . Why? Well, my prefrontal cortex reminds me if I eat a whole chocolate bunny in one sitting I will be more than just sick the next day.
“Chocolate is a delicious cure for a bad day.”– Author unknown (ok, any person who has ever had to function after a bad day, or on a Monday)
One way to decrease your craving (by almost 62% according to neuroscientist Amy Jo Stavnezer from College of Wooster) is to try some of the following:
- Eating an apple. The sweet crunch of it will release a similar amount of dopamine and a smaller amount of endorphins.
- Taking a 10-minute walk will release the same amount of dopamine and serotonin into our brain as a bite of chocolate. Plus, you can get the endorphin dump (better known as a runner’s high).
- Slowing down and actually enjoying your chocolate. Pay attention to what the chocolate smells like, feels like in your mouth, the taste sensations that come from it, and the memories it provokes when you eat it. This is the general principle behind mindful eating.
- If you are reaching for that chocolate because you’re stressed, take 5 minutes to decompress before you take a bite. Allowing your body (and brain) to slow down before eating the chocolate will help you not eat as much of it.
Thank you so much for taking time to learn about why chocolate rewards our brain. This, along with the previous posts about how our brain works, gears us up to talk more about how anxiety works in our brain.
- Albers, Susan (2014). Why do we Crave Chocolate so Much? Retrieved from Why Do We Crave Chocolate So Much? | Psychology Today
- Johnson, Madi (date unknown). Why do I Crave Chocolate All the Time? Retrieved from Why Do I Crave Chocolate All the Time? Here’s What Science Says (spoonuniversity.com)
- Malley’s Team (2017). The Link Between Chocolate and Endorphins in the Brain. Retrieved from Chocolate & the Brain: The Science Behind Chocolate | Malley’s Chocolates