Chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers
New evidence reveals the possibility of mood-enhancing effects associated with some flavors, stemming at least in part from natural ingredients bearing a striking chemical similarity to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilizing drug, scientists reported in Philadelphia. This effect joins those previously reported for chocolate, teas and some other known comfort foods.
"Molecules in chocolate, a variety of berries and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have shown positive effects on mood. In turn, our studies show that some commonly used flavor components are structurally similar to valproic acid," said Karina Martinez-Mayorga, Ph.D., leader of a research team that has been studying the effects of flavors on mood. She described research done while working at the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, and now is with the Chemistry Institute at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Sold under brand names that include Depakene, Depakote and Stavzor, valproic acid is used to smooth out the mood swings of people with manic-depressive disorder and related conditions.
"The large body of evidence that chemicals in chocolate, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, teas and certain foods could well be mood-enhancers encourages the search for other mood modulators in food," noted Martinez-Mayorga.
Martinez-Mayorga pointed out that the need for a broad spectrum of mood modulators is fostering research not just in the pharmaceutical industry, but in the food and beverage industries as well. Food industry research, however, focuses on less-severe mood changes. People have recognized the mood-altering properties of various foods for years. Now Martinez-Mayorga's team, and other research groups, is seeking to identify the chemical compounds that moderate mood swings, help maintain cognitive health, improve mental alertness and delay the onset of memory loss.
Her study involved use of techniques of chemoinformatics _ the application of informatic methods to solve chemical problems _ to screen the chemical structures of more than 1,700 food flavor ingredients for similarities to approved antidepressants, marketed drugs and agents with reported antidepressant activity. The main result so far in the ongoing project involves valproic acid. In the future, she said that the team plans to move from the area of analyzing the database to actually begin testing the flavor/mood hypothesis experimentally. The end result may be dietary recommendations or new nutritional supplements with beneficial mood effects, she added.
"It is important to remember that just eating foods that may improve mood is not a substitute for prescribed antidepressive drugs," Martinez-Mayorga cautioned. And for people not requiring medication, she notes that eating specific foods and living a healthful lifestyle can generally boost mood.
Dark chocolate helps ease emotional stress
The "chocolate cure" for emotional stress is getting new support from a clinical trial published online in ACS' Journal of Proteome Research. It found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed. Everyone's favorite treat also partially corrected other stress-related biochemical imbalances.
Sunil Kochhar and colleagues note growing scientific evidence that antioxidants and other beneficial substances in dark chocolate may reduce risk factors for heart disease and other physical conditions. Studies also suggest that chocolate may ease emotional stress. Until now, however, there was little evidence from research in humans on exactly how chocolate might have those stress-busting effects.
In the study, scientists identified reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate dark chocolate for two weeks. "The study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human volunteers," the scientists say.