With Easter recently behind us, the CVS candy aisle has transformed into a bargain-bin pastel chocolate paradise. Regardless of whether the Easter bunny paid you a visit or you raid the candy aisle during the post-Easter sales, there’s a good chance that instead of feeling sick from the sugar overload, you’ll find yourself craving even more chocolately goodness. But you actually may need to keep that craving in check if you want to avoid some potentially scary consequences — recent studies show that chocolate affects the brain much like an addictive drug, even to the point of triggering actual addictions.
According to a health study conducted at Harvard University, addiction is characterized by three qualities: intense cravings, loss of control and continued engagement in negative-outcome actions. These characteristics are commonly found in drug use or the excessive consumption of alcohol. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that the chemicals released from these substances interfere and mimic neurotransmitters in the brain like dopamine, which regulates multiple sensations, including the feeling of pleasure. These chemicals also overstimulate the brain’s reward circuit, which then commands the body to “keep doing something because it is good,” thus creating an addiction to the substances.
When studying reactions to the consumption of chocolate, studies found all of the characteristics of addiction and similar neurological effects. In a study using rodents, University of Michigan student Alexandra DiFeliceantonio found that chocolate consumption threw the rodent brain into a cycle of addiction, pleasure and withdrawal — strikingly similar to the response in drug addicts and alcoholics. The same effects were also seen in humans in the Harvard research study.
But chocolate isn’t the only food that comes with the danger of developing a drug-like addiction: other highly processed or high-carbohydrate foods can trigger the brain’s release of chemicals such as serotonin, which regulates mood and produces that “happy” feeling. So next Easter or Halloween, just remember to celebrate responsibly when it comes to chocolate.