Phenylethylamine (The Love Molecule)
We’ll be starting a new series next week, so this week I thought we’d just keep it light this week- have some fun. Believe it or not, this week’s topic, phenylethylamine, is a good time. Before I tell you why and how, let’s go over how to say it. Phenyl is pronounced just like the green herb fennel. Ethyl is exactly like it sounds- like Lucy’s sidekick. And amine is pronounced with a long a, like Canada, ehh… plus mean, as in “what do you meanphenylethylamine is a good time, Dr. A?” Fennel-Ethyl-ehh-mean. While it’s fun to say, science nerds, myself included, call it PEA to make life easier. I’m all about that, so that’s what I’ll be using hereafter.
So, what is PEA? It’s a naturally produced alkaloid, which is basically a biologically active chemical, with similar pharmacological properties to amphetamine. In the human brain, it functions as a neuromodulator, sort of an influencer of the happy hormones, the endorphins like dopamine and serotonin. While it’s produced naturally in the body, PEA is also found in nature, most notably in a particular strain of blue green algae called Aphanizomenon flos-aquae or AFA. It’s also found in many common foods, and can be easily synthesized in the lab as well.
There is evidence demonstrating PEA’s efficacy as an antidepressant and for ADHD, and it’s also responsible for the brain chemicals involved with “runner’s high” and even love and monogamy. In fact, PEA is commonly referred to as the “Love Molecule.”
That’s my best Barry White voice: luuuvvv mol-e-quuullle.
People who don’t make enough PEA naturally may be helped by taking it as a supplement. That’s where that blue green algae called AFA comes in- it’s loaded with PEA, and commonly taken as a supplemental source. In addition to helping stave off depression, and to improve mood and attention, some people also use PEA for athletic performance and weight loss, because it’s properties are so similar to amphetamine. But for that same reason, taking too much of it can induce side effects that are similar to amphetamine as well.
As I said, it’s found in many foods, but most popularly, it’s found in chocolate. Yum! It’s actually believed to be the component responsible for producing chocolate’s positive effects on mood. One UK study I read looked at over 13,000 people, and found that individuals who reported eating any dark chocolate within two 24-hour periods were 70 percent less likely to report “clinically-relevant depressive symptoms,” as compared to those who ate no chocolate at all. In other words, eating dark chocolate made them feel happier. This is not only because chocolate contains PEA, which induces those happy hormone endorphins, but also because chocolate contains a higher concentration of antioxidants that reduce inflammation, which is directly linked to the onset of depression.
There have been a number of studies that show other health benefits of dark chocolate. Daily consumption of dark chocolate can reduce LDL, the “bad cholesterol” levels we’ve all heard about. By doing so, dark chocolate can help reduce the risk of heart disease by as much as 30 percent. It’s also been shown to reduce the risk of dying from a stroke by nearly 50 percent. Studies even show that eating dark chocolate at least once per week can also improve cognitive functioning.
So is dark chocolate a superfood? Maybe so- especially when you consider that on top of all of the health benefits, it also acts like an aphrodisiac, because it stimulates the production of those endorphins, and they’re the chemicals in the brain that create feelings of pleasure. After all, PEA has earned its reputation as the luuuvvv mol-e-quuullle. But before you reach for a candy bar, there is a small catch- literally. All you need to produce those happy-happy effects is half an ounce of chocolate per day. There’s also a big catch- literally. If you’re watching your weight, even a small amount of chocolate has a big calorie impact. A half-ounce of dark chocolate typically contains between 70 and 80 calories, depending on the percentage of cacao solids- that’s pronounced like Batman’s ka-pow! That’s the paste that results from fermenting, roasting, and crushing the cocoa beans that make it. This cacao then gets mixed with milk and sugar, and tah-dah: chocolate!
Dark chocolate is called dark because it contains more cacoa and less milk and sugar than milk chocolate. While dark chocolate can contain as little as 45 to 50 percent cacao solids, research shows the greatest benefits come from dark chocolates that contain at least 60 percent cacao solids. Some dark chocolates contain as much as 85 percent cacao solids, so if you venture to the darker side, will that make you even happier? Well, that’s the last catch- but this one’s a good one. The evidence suggests that the mood benefits only happen if you enjoy the chocolate you eat. Since that suggests that the experience of eating the chocolate is also an important factor, it’s vital to choose what you like. But keep in mind that white “chocolate” doesn’t count, because it doesn’t contain any cacao solids- it’s not actually chocolate… wah wah wahhh.
The chemical ingredients in the chocolate clearly make an impact, but it’s very interesting to me that the taste matters as well- definitely indicative of a stronger correlation between dark chocolate and mood, so future studies may tell more of the tale. Until then, I’ll happily gather anecdotal evidence. But remember that second catch, people- the big one. If you like dark chocolate, a half-ounce clearly won’t kill you, but it might kill your diet- or at least inflict some damage.
Luckily, I have a simple solution. Enjoy your half-ounce, then take a fifteen or twenty minute walk, preferably with someone you like- a loved one or friend. That way, you’ll burn off the calories while strengthening your relationship, and you’ll be quadruple dipping on the benefits of eating chocolate: you’ll get the enjoyment of eating it, its mood lifting and cognitive benefits, its general health benefits, and all the benefits of exercise. Not to mention how all of those things work together synergistically, because walking positively impacts mood and cognitive ability as well, as does positive interaction with someone you care about.
It’s a win-win-win-win. And win.
Next week, I’m starting a new series on the thyroid. I’ll tell you all about how it impacts just about every aspect of your life, and maybe especially your mental state.
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