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  • Jim Swayze, ASQ CSQE

    Chocolate, Depression, and Gluten Intolerance: A Self Test

    Jim Swayze, ASQ CSQE
    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

      Journal of Gluten Sensitivity Autumn 2008 Issue. NOTE: This article is from a back issue of our popular subscription-only paper newsletter. Some content may be outdated.

    Image: CC BY-SA 2.0--sukiweb
    Caption: Image: CC BY-SA 2.0--sukiweb

    Celiac.com 08/20/2020 - I am afraid that the following article might not make me very popular—if I had any popularity remaining after my last one!  If you saw “The Paleo Template” here on these pages, you’ll recall that its ideas rest upon the theory that humans are healthiest when eating the types and classes of foods we’ve been consuming for the overwhelming majority of the roughly two and one half million years we’ve been on this earth.  It wasn’t until very, very recently, in the grand scheme, that we’ve been consuming the products of agriculture: wheat; dairy; beans; and any foods that required more than the bare minimum of processing to make them edible.  To greater or lesser degrees consuming these new foods isn’t good for us.  As paleo nutritionist Ray Audette put it in his book Neanderthin (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), historically we’ve only consumed those items we could get if we were “naked with a sharp stick”: meat; certain vegetables; low glycemic; high fiber fruits; and certain nuts:  hunter gatherer foods. Modern diseases are reactions to those foods that have only recently been added to our diets, gluten-containing foods being the most immediately obvious to this publication’s readership.

    Well, here’s one modern food that may deserve the same level of scrutiny as gluten-containing grains, even given its worship by what appears to be a totality of today’s nutritionists: our beloved chocolate.  

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    Now wait a minute.  What kind of sadist would want to find fault with this giver of pleasure and apparent health panacea?  Well, before we go there, let’s step back a moment to the naked with a sharp stick idea.  Would chocolate, cocoa, cacao—or anything remotely similar—have been consumed by our paleo ancestors?  No.  Even in its purest commercial forms, it does require quite a deal of processing before it is edible: drying, fermenting, roasting, powdering, etc.  Raw cacao proponents would disagree with this and, even though it is a tiny, tiny fraction of the market, there are raw, unpeeled, whole beans available for purchase.  But let me get to a more important point.  Chocolate, cocoa, cacao, in any form, was apparently discovered by native South Americans around 3000 years ago and didn’t make its way into the European diet until the 16th century, with widespread usage delayed until the Industrial Age a little more than 100 years ago.  So if you’re a native of the tropical rainforests of South America, you’ve had a very short period of time for adaptation.  If you don’t fit that description, you’ve had effectively zero time to adapt to this food.

    So what if it’s new?  The so what is this: new foods—gluten-containing grains included—are almost always the cause of modern disease and as such deserve a closer look because of their novelty.  Maybe chocolate’s ok to eat, maybe not.

    As mentioned above, it’s not “maybe” in current nutritional culture.  Chocolate is lauded as the perfect health food.  A simple search on Medscape.com yields more than 380 studies touting its benefits: they say it reduces blood pressure, decreases risk for pregnancy-induced hypertension, improves vasodilation, reduces platelet adhesion, reduces cholesterol, improves post-exercise workout recovery, improves insulin sensitivity, protects smokers’ hearts, improves endothelial function, even helps with diarrhea.  And to top it off, it’s apparently a wonderful aphrodisiac.  Turn on your television or radio, open a newspaper or log onto an Internet site and you’re sure to see a thousand more benefits claimed.  We want this stuff to be good for us.

    Before we go on, I want to take another step back, change the subject entirely again, and talk about depression.  Wikipedia defines it as “a mental disorder characterized by a pervasive low mood and loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities.”  Ron Hoggan points out in his excellent article “Food Allergies and Depression,” that this condition is a “very common symptom of celiac disease,” and by extension gluten intolerance.

    Why did I suddenly change the subject to depression?  Here’s why: a new study out of Australia (Gordon Parker, Isabella Parker, Heather Brotchie, Mood state effects of chocolate, Journal of Affective Disorders 92, 2006, 149-159) shows that chocolate may actually cause and/or deepen depression.  The study shows a link between a worsening of depressive symptoms and chocolate consumption for those “emotional eaters” who are attempting to self-medicate.  As the authors put it in the conclusion of the study:

    • "When taken in response to a dysphoric state as an 'emotional eating' strategy it may provide some transient ”comforting” role but it is more likely to prolong rather than abort the dysphoric mood.  It is not, as some would claim, an antidepressant."

    Now we already know that celiacs and the gluten intolerant are very prone to depression.  We now know that chocolate may deepen depression.  But, since there’s not a whole lot of data out there linking mood, chocolate, and gluten intolerance, I decided to do a personal experiment.  Of course, the data is anecdotal, but I think informative and revealing.

    I regularly eat a diet free of gluten, diary, legumes, and artificial fats and had been very faithful to the regimen for a few months.  For the purpose of the experiment I consumed one bar of Green & Blacks 70% Cocoa Content Dark.  

    I quickly felt contentment, even mild euphoria.  I was able to concentrate for quite a long time and actually did quite a bit of research for this article.  But that evening I experienced a shallow, dream-filled sleep before awaking in a fog early the next morning.  I had some gas, bloating, and was itchy with what I’ll call proto-hives.  Within a few hours I had gained almost a pound of water weight and felt as if I had a hangover, mild depression.  And, boy, was I irritable!  I also noted mild shakes and muscular tension and some knots.

    Again, one guy = anecdotal evidence.  But this doesn’t sound at all like a food that’s good for you!  As a fellow gluten intolerant, I’d like to challenge you to the same experiment.  Pick up a copy of a book I recommended in my last article, Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet (Wiley, 2002), and follow its dietary regimen for three weeks to eliminate from your system whatever non-paleo foods you might have floating around in your body.  Then try a bar of quality dark chocolate and send me an email to tell me how it made you feel.

    Truth is, my reaction surprised me.  But should it have?  Chocolate is composed of foreign substances only very recently introduced into the human diet and apparently causes an immune system reaction similar to that caused by gluten.  And, like the psychoactive effects felt when one ingests gluten, the initial euphoria and increased attentiveness caused by chocolate wears off relatively quickly and, for me at least (and I suspect for quite a few of the gluten intolerant) serious after effects remain.

    Maybe this isn’t the miracle food it’s purported to be.


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    I am a celiac senior citizen who was diagnosed at age 55. I have been gluten-free for 12 years. I have had to go way beyond paleo with my individual sensitivities, yet fit mostly into a category that others adhere to by implementing the Autoimmune   Paleo, but eat a lot of eggs. If you want to try and tell me people didn’t eat eggs 11,000 years ago, I am laughing at you. 
    Despite being a slim clueless celiac, at 19 to 28 years I worked as a laborer on concrete and bricklayer crews and ate commonly available chocolate bars on my morning break.
    My celiac disease definitely and obviously has neurological involvement. My brain has had all the other common insults. This ended my career as a software engineer. I am disabled and broke and get around by bicycle mostly, and I mean I crank pretty hard and long, and have had the cycling bug since I can remember (age 4). I have all the symptoms of MS, and many symptoms of SLE. Some of you may be familiar with the feeling of not getting enough oxygen to your brain. My last neurologist accessed my brain MRI as indicating autoimmune vasculitis. I have to give a shoutout to David Wolfe for informing me that cacao is more of a cardiovascular stimulant than the nervous system stimulant that is coffee, which I do not consume. Incidentally, I found it interesting that Dr. Tom O’Bryan, in the first of his lectures that I attended, said that the only form of caffeine consumption that celiacs should use is green tea, a decision that I had already made on the basis of my experience.

    I do not feel like my brain is awake enough to be safe until I have consumed a certain amount of chocolate, roughly volume equivalent to one of those bars I ate decades ago, but I make my own organic raw chocolate, sweetened with raw organic honey, mostly from the Amazon rain forest, and, no, you cannot convince me that honey is non-paleo, or that cane sugar is paleo. I also use cacao components from an heirloom variety that has become so scarce that you cannot get it from any of the big companies I bought from for a decade. I am a self-taught chocolatier, and have found that just putting some honey on pieces of hardened cacao paste and chewing it up is not as effective as going through a time-honored processing of temperature manipulation and changing the ratio of components to add additional cacao butter, make softer, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate is more effective at waking up my brain. 

    Yes, I do agree with David Wolfe that cacao is a superfood, and that I definitely also need the magnesium and zinc. I also agree with using raw fermented cacao, either nibs or fermented nibs ground into paste.

    No, it is not a matter of euphoria vs. depression, as I experience it. Everybody’s immune system travels it’s own journey and equivocates the similarities of pathogens it encounters with other substances, both foreign and self, and we all have to put up with losses. I know I may someday be faced with having to replace chocolate with something else to help me function.

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    I just want to add a couple of additional comments. Dr. Tom O’Bryan has long advocated use of a little bit of chocolate daily by celiacs and recently heard from him the reason why: chocolate apparently affects opioid receptors in your brain that he sees chocolate as alleviating gluten addiction. 
    also, at the end of my building construction career at the age of 28, when I was diagnosed with reactive hypoglycemia, I became aware of eating having an affect on my heart rate. I also remember then putting honey on baking chocolate, during my assessment of honey vs. sugar’s affect on my blood sugar, a model of what I am doing now, 

    I also learned from Dr. O’Bryan more recently about why people (macrobiotic hippies in the early ‘70’s) thought whole wheat is a health food: citing Dr. Coch (sp?) and “the Coch effect”, wherein your immune system affects your nervous system and speeds up your heart rate in reaction to something your immune system does not like. 
    I have to wonder whether the chocolate was having the same affect as the whole wheat sandwiches, for a similar reason, and whether that was the reason I could not identify a food culprit for my increased pulse.

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    I would 100% support this article, and have only discovered it in my search to confirm the symptoms I have been experiencing this week.  

    I have followed a gluten/dairy free diet for a number of years now after testing strongly suggested I should avoid these foods, although not to the extent of following a Paleo diet.  I had an immediate improvement to my health after removing these foods from my daily diet.  Recently though, my energy levels have been decreasing again, and again I am experimenting with different foods and vitamins to help me regain my energy.  

    Over the last week, I have been indulging in a few pieces of 95% Cocoa Lindt chocolate with my morning coffee, and all week I have been irritable and struggled to wake early due to disruptive sleep patterns.  I have just consumed the last piece this morning, and, after reading this article, will remove cocoa from my diet for the next few weeks and assess the results.  

    I have long suspected cocoa has affected my moods and thoughts, but like everyone of us, would prefer to pass the blame to something else.  

    Thankyou for this article.  I expect the affect of cocoa will be different for everyone, but for me, it is good to know there is some confirmation that this could be contributing to some of my symptoms.

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  • About Me

    Jim Swayze is a freelance writer and lecturer, and is Quality Manager at Baylor Health Care System in Dallas, Texas. He is a strong advocate of what is called the Paleo Diet, a way of eating based upon the very logical idea that humans are healthiest when they consume only the types and classes of foods that their ancestors would have consumed in the approximately 2.5 million years before agriculture. Jim adopted this way of eating in 1999 after his research on celiac disease and gluten intolerance led him to the writings of Ray Audette, Loren Cordain, and Drs. Michael and Mary Dan Eades.

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