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Handle with Care: Popular Stimulants

Death by Chocolate?
Chocolate's major active ingredient is cocoa, a significant source of the stimulant theobromine. Research by British psychologist, Dr. David Benton at the University of Wales in Swansea, found chocolate to be an excellent mood elevator. When he played sad music to a group of students, their moods sank. He then offered them the choice of milk chocolate or carob, a natural chocolate substitute that is similar in taste. Without their knowing which product they were eating, the participants found that the chocolate raised their moods, while the carob didn't. Moreover, as their moods fell, their cravings for chocolate increased.

In addition to theobromine – which is also found in tea and coffee – chocolate also contains the mood-enhancing stimulant phenethylamine. Both theobromine and phenethylamine stimulate dopamine production. Even experimental alcohol-loving rats, when given the choice, will replace some of their alcohol intake with chocolate.

A recent study of mice and rats shows that dopamine kick-starts a brain messenger chemical called DARP-32, which in turn activates hormones that make females more interested in sex. Without even knowing about DARP-32, generations of lonely, frustrated men and women have binged on chocolate, with sometimes surprising results. Valentine's Day chocolates say it all.

The bad news? Too much chocolate, especially the highly sweetened kind, causes all the problems of going overboard on sugar, including weight gain. Chocolate is often high in fats, too. The addictive nature of chocolate suggests the development of tolerance, and "just one piece of chocolate" becomes, instead, "just one more." In addition, like coffee, cocoa beans are often grown in countries where pesticide use is unregulated, exposing the consumer to cancer-causing compounds.

If you are going to eat chocolate, eat the pure, dark, preferably organic type, not cheap bars full of fat and sugar. But, as with any stimulant, if you eat chocolate every day, or find yourself craving it, you've gone too far. Keep chocolate as a special treat, not a daily ritual.

Downside of Chocolate

  • Contains caffeine – with all the attendant risks.
  • Often high in sugar and fats, leading to weight gain.
  • May be treated with carcinogenic pesticides in country of origin.
Guarana, Maté, Kola Nut: Caffeine by Any Other Name
The name guarana conjures up exotic images of tribal people in the Amazonian rain forests, living in harmony with nature. And if it's "natural," it must be good for you. Right? Well, not exactly. The seeds and leaves of the guarana plant, a climbing shrub native to Brazil and Uruguay, are high in caffeine.

Once a traditional social drink, appetite suppressant, and aphrodisiac, guarana is used extensively in South America today in soft drinks. Because it contains saponins – compounds found in ginseng – native preparations may possess tonic or balancing properties. They are less irritating to the gastrointestinal tract than say, coffee, and also have a mild and long-lasting effect. This is probably due to the presence of fats and oils in the seeds, which prolong absorption. On the other hand, most commercially prepared products are absorbed and used up in the body as quickly as a cup of coffee. Once again, the closer we stick to the natural form of a product, the healthier it is for us.

A dried paste made chiefly from the crushed seed of guarana has a relatively high caffeine content, ranging from 2.5 to 5 percent, and averaging about 3.5 percent. To determine how much caffeine is in any product, you must do your math: multiply the total weight of the capsule or powder by the percentage of caffeine or guarana to get the number of milligrams of caffeine per dose.

The conclusion regarding its use? Like tea or coffee, guarana can be overstimulating and have the same ill effects. In a dilute, milder form, guarana can be used as an occasional pick-me-up for those whose adrenal status is healthy – that is, not suffering from stress or burnout.

Another traditional South American stimulant is the jungle tea maté (pronounced "ma-tay"). The dried leaves of this low-growing bush are brewed into a hot drink. Besides low concentrations of caffeine, maté contains theophylline (0.05 percent), theobromine (0.1 to 2 percent), tannins, vitamins, and minerals. At 15-25 mg of caffeine per cup, as in green tea, maté is used for enhancing alertness and concentration. It can be useful on occasion, certainly better than most stimulants mentioned here. As with any stimulant, excessive use can tax the adrenal glands.


From NATURAL HIGHS: Supplements, Nutrition, and Mind/Body Techniques to Help You Feel Good by Hyla Cass and Patrick Holford. Copyright © Hyla Cass, M.D., and Patrick Holford. Used by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit www.penguin.com. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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