Sweet dreams: can chocolate help us sleep better?
In honour of World Chocolate Day, Beingwell's resident sleep expert James Wilson, weighs in on whether chocolate can really help us to sleep better, or whether we need to stave off the sugar to make our way to sweet dreams...
Today is World Chocolate Day and recently we were having a chat about it here at Beingwell Towers and someone said “James, I’m sure I read somewhere that chocolate is good for your sleep, is this true?”
And I gave the short answer, which is “kinda.”
It did however pique my interest and, although I am more of a savoury kind of guy (I’m from Rotherham, give me a pie over a bar of chocolate any day of the week), I saw it as a chance to explore whether eating chocolate can help us sleep better.
Looking at the research there is some interesting papers out there that suggested chocolate helps stressed out mice get better sleep, that chocolate can help rats “prevent circadian desynchrony” which in humans means it could help minimise the impact of jet lag or shift work, and some research by University College London showed that chocolate could help reduce symptoms of depression. Although the authors of the paper acknowledged further research needs to be done to establish the direction between chocolate and the reduction in depressive symptoms, do we feel less depressed from eating chocolate, or is it a sign of depression that we lose our appetite for chocolate? And, as many of us know, when we are stressed, anxious and/or depressed, our sleep can suffer.
Additionally, some research from the University of L'Aquila found that chocolate could help diminish some of the effects of sleep deprivation by improving our cognitive performance.
I am sure you would agree, that’s not a huge amount of proof that chocolate could help us sleep better (although it definitely seems to help rodents), but what is actually in chocolate that could improve our sleep?
Not all chocolate is created equally when it comes to sleep, most chocolate includes things that are not great for sleep (such as caffeine and sugar) and others contain things that can help, such as magnesium and tryptophan. There is also some evidence to show that chocolate helps lower blood pressure and puts us into a more relaxed state, creating serotonin which is important to the production of melatonin, the hormone that encourages sleep.
Now I know what you are thinking “but James, we eat chocolate in the day to make us more alert, so how on this green earth is it going to help us sleep better?”. Well, that alertness comes mainly from theobromine rather than caffeine and there is a bit of research that shows that theobromine in chocolate might contribute positively to sleep.
This all means the type of chocolate will affect the impact, for example, dark chocolate has the least milk and sugar but the most caffeine and theobromine whilst white chocolate has no caffeine but lots of milk and sugar. Generally the darker the chocolate, the more beneficial for sleep.
My thoughts are that if you’re genetically a poor sleeper, someone who struggles to sleep on a regular basis, a couple of squares of chocolate are probably not going to improve that situation. It isn't a magic pill or a miracle cure, but it’s also not snake oil, and remember there’s some research to show it can have a positive impact - particularly for mice and rats! I’m of the view that if it doesn’t make your sleep worse then it could, as part of changing your behaviors, your mindset, your sleep environment, have a positive impact on the quality and quantity of your sleep. Happy World Chocolate Day!
All I need now is someone to prove a steak pie improves your sleep!