Paracelsus' poison

An Easter Reflection on Chocolate and Medicine

If, like me, you intend to spend part of the Easter celebration nibbling the ears of chocolate Bilbies, you might be surprised to learn that you are consuming medicine.

Xoxalatl was a product of meso and southern America, the Mayans and other cultures of the region regarded it as sacred, and it was prized for its medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities. Chocolate was reserved for men of high rank such as priests, and, somewhat uncomfortably, sacrificial victims.

Chocolate was used by the Maya as a drink, although their milk free version, often with added chillies, would be almost unrecognisable to modern chocolate drinkers used to the milk infused sweetened concoction we have today. The European conquerors of South America rapidly adopted the medicinal use of chocolate.

In the 16th century Western medicine closely resembled that of the Maya and Asian systems, in the sense that ailments were divided into pairs of opposing qualities, such as hot/cold dry/moist. Chocolate as a drink was seen to be a hot/dry medicine, to be used for cold/damp ailments. Curiously, chocolate as a paste was seen as a cold medicine.

Chocolate was used for a multitude of conditions, and its use as a medicine evolved over the centuries. Chocolate could be used by itself, in mixtures with other herbs, or as a simple carrier to mask the taste of other medicines. One of the more sphincter tightening uses was a mixture of oil of chocolate, crushed millipedes, “sugar of lead” and opium for treating haemorrhoids.

Aside from its consistent use as an aphrodisiac, the general uses of chocolate as a medicine fell into three broad categories, as a source of nutrition to the feeble or emaciated, as a stimulant for the moribund and at lower doses, a relaxant and a “soother” of digestion.

How did chocolate do all this? Chocolate, as either a drink or paste, has a high concentration of oils which provide energy and nutrition, later versions with added milk and sugar also added to the food value of drinking chocolate, which allowed people with difficulty eating to gain nutrition. Chocolates use in cholera in the 19th century owes its properties to providing fluids for rehydration as well as energy while the disease ran its course.

Chocolate also has a number of pharmacologically active substances. The main one is Theobromine. The name comes from the scientific name of the cocoa plant, Theobroma caco, Theobroma meaning “food of the gods”. Theobromine is similar to caffeine, and has similar effects on the body; producing increased alertness (and agitation at higher concentrations) as well as relaxing the muscles in the lungs, making breathing easier.

Chocolate also has anandamide, a substance related to the active component of cannabis. Eating the several kilograms or so of chocolate needed to get enough anandamide into you to have an effect would tax even the most serious chocoholic. There are also some substances that slow the breakdown of anandamide. But whether there is enough to significantly increase anandamide levels to have an effect is very doubtful.

But that’s not all. Chocolate also contains the psychoactive substance phenylethyamine. While there is a reasonable level of this chemical in chocolate, most people’s bodies break it down rapidly. However, if you get headaches (not hangover headaches) from drinking red wine or eating blue cheese, your body doesn’t breakdown chemicals like phenylethyamine effectively, and you might get a buzz from chocolate.

And of course chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, is chock full of antioxidants. While antioxidants are relentlessly touted on TV and in magazines as a wonderful source of health, they don’t actually do much in real life.

Chocolate was primarily used as medicine until the 19th century, when it began to be replaced by more specific treatments. However as its use as medicine waned chocolates use confectionery waxed. The first use of chocolate for Easter eggs was in the early 19th century. With modern chocolate compounding methods chocolate confectionery became more accessible, becoming incorporated into human mating rituals. And the use of chocolate in Easter eggs (and rabbits and Bilbies) exploded.

Interest in chocolate and health has been revived recently, as the oils (and maybe the anti-oxidants) in chocolate (particularly dark chocolate) appear to reduce heart disease. But as one review puts it, “Further experimental studies are required to confirm a potentially beneficial effect of chocolate consumption.” So don’t rush out and stock up on dark chocolate Easter Bilbies to ward off heart disease.

Even the ancient Mayans knew that “the dose makes the poison”, and cautioned that too much chocolate was bad for you, but moderate consumption was good, so enjoy your Easter chocolate in sensible doses.