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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

La Dolce Vita in Bite-Size Pieces




Like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day in the West, March 8 in Russia has become synonymous with chocolate. No mystery there: Whether custom-wrapped in a colorful box or purchased on the fly at a corner kiosk, chocolate is a gift that nearly every woman likes.


Liking is one thing, however - needing is another. According to researchers, chocolate is more than just a bite-sized confectionery diversion. For many women, it may be nothing less than a biological and psychological necessity.


"Chocolate has a very complex aroma that is very difficult to duplicate, very pleasant," said Marcia Levin Pelchat of the U.S.-based MonellChemical Senses Center.


In an interview with the Internet news site Channel 3000, Pelchat and other researchers said the sensation of eating chocolate can approximate the high a woman feels when she is in love or after physical exercise.


"It's a very special food for women because it conveys affection," added Debra Zellner, a psychologist. "It conveys love."


In her book "Why Women Need Chocolate," U.S. nutritionist Debra Waterhouse even argues that indulging a craving for chocolate can help women lose weight, boost energy and maximize mood-elevating brain chemicals.


Chocolate cravings, she adds, are "not a problem to be treated, but a blessing to be encouraged."


Other researchers, however, have adopted a slightly less romantic stance. According to Cathleen Henning, a specialist on anxiety disorders, chocolate can make some women depressed, nervous and unable to concentrate.


First there are the obvious troublemakers: caffeine and sugar. Caffeine, large amounts of which are contained in chocolate, can cause anxiety, sleep problems and heartburn. It can also cause absentmindedness, restlessness and withdrawal-related headaches and fatigue.


Sugar, meanwhile, causes an initial increase in body insulin levels - creating the so-called "sugar rush" - but can ultimately send moods crashing. "The rapid decrease in insulin results in the production of excess adrenaline and cortisol, two body chemicals that can cause anxiety," Henning writes on the "Panic/Anxiety Disorders" page of the About.com Internet site.


The potential trouble doesn't stop there: Phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like chemical found in chocolate, can create mood swings and cause "blood vessels to dilate in the brain, thereby causing headaches," she says.


Theobromine, another chocolate ingredient, is a caffeine-like stimulant that can increase the pulse rate and cause migraines in people going through withdrawal, Henning says. Theobromine has also been found to be toxic to dogs and other animals - a single ounce of unsweetened chocolate can make a 4.5-kilogram dog ill - so anyone indulging should keep the bonbons to themselves.


Still another ingredient, anandamide, may have a similar impact on the brain as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC - the psycho-altering ingredient in marijuana.


However, according to Henning, a 59-kilogram person would have to eat over 11 kilograms of chocolate to experience effects similar to that of the drug.


Dr. Franklin Loew, former chairman of New York state's Cornell Veterinary School, who also holds a Ph.D. in nutrition, spoke highly of Henning's research. However, "most people don't respond to chocolate in any way except the expected way: short-term pleasure, nice taste," Loew said in an e-mail interview.


"Even people who crave chocolate in large amounts don't seem to have serious chemical effects from it," Loew said. "But ... every once in a while someone has a severe effect from it, usually ... from a large quantity."


In the end, however, even the threat of headaches, forgetfulness and rapid mood swings isn't enough to deter most women from passing up their piece of the chocolate avalanche on Women's Day.


Alyona Vashchenko, a 29-year-old housewife, said nothing will keep her from eating chocolate March 8.


"Once I ate three boxes of chocolate in one day, and I didn't even have a hint of a headache afterwards," Vashchenko said as she walked along the chocolate aisle of Kvish supermarket in the Tishinka Trading Center in downtown Moscow.


"I wasn't depressed or anything. But if my husband doesn't give me chocolate on March 8 - then I'll be really upset."