Are those who ease their tensions with a few bars of chocolate suffering from nothing but a proverbial sweet tooth? Or might they also be considered legal drug users--people who "self-medicate" themselves with sweets to counteract their depression?
Dr. Michael Gitlin, a psychiatrist and medical director of the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic, and Marjorie Schuman, a psychologist and professor of psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology, both wanted to know.
Bridging the Gap
So they investigated the scientific literature on the subject and discovered, as Gitlin puts it, that "virtually nothing has bridged the gap between psychiatry and nutrition in this area."
The results of the pair's pilot study offer chocoholics and those who love sweets both good news and bad.
The study, which compared people attending a chocolate convention with a control group of people standing in a Westwood theater line, did not show or imply that people who eat a lot of sweets and chocolate necessarily have a psychiatric problem and need treatment. But in a report presented recently at a national meeting of the American Psychological Assn., the researchers did conclude that a significant number of people who say they self-medicate with chocolate or sweets also possess traits associated with a depressive syndrome called hysteroid dysphoria.
Tendency to be Moody
What's more, the pair confirmed that the self-medicators tended to be women more often than men, have somewhat flamboyant or dramatic personalities, a tendency to be moody, a tendency to fall in love easily and to feel devastated by romantic rejection.
In the study, these traits did not show up at a level considered scientifically significant among people who merely said they ate a lot of chocolate or sweets. Only those who were defined as "self-medicators" (those who said they eat a lot of chocolate or sweets when they get depressed) possessed the traits associated with hysteroid dysphoria.
None of which is particularly startling to either practitioner. Gitlin, who says he loves chocolate Haagen-Dazs but doesn't go out of his way for it, points out that the study merely confirms that which "everyone experiences personally and clinically." Schuman, who admits to a definite sweet tooth, says that she and Gitlin "learned the obvious things. We demonstrated that people crave sweets and they crave chocolate and that at least some people crave these substances to self-medicate or take care of bad feelings. The average person knows that, but for some reason it's been neglected in research."
Schuman further observed that those who do, in fact, use chocolate or sweets when they're feeling somewhat depressed are not necessarily suffering from serious mental illness. "Depression is a common human experience," she says. "And this is a normal way people relate to it."
As for why women appear to use more chocolate as an antidote to depression and why these women are likely to fall in love more easily and feel devastated by romantic rejection, the study provided no answers. But Gitlin speculates the reasons could be more environmental than biological. It's "possibly because in our society women are conditioned at an early age to be more focused than men on external validation," he says, "and thus become more vulnerable to certain kinds of rejection."
Like most research studies, this one raises more questions than it answers. The issue of whether chocolate could be classified as a drug, for instance, or whether it really does cheer people up were not addressed.
Do the researchers secretly suspect chocolate could be a drug?
"Seemingly it is, but for what reasons, we don't know," says Gitlin.
Schuman adds: "There's no question that foods affect mood though we didn't prove that. I think it's a way of going into a pleasurable body sensation and being unconscious to whatever's going on in your life."
As you might expect, Schuman and Gitlin are already preparing a follow-up study, one that will likely focus on people undergoing treatment for mood disorders. In a clinical setting, particularly one in which Gitlin describes clients as suffering not from just depressive traits but "major league depression," similar results are expected.
For now, though, the important thing to remember, as Gitlin says, is that "we're not pathologizing everything.
"If you've just craved chocolate and have no problems, fine. Go enjoy yourself," he suggests. "But if you crave sweets in the context of being depressed and hiding out in bed, you'd better go and have somebody evaluate you."