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How a chunk of chocolate can melt away your pain


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How a chunk of chocolate can melt away your pain



By David Derbyshire

Last updated at 8:12 AM on 14th October 2009




article-0-019D9270000004B0-962_233x411.jpg Natural remedy: Scientists believe that eating chocolate can distract us from pain


Nibbling on chocolate or even sipping a glass of water can relieve aches and pains, a study has shown.

A team of researchers says the distraction of eating or drinking for pleasure acts as a natural painkiller.

Although the findings come from studies on animals, the scientists believe the same effect takes place in people.

Dr Peggy Mason, of Chicago University, found that rats were less bothered by pain if they were eating a chocolate chip or drinking water. 'It's a strong, strong effect, but it's not about hunger or appetite,' she said.

'If you have all this food in front of you that's easily available to reach out and get, you're not going to stop eating, for basically almost any reason.' Past studies have shown that eating can ease pain.


However, the latest study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to show that food and drink act as a painkiller in the absence of hunger or thirst.

In the experiments, rats were given either chocolate, sugar water or plain water while the floor of their cage was heated with a light bulb positioned underneath.

The animals reacted to the heat by raising a paw off the floor.

But the animals were much slower to raise their feet when they were eating or drinking than when they were not occupied with food and drink.

It made no difference whether the rats were eating chocolate or drinking water, despite past studies which found that only sugary food and drink protects against pain.

'This really shows it has nothing to do with calories,' Dr Mason said. 'Water has no calories, saccharine has no sugar, but both have the same effect as a chocolate chip. It's really shocking.'

When the experiment was repeated with quinine - a bitter drink that rats find unpleasant - the animals reacted to heat as quickly as when they were not eating.

The scientists believe that food and drink only triggers pain relief if it is pleasurable. Eating chocolate made no difference if the rats were ill, although drinking water continued to delay their response to the hot floor, they found.

In the wild, animals cannot afford to be distracted during the rare, but important, times they are able to drink or eat.

The researchers say a part of the brain called the raphe magnus - helps blunt pain when eating or drinking. The same area eases pain while sleeping or going to the lavatory.

Dr Mason believes the effect is also found in people. Past studies have shown that babies suffer less pain if they are given a sugary drink while having a vaccine booster.

But she believes the latest findings could end the practice of using sweets to calm children when they visit the doctors.

'Ingestion is a painkiller but we don't need the sugar,' Dr Mason said. 'So replace the doctor's lollipop with a drink of water.'

Dr Don Katz, a neuroscientist at Brandeis University who studies taste, said: 'They're saying the purpose of the taste system is to give the animal a cue that helps it decide what stimulus they should or shouldn't pay attention to.

'This shows there is a whole region there to enable the animal to keep eating.'

In 2005 scientists at the University of Cincinatti, in the US, found that sugary foods and drinks cut levels of the potentially harmful hormone glucocorticoid, which the brain produces when we're under pressure.

The research on rats showed when they had sugary food or drink, their bodies produced lower levels of glucocorticoid in response to stressful situations.

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