It is hard to find a woman that does not enjoy chocolate. Some women fear their chocolate cravings each month due to the added sugars but dark chocolate (at least 60% and above) can be a powerful and delicious tool to help improve hormone balance. Here are some of the reasons dark chocolate is beneficial for women’s hormones.
High in magnesium: Magnesium is an essential macro-mineral needed in over 300 different enzymatic reactions in the body. It is arguably the most important nutrient for women’s health. An estimated 70-80% of women are deficient in magnesium. This is because magnesium is very easily depleted by stress and inflammation. Even if dietary magnesium intake is adequate, it may be difficult to consume enough magnesium to compensate for the amount lost, especially in times of stress. Magnesium levels fluctuate with the menstrual cycle reaching very low levels just prior to menstruation. Low magnesium is therefore a very large contributing factor in symptoms of PMS (1). Dark chocolate is considered the highest known source of dietary magnesium. This may potentially be a big underlying reason why so many women crave chocolate during their monthly cycle.
High in iron and copper: Dark chocolate is a good source of iron and copper. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in women of reproductive age. This is due to blood loss during menstruation and during pregnancy. Copper helps with the absorption of iron, making dark chocolate a good option for women with low iron and heavy periods. The tannins in chocolate may somewhat reduce the absorbability of iron, however, based on some animal research, it is thought that the absorption of iron from chocolate is “moderate” (2). This means that dark chocolate proves to be a valuable source of iron despite tannins, although more research on humans is needed.
Helps boost mood: Dark chocolate has been shown to boost mood by supporting the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan and magnesium, both of which are plentiful in chocolate. (3). Adequate serotonin is important to combat PMS as serotonin levels dip with dropping estrogen levels prior to menstruation. Chocolate also contains phenylalanine which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine helps to support mood cognition (3) and regulates the hormone prolactin. High prolactin can suppress the hormones of the menstrual cycle. Care must be taken not to overconsume chocolate as too much dopamine can have opposite effects.
May relieve menstrual cramps: A few studies on teenagers and university students confirmed that chocolate had the ability to reduce menstrual cramps (4) (5). These results are most likely due to the high magnesium content in chocolate. Magnesium can relax uterine muscle cells leading to lighter cramps. Better results are seen with dark chocolate at least 60% and above compared to milk chocolate (6).
Helps with blood sugar balance and insulin resistance: specific flavanols in chocolate have been shown to help slow the progression of type 2 diabetes and help reverse insulin resistance (7). Insulin resistance and other blood sugar imbalances are a large root cause of many hormonal imbalances including PCOS.
It may help with estrogen clearance: dark chocolate can exhibit positive effects on liver function (8) it also helps to lower blood cholesterol (9) which is sometimes related to liver function. The liver is responsible for packaging estrogen in the body ready for excretion through the urine and stool. A well-functioning liver can therefore enhance estrogen clearance and assist in the metabolism of estrogen into less harmful forms. Dark chocolate is also high in magnesium which is needed for phase 2 liver detoxification of estrogen.
Good for the gut and the vaginal microbiome: dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants, namely phytochemicals called flavanols and polyphenols. Antioxidants help lower inflammation in the body by reducing oxidative stress. These phytonutrients have been shown to exhibit positive effects on the gut microbiome and also vaginal microbiome (these two are linked) (10). Poor gut health is a large underlying cause of inflammation and many hormonal imbalances. Poor gut health can lead to poor vaginal health. Dark chocolate can therefore be a good addition to the diet in moderation to help lower inflammation and improve gut and vaginal health.
Most chocolates available on the market are loaded with sugar, dairy milk and lots of other additives and flavourings, these chocolates are not likely to exhibit strong positive effects. When choosing chocolate, look for a cocoa content of at least 60- 70% and above. The higher the cocoa or the darker the chocolate the lower the sugar. Dark chocolate 85% and above has negligible sugar content with only around 2g of sugar per serve. An estimated 24g of added sugar a day is considered safe for women (around 6 teaspoons). It’s also important to choose dark chocolate that does not contain dairy milk as it is can diminish some of the positive effects that chocolate has on the liver. There are also many other wonderful options for “healthier dark chocolate” made with cacao instead of cocoa, which is the raw version of cocoa powder that retains slightly more nutrients. There are also healthy versions that are sweetened with natural sweeteners like coconut sugar, agave or maple syrup or sugar alcohols like erythritol. But even regular dairy-free dark chocolate with normal sugar still has many health benefits and is likely the type of chocolate used in chocolate research studies. Choose any dark chocolate that you enjoy and eat it knowing that it’s doing your body good. When baking or cooking at home, choose cacao powder over cocoa powder. Although both are healthy, cacao powder is raw and less processed so it retains slightly more nutrients than cocoa.
Dark chocolate does contain some caffeine but in much lower amounts than coffee. Chocolate is also well balanced in protein and fat and therefore mitigates a lot of the effects of caffeine on blood sugar and cortisol (read my caffeine article here). Chocolate is high in theobromine, which is often confused for caffeine but is a weaker, slow-release stimulant that is associated with improved mood and cognitive function. Some women can be sensitive to chocolate either due to the caffeine, theobromine or tannin content which is thought to trigger migraines in sensitive individuals. For these people, chocolate consumption should be kept low until any underlying causes are corrected or avoided long-term if necessary. Chocolate should be eaten in moderation as too much chocolate can be too stimulating, especially for some brain chemicals. Stick to 1-2 servings of dark chocolate a day (sometimes a little more if needed at certain times of the month). This is safe and health-promoting.
Please browse through the many nourishing chocolate recipes on my blog and enjoy.
(1) Parazzini, F., Di Martino, M., & Pellegrino, P. (2017). Magnesium in the gynecological practice: a literature review. Magnesium in the gynecological practice: a literature review. Magnesium research, 30(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1684/mrh.2017.0419
(2) Yokoi, K., Konomi, A., & Otagi, M. (2008). Iron bioavailability of cocoa powder as determined by the Hb regeneration efficiency method. British Journal of Nutrition, 102(2), 215-220. doi:10.1017/S0007114508149182
(3) Nehlig A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 75(3), 716–727. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x
(4) Maharani, Sandy & Pramono, Noor & Wahyuni, Sri. (2017). DARK CHOCOLATE’S EFFECT ON MENSTRUAL PAIN IN LATE ADOLESCENTS. Belitung Nursing Journal. 3. 686-692. 10.33546/bnj.292.
(5) Arfailasufandi, R., & Andiarna, F. (2018). The Influence of Dark Chocolate to Reduce Menstrual Pain in Primary Dysmenorhea.
(6) Verma Amita. (2019). Does Dark Chocolate Relieve Menstrual Pain in Adult Women?: A Study Among Indian Population. International Journal of Physiology, 7(4), 16–21. https://doi.org/10.37506/ijop.v7i4.48
(7) Shah, S. R., Alweis, R., Najim, N. I., Dharani, A. M., Jangda, M. A., Shahid, M., Kazi, A. N., & Shah, S. A. (2017). Use of dark chocolate for diabetic patients: a review of the literature and current evidence. Journal of community hospital internal medicine perspectives, 7(4), 218–221. https://doi.org/10.1080/20009666.2017.1361293
(8) Alavinejad, Pezhman & Farsi, Farnaz & Rezazadeh, Afshin & Mahmoodi, Moosa & Eskandar, Hajiani & Masjedizadeh, Rahim & Mard, Seyyed Ali & Neisi, Niloofar & Hosseini, Hossein & MH, Haghighizadeh & Moghaddam, Elham. (2015). The Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Lipid Profile, Fasting Blood Sugar, Liver Enzymes, Inflammation, and Antioxidant Status in Patients with Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled, Pilot study. Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology Research. 4. 10.17554/j.issn.2224-3992.2015.04.589.
(9) Petyaev, I. M., Dovgalevsky, P. Y., Chalyk, N. E., Klochkov, V., & Kyle, N. H. (2014). Reduction in blood pressure and serum lipids by lycosome formulation of dark chocolate and lycopene in prehypertension. Food science & nutrition, 2(6), 744–750. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.169
(10) Sorrenti, V., Ali, S., Mancin, L., Davinelli, S., Paoli, A., & Scapagnini, G. (2020). Cocoa Polyphenols and Gut Microbiota Interplay: Bioavailability, Prebiotic Effect, and Impact on Human Health. Nutrients, 12(7), 1908. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12071908