Studies: Dark chocolate lowers your stress levels, offers other benefits

If you're a dark chocolate lover, your day is about to get a little sweeter.

That's because two new studies presented at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting this week in San Diego have shown that certain types of dark chocolate offer health benefits – specifically, positive effects for your stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity.

This applies to dark chocolate with a high cacao concentration – minimally 70 percent cacao and 30 percent organic cane sugar. For the study, researchers used chocolate from Redlands, California-based Parliament Chocolate, which lists the cacao and sugar concentrations on the front of the bar, according to principal study investigator Lee S. Berk. The studies examined how chocolate consumption affects certain gene expression and how it affects electrical brain activity when consuming chocolate over shorter and longer periods of time. For the latter study, researchers were looking to figure out if they "needed to increase or decrease the amount of dark chocolate consumed" depending on how long the responses lasted.

Related: Meanings behind your dreams 

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11 common stress dreams and what they mean
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11 common stress dreams and what they mean

Trying and failing to run away

Lennox calls this scenario "stress dream 101." He said this dream is an "expression of generalized fear and anxiety" — though the specific object of fear will vary from person to person.

"I would say that the person who's having the dream probably has a greater generalized fear response to life than someone who doesn't have that dream," Lennox added. "Although it doesn't make the person pathologically challenged."

Bulkeley said he would ask the dreamer in this situation if anything in their life feels inescapable. Maybe the person is feeling weak or vulnerable in a conflict. Dreams often use "dramatic metaphors" for emotions that are hard to verbalize, he said.

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Being naked

Lennox said dreaming about being naked is a "perfect symbolic expression" of feeling like a fraud at work (also known as impostor syndrome).

Many people privately experience the fear that other people will find out that they don't really know what they're doing. Being naked at work could mean, Lennox says, that "I will be seen for who I really am. And that will be terrifying."

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Being unprepared for an exam

People commonly dream of being unprepared for a test in high school or college – even if they graduated years ago. And Lennox said it’s often triggered by performance anxiety at work.

High school and college "are the first places where we learn about responsibility and accountability. [The dream] will often recur when we’re faced with the same sense of pressure in our current waking life."

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Being unable to graduate college

Dreams about being unable to graduate translate to fears about not being ready to advance, particularly at work.

Lennox said, "The dream would be processing fears that someone else is ready and we're not, that we're going to be somehow passed over."

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Watching your teeth fall out

"Losing teeth is akin to insecurity," Lennox said.

Teeth have a few functions — they allow us to eat, but they also let us smile or snarl at other people. To lose your teeth "would be to not be able to feed and take care of yourself, feel loved, and be protected," Lennox said.

Another potential meaning? Because teeth are in the mouth, Lennox said this dream might come up when "being authentic, speaking up, or having a voice" feel challenging.

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Falling

This dream often occurs, Bulkeley said, around times of great uncertainty, when you "feel like you don't have adequate support or backing." Maybe something or someone in your life that was once your rock is now less stable.

In terms of work anxieties, Lennox said a dream of falling could reflect a lack of authority in the workplace.

"If you're dreaming of falling, look to the places in your work life where you feel like you're trying to exert some control that's unattainable."

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Seeing your loved ones die

"Death is a great symbol of change," Lennox said.

When someone dies in your dream, it might indicate that something about your relationship with that person is changing or growing. That change isn't necessarily negative, but a recurring dream about death might suggest that something about the transformation is scary.

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Forgetting to pack something

Lennox said this dream is fundamentally about feeling unprepared. "When we're unprepared, then we can't navigate a stressful situation effectively."

The dream might also represent a feeling of being out of control.

Interestingly, Lennox said dream scenarios are typically much higher-stakes than anything that happens in real life. For example, showing up to a business meeting and realizing you forgot to pack your laptop is arguably worse than feeling generally overwhelmed by the day-to-day demands in your life.

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Missing a flight

When you miss a flight in your dream, you're probably playing out a fear of missing a deadline in real life.

"In the world of working, there's nothing like a deadline as a supreme stressor," Lennox said.

Again, Lennox said everything is a crisis in dream world. Turning in a project report an hour late probably doesn't have the same consequences as missing an international flight by an hour.

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Forgetting to take care of a baby or pet

Babies in a dream are symbolic of new possibilities, Lennox said. If you dream about neglecting a baby, you might really be worried about that blog post you've been meaning to write or that hobby you've been hoping to start. Essentially, you're neglecting something in your life that needs your attention.

Pets, on the other hand, reflect joy and love. Lennox said someone who dreams about abandoning a pet might be "too stressed to do fun and lovely things for themselves" and might be feeling like "I'm missing out on cultivating and nurturing something that life has to offer."

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Driving

Bulkeley said cars and driving in dreams can have many meanings, but they often reflect our connections to other people.

If you're dreaming of speeding, for example, you might feel out of control in a personal relationship. On the other hand, if you're dreaming of being stuck in traffic, you might be feeling "adrift" in relationships, or life in general.

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Researchers say their work is unprecedented.

"This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-sized chocolate bar in humans over short or long periods of time, and are encouraged by the findings," Berk said in a statement. He's also a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology and food science from California-based Loma Linda University.

"These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects," he said.

Cacao contains flavonoids, a type of plant pigment, which are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that can help both brain and cardiovascular health.

Related: Least stressful cities:

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17 least stressful cities in the world
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17 least stressful cities in the world

#17: Auckland, New Zealand

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#16: Oslo, Norway

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#15: Dresden, Germany

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#14: Nice, France

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#13: Wellington, New Zealand

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#12: Seattle, Washington, USA

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#11: Zurich, Switzerland

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#10: Graz, Austria

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#9: Hamburg, Germany

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#8: Sydney, Australia

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#7: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

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#6: Bordeaux, France

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#5: Munich, Germany

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#4: Bern, Switzerland

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#3: Hannover, Germany

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#2: Luxembourg, Luxembourg

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#1: Stuttgart, Germany

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These studies are underscored by other research done on the health effects of chocolate. Chocolate has been a centuries-long suggested remedy for everything from syphilis to cancer to prenatal stress and more. While dark chocolate has its health benefits, people still have to be wary of portion size to limit the fat, sugar and calories that come along with it.
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