It happens around the holidays. You're with your family, there's tons of food around, and you gorge on everything from turkey to stuffing to cake. It's fun at the time, but not long after, things start to change. You feel a burning sensation in your chest, and before you know it, you're tasting all that delicious food in the back of your throat. Your wonderful holiday moment has become painful and irritating.

The problem is heartburn, which is experienced at least twice a week by 60 million Americans. Heartburn comes from many places--sleep, smoking, exercise, stress--but often it stems from the intake of food, specifically fatty foods.[1] This can include meals (like breaded chicken cooked in oil) and desserts. And in fact, of everything you reach for when your sweet tooth kicks in, one ingredient pops up on every list of heartburn causes: chocolate.

Chocolate, which comes from a tree native to tropical South America, has been immortalized in children's literature and holidays of all religions, making it one of the world's most popular flavors. We make it into milkshakes, cocoa mixes, cakes, ice creams, and nuts. It never goes out of season; a cup of hot chocolate is as refreshing in the winter as a chocolate malt is in the summer. It contains many different chemicals, which can affect the body differently. One of these chemicals is serotonin.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is a type of chemical that helps relay signals from one area of the brain to another. Serotonin is so powerful that an imbalance in its levels can lead to depression. Moreover, 90 percent of our serotonin supply is found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets. But one of the main reasons chocolate is a heartburn cause is because it relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

The LES, the band of muscle between the stomach and esophagus, has one job: to regulate the flow of food between the two. When the LES relaxes, food creeps back into the esophagus, causing irritation. The reason this happens a lot during the holidays is because food triggers are prevalent. Topping off that rich Christmas dinner with a plate of chocolate cookies and a chocolate Santa Claus snack puts you at more risk for heartburn.

Just ask the subjects of a 2001 study, in which it was determined that chocolate induces symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD),[2] whose number-one symptom is heartburn. However, the subjects were later given granisetron (which is commonly used to counteract nausea) and experienced reduced levels of reflux. This, one might imagine, came as good news to those refuse to swap chocolate for a heartburn-free lifestyle.


[2] University Of Michigan Health System (2001, May 23). Study Offers Hope For Chocolate-Loving Reflux Disease Sufferers. ScienceDaily.