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Chocolate and hysteria

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Callie JonesI enjoy any story about chocolate, so I was interested to read a recent press release asking whether chocolate was behind the so-called “hysteria” displayed by nuns and other women in the 18th century.

According to two researchers from Mexico who recently presented a paper at the University of Manchester, one of the perpetrators of this idea, among several others, was Jose Bartolache, a physician in 18th century New Spain (the parts of the Americas controlled by Spain at the time).

Dr Bartolache believed that chocolate was responsible for the disease of hysteria, which he claimed affected 60 per cent of lay women and 80 per cent of nuns in the cities of Mexico and Puebla, with which he was familiar. Wearing tight clothes, going to bed late and getting up late were other supposed causes of hysteria.

According to the Mexican researchers, the idea that chocolate could cause hysteria in women can only be understood by seeing the importance of chocolate in Bartolache’s society at the time. By the 18th century cacao had become a popular beverage in New Spain, where it could be served hot or cold for pleasure or medicinal purposes.

This drink became a staple in the convents of the cities of the region and many nuns apparently owned chocolateros, or chocolate jugs, in which their servants would prepare the drink for them so that they could have it in their own rooms without having to go to the communal refectory. Nuns enjoyed a life of relative luxury in Mexico at that time due to the wealth amassed by the convents, and they would drink chocolate with their servants in their private quarters.

However, between 1788 and 1789, an archbishop, Francisco de Lorenzana, brought in new regulations that forced the nuns to eat and drink communally. Hence, from then on, the nuns had to drink their cacao in the refectory and their intake greatly diminished.

Apparently, the nuns did not like these new arrangements, and were said to be prone to attacks of hysteria. The researchers of the conference paper speculate whether the hysteria could have been caused by a reduction in the consumption of chocolate.

Anandamide, a substance structurally similar to marijuana’s tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is released following chocolate consumption. Anandamide activates cannabinoid neuroreceptors known to change the texture of consciousness, which, according to a book entitled ‘Chocolate as medicine’, likely contributes to the euphoria many claim that chocolate induces.

However, Bartolache’s statements about the presence of hysteria may have had less to do with biochemistry than with the structures within society. The Mexican authors wonder whether the accusations of hysteria were just another affront to women by a male-dominated society. They point out that hysteria has always been a vague term associated with women in western culture and its elusive nature allowed it to become ingrained in gender stereotypes, so providing a medical justification for women’s inferiority.

For Bartolache, chocolate played a role in the portrayal of women as those with huge appetites and moral weaknesses who had to be controlled by a male order.

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