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.