Writing about chocolate is fun. Nearly everyone I know loves chocolate although I’ve met a rare few who insist they don’t like it – I guess anything’s possible. Chocolate, or to be more accurate, cacao (cocoa) flavonols have been shown to have health promoting properties for awhile such as including lowering blood pressure. I’ve written about this before: Cacao, a.k.a. chocolate is damned healthy.
However, in a recent review in Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers looked at the effect cocoa flavonols have on different aspects of of cognition: memory, working memory, attention, judgment and evaluation, reasoning, comprehension and problem solving and the results are worthy of chocolate’s high praise. Sweet.
Researchers wanted to compare the effects of acute and chronic consumption of cocoa flavonol-rich chocolate on different measures of cognitive function. Or put another way, they wanted to see what happens to our brains a few hours after eating a serving of chocolate, and what happens when chocolate is regularly consumed over months and years. The study, Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids, looked at the results of several different studies which overall found, a beneficial effect on cognitive performance.
Study participants showed improvement in working memory performance and enhanced visual information processing after consuming cocoa flavonols. Evidence pointed towards a unique benefit for women; eating cocoa flavonols after a night of sleep deprivation prevented cognitive impairment – a.k.a. less accuracy in performing tasks. Something tells me new moms are going to eat this up. I’ve heard lots of ‘new mom’ stories from colleagues where ice cream is put back in the cupboard, or socks in the fridge. If good quality chocolate can ‘boost’ brain power like this, it should be a standard food supplement for anyone suffering from ‘mommy brain’ or even shift workers. Whether the results apply to the male brain is less clear but there’s no reason not to give it a try.
Good news for older adults
Turns out including cocoa flavonols on a daily basis is great for older adults! Cognitive performance including attention, thought processing speed, working memory, and verbal fluency benefited greatly with chronic (habitual) consumption. If there’s any caveat, the benefits were most pronounced in those with early signs of memory decline or other mild cognitive impairments. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Benefits of any kind are easier to observe, measure or notice when a decline is present. Preventing cognitive decline in the first place might be trickier though since any benefit would not be seen for a couple of decades or subtle improvements in those with seemingly no impairment simply won’t be noticeable but don’t let that stop you.
How do cocoa flavonols help?
There are a few ideas being kicked around. First, cocoa flavonols increase the production of nitric oxide, a gas that blood vessels produce which allow blood vessels to expand. Wider vessels mean more blood flow throughout the body bringing nutrients and oxygen to cells, tissues and organs. Also, cocoa flavonols squash inflammation; lower inflammation equals a happier and better functioning brain, and lastly, studies have found the fiber in cocoa products to be prebiotic; fibers that promote the growth of friendly bacteria (microbiota) and we’re just starting to appreciate how the gut microbiota positively influence brain function so this may also prove to be one of the ways chocolate can help the brain!
As the study authors Valentina Socci and Michele Ferrara explain:
“If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.”
What’s the take home message?
Regular consumption of cocoa may provide beneficial effects on cognition overtime. Cocoa flavonols have been show to benefit the cardiovascular system, including blood flow, which may be how these compounds work or there may be other benefits yet to be discovered – who knows? There is more than just suggestive evidence to show that cocoa flavonols can be part of a ‘total diet’ approach to good brain and cognitive health.
There is a caveat though.
To reap the benefits, you need to get a good ‘dose’ of flavonols and the rule of thumb is: the darker the chocolate, the more flavonols present. Milk chocolate is higher in sugar and calories and lower in flavonols so it isn’t the best way to reap the benefits. I try and steer people to 72% cocoa or higher. You can get dark chocolate with 85%, 90 and 99% cocoa content. Chocolate with a higher cocoa content will allow you to get more of the good stuff with fewer calories. For the truly adventurous, try raw cacao – you can chew the nibs (yes, it’s super intense and nearly knocked my socks off when I first tried them, but now I love them), or get them lightly sweetened or why not give raw cacao powder a go? Use in smoothies or make homemade hot chocolate – this form of cacao provides the richest source of flavonols.