Chocolate and Brain Function
Many studies on brain function have been going on for quite some time. What you might not know is that some definitive correlations have been found between cognitive brain function and odd products you may not have necessarily thought of, chocolate being one of those. In fact, chocolate and brain function are not necessarily two things you’d link together instinctively, but specific compounds within chocolate (and also within coffee) have been found to have positive effects on cognitive functioning: flavonoid compounds.
Cocoa flavanols are natural substances found in fresh beans that do tend to be destroyed the more they are processed into treats like milk and white chocolate, or baked goods such as brownies. As such, dark chocolates are some of the richest flavonol-containing foods we have. Between this molecule, theobromine and other anti-oxidants such as polyphenols and catechins contained in chocolate, we find ourselves with a cocktail of molecules able to stimulate brain activity, upregulate neurotransmitter production such as dopamine and also support blood circulation and blood vessels.
Consumption of dark chocolate can reduce certain risk factors for heart disease and blood pressure, as its compounds appear to be protective against oxidation of low-density lipids. Other studies are meanwhile showing improvements on fields like calming effects, fatigue and sleep deprivation by modulating and limiting the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine, which contribute to arousal and activation. More importantly however, cocoa-containing foods are rich in flavonols, which is one of the main active ingredients linked to improved cognitive functioning. In fact, MRI studies have shown that dark chocolate is involved in the dilation of cerebral blood vessels in a way that more oxygen permeates into key areas of the brain, namely the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus. Evidence currently supports the fact that dark chocolate, because of such properties, can improve people’s scores on verbal fluency, memory and learning tests; though many refer to this as anti-ageing effects, the term is inappropriate as cocoa’s flavonols are thought to help promote neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) without necessarily reversing cell-loss and damage. While this heightened cognitive activation is present in people of all ages, the link between chocolate and brain function appears to be more pronounced in the elderly.
Now one must be careful, because dark chocolate still contains non-negligible quantities of calories after all. Eating too much can lead to excess weight. Nonetheless, moderation is key and you can still grab your little daily piece of dark chocolate and feel content knowing it’s being consumed for your own good. Make sure you aim for bars containing at least 70% cocoa if you really want to prioritize its health and cognitive benefits.