Recent interest in the health potential of phytonutrients has brought some of the many benefits of dark chocolate to light. Also known as phytochemicals, these non-essential but very beneficial compounds found in chocolate offer a long list of brain-boosting benefits. Dark chocolate has even been included in the University of Michigan Department of Integrative Medicine's Healing Foods Pyramid for its nourishing qualities.
Epicatechins and Brain Injury
Epicatechins, a group of antioxidant compounds found naturally in dark chocolate, may promote healthy nerve function and protect against brain injury, according to the University of St. Thomas Psychology Department. However, these molecules are highly sensitive to heat and light and are easily destroyed when the beans are roasted or cooked. One way to have your chocolate along with its brain-boosting benefits is to eat raw cacao. Available in many health food stores, raw cacao comes in powdered form or as nibs, small fragments that form when the beans break apart after the shell is removed.
Flavanols and Cognition
Chocolate can help you get a head start on keeping your brain sharp as you age, according to the University of Utah Health Care. The same flavanol antioxidants that make tea, grapes and red wine famously healthy are also found in dark chocolate. Liberal quantities of flavanols, about 500 or more milligrams per day, can improve working memory and verbal fluency. Their cardiovascular benefits also help maintain healthy blood pressure, promote optimal blood flow to the brain and prevent brain atrophy, according to a study published in the 2008 issue of the "International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine."
Fast-acting mood food, chocolate works within as little as one hour to improve mood and cognitive performance, according to a study published in the October 2010 issue of the "Journal of Psychopharmacology." In the randomized, double-blind study, participants consumed cocoa drinks that contained either 500 milligrams or 1 gram of flavanols while performing strenuous mental tasks. The higher dose improved visual processing, but resulted in more errors on some tasks, while the lower dose alleviated mental fatigue. Researchers note that the benefits may be due to improved blood flow and blood vessel function.
Anti-inflammatory benefits of cocoa help prevent damage to delicate brain structures that can lead to diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in the February 2012 issue of the journal "Molecular Aspects of Medicine." Researchers believe flavonoids in cocoa may hold the key to a new generation of drugs aimed at averting these and other degenerative brain conditions. Cocoa contains higher levels of the anti-inflammatory molecules than green tea, red wine and blueberries
- University of St. Thomas Psychology Department: Dark Chocolate: Protect the Brain?
- Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: Impact of Fermentation, Drying, Roasting, and Dutch Processing on Epicatechin and Catechin Content of Cacao Beans and Cocoa Ingredients
- University of Utah Health Care: Could Chocolate's Antioxidants Boost Brain Function?
- International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine: Flavanols, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Alzheimer's Dementia
- Journal of Psychopharmacology: Consumption of Cocoa Flavanols Results in Acute Improvements in Mood and Cognitive Performance During Sustained Mental Effort
- Molecular Aspects of Medicine: Neuroinflammation: Modulation by Flavonoids and Mechanisms of Action
- Iowa State University Extension: A Review of Functional Foods
Tracey Roizman, DC is a writer and speaker on natural and preventive health care and a practicing chiropractor. She also holds a B.S. in nutritional biochemistry.