Is Chocolate Good For the Brain?

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Chocolate lovers are tuning in to the benefits of dark chocolate. It helps to elevate the mood, it has positive effects on heart health, but the news about chocolate keeps getting better – research now shows that chocolate is also good for the brain!  

In a study led by Dr. Farzaneh Sorond at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, sixty older adult participants drank hot chocolate twice daily for thirty days. Participants were randomly given antioxidant-rich as well as chocolate low in antioxidants.

Before and after the study, participants completed tests to measure memory and reasoning skills. Ultrasound technology was used to observe blood flow and MRI was used to observe nerve fibers within the brain. About a third of participants showed reduced blood flow and nerve fiber damage – this group also performed poorly on the tests. Higher test results were scored by participants showing better blood flow and less damage to nerve fibers.

After the 30 days had elapsed, those who originally scored lower showed remarkable improvement in subsequent tests. Findings included:

  • 30 percent increase in problem solving skills.
  • Improved memory.
  • Blood flow to the brain was increased by 8.3 percent.

Dr. Sorond explains that a close relationship exists between neuron activity in the brain and increased blood flow and she credits the cocoa in hot chocolate for helping deliver the fuel that our brain requires to work at optimum efficiency. No differences were noted between the antioxidant-rich and antioxidant-poor recipients but studies will be ongoing.

Almost like falling in love

The caffeine and antioxidant flavinol in chocolate may be given credit for improved cognitive function for the simple reason that chocolate elevates our mood! The chemical compound found in chocolate, phenylethylamine (or PEA) is said to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain giving us similar feelings as falling in love.

Chocolate helps reduce fatigue

In a study from the UK conducted by researcher Steve Atkin, PhD, a group of adults experiencing chronic fatigue syndrome, were given 1.5 oz. of 85% cocoa dark chocolate to eat daily for eight weeks. In post study results, participants reported feeling less fatigue after eating the chocolate – the bonus, no one in the group showed weight gain. Researchers believe that cocoa improves the action of neurotransmitters in the brain and like serotonin, helps regulate sleep and mood.

What type of chocolate is best?

Health benefits of dark chocolate are found in the antioxidant flavonoids found in the cacao plant.  Amounts vary from brand to brand, but the bottom line – higher non-fat cocoa solids in the chocolate bar or drink mix means higher antioxidant flavonoid content and therefore a healthier product. When buying dark chocolate for its health benefits, choose a 70 percent or higher cocoa content.

A word of caution

A moderate amount is good but that doesn’t mean more is better. The sugar and fat content in hot chocolate and chocolate bars can quickly negate the positive properties of the cocoa if we have too much. Researchers specifically caution those with high blood pressure and diabetes.

Nutritional facts about chocolate

Cocoa beans contain polyphenols with beneficial antioxidant properties or flavonoids known to reduce the blood’s ability to clot, thus reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack.

Cocoa beans contain a small amount of caffeine, less than coffee or cola. The phenylethylamine (PEA) has slight antidepressant effects and can also increase levels of serotonin in the brain. Essential minerals cocoa include magnesium, iron, zinc, copper and potassium.

  • One cup (236 ml.) of hot chocolate contains 113 calories, 1.1 grams fat, and 18.6 grams of sugar.
  • One ounce (28 gm.) of dark chocolate contains 151 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 7 grams of sugar.

While chocolate lovers rarely need another good reason to indulge, isn’t it nice to know that a few health benefits are included? Research into the benefit of chocolate is ongoing but one recipe for brain health we can take to the bank consists of daily exercise and sticking with a nutritious healthy diet.

Guest post written by Alice Lucette who is a blogger from Canada and is a writer for SeniorsZen(dot)com – a free resource for finding local retirement housing in Canada.

 

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