12 surprising effects of chocolate on the brain

Could the effects of chocolate on the brain be the reason behind Nobel Prize-winning nations?

A recent peer-reviewed study found multiple papers looking at potential correlations between the countries boasting the largest number of Nobel laureates and their chocolate consumption. The conclusion of the studies? It’s fairly possible.

The country with the highest chocolate consumption in the world -Switzerland- also happens to be the leading Nobel Prize recipient in the world. 

Now - before you can say “Hogwash!” - we are certainly not the first to ponder about the surprising effects of chocolate on the brain (nor are we the only ones using it as an excuse to snack on it) as multiple researchers all over the world have been studying chocolate to verify its effects on memory, problem-solving, cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, cardiovascular health, and mood. So far, the research is consistent:

Flavonoids found in cocoa powder or dark chocolate may boost cognitive function and brain activity.

Knowing this, we had to investigate further! We love chocolate and wanted to see if our brains (and bodies felt the same). Fortunately, we have found that there are some big benefits to sneaking in a piece of dark chocolate or sipping on a healthy cocoa drink, and we’ve gathered the science behind it so you can enjoy them guilt-free.

Chocolate, Cacao, and Cocoa

Before you grab a chocolate bar at the gas station, it’s essential to understand the difference between chocolate, cacao, and cocoa. 

Not all chocolate is created equal!

The studies looking into the effects of chocolate on the brain are not necessarily looking at a Hershey’s bar or your favorite brownie mix; they’re analyzing flavonoids in cacao beans that have been turned into chocolate!

Cacao beans are the seeds of the cacao tree (Theobroma or “food of the Gods”), they are the source of chocolate as we know it, but they have to go through many processes before their naturally strong taste is tamed and reduced.

Raw cacao beans are so bitter they are almost inedible

They must be fermented, roasted, and pulverized to be used. Once roasted and grounded, they become cocoa powder and cocoa butter.  That’s why chocolate, cacao, and cocoa are not the same; cacao is turned into cocoa powder and that, later, into chocolate!

Some cacao processing methods, such as “Dutching” aim to strip the bitter flavor out of the beans and leave a sweeter substance behind, but this also removes the flavonoids needed to get the benefits of cocoa. Since most commercial chocolate brands use this method, the candy bars may taste great, but not have the positive effects of chocolate on the brain.

Why Chocolate Might be Good for the Brain 

(AKA: what to tell your friends when they see you munching on it!)

A recent study from the Loma Linda University of California found that just one to two servings of dark chocolate, with a 70% cacao or cocoa concentration and up to 30% sugar ratio, enhance neuroplasticity for both “behavioral and brain” benefits. Participants were asked to eat 48 grams of dark chocolate and then had their brains scanned with an EEG machine twice. 

Both tests, thirty and sixty minutes post-consumption, showed that brain activity increased in the cerebral cortex areas associated with memory and cognition.

Researchers credit flavonoids, “extremely potent antioxidants,” with the brain’s enhanced activity.  

Other studies support this theory; researchers have been exploring the source of the effects of chocolate on the brain for decades. The findings point to high flavonoid and antioxidant content as the determining factors. 

Cocoa Flavonoids

Flavonoids are water-soluble plant compounds that give plants their bright colors while also finding and neutralizing the unstable molecules known as “free radicals.” These powerful antioxidants prevent aging and cellular oxidation, which may explain the neuroprotective effects of chocolate on the brain.

A collaborative study between the Department of Psychology of the University of Rome and the University of L’Aquila in Italy went deeper into flavonoids and the benefits of cocoa, investigating the effects of acute and chronic administration of cocoa flavonoids on different cognitive domains, such as executive functions, attention, and memory.

After reviewing previous studies on the health benefits of cocoa and following 460 patients through clinical trials facing various issues from lack of sleep to brain fog, they gathered enough evidence to suggest that:

"Cocoa flavonoids could help maintain cognitive performance and improve attention span, information processing speed, and memory."

However, the benefits of cocoa are not limited to their antioxidant power; a UK study found that flavonoids also:

  • Protect vulnerable neurons
  • Enhance neuronal function
  • Stimulate brain cell regeneration
  • Mediate Neuron Pathways and Long-Term Potentiation
  • Fortify memory

Remarkably, these are not the only effects of chocolate on the brain.

12 surprising effects of chocolate on the brain

Most of the following studies tested either a small amount of dark chocolate or a hot cocoa drink, so by the end of this post you might be looking for a healthy hot chocolate recipe!

#1 dark chocolate could make you smarter

small study found that after eating 6.8 grams of 70% cacao or cocoa concetration in fasting mode Beta and Alpha waves increase significantly. They are associated with reliable memory recall, consistent focus, and problem-solving.

#2 cocoa might help aging minds stay sharp

The benefits of cocoa may include lowering insulin resistance, according to this 2015 study. Researchers followed 90 elderly patients for eight weeks and gave them a cocoa drink every day; at the end of the study, participants showed improved verbal fluency, trail making, and mental state. 

#3 could improve brain oxygenation

Dark chocolate could be a vasodilation agent, which improves blood flow and oxygen levels throughout the body and the brain. One of the positive effects of chocolate on the brain could be reduced headaches or plaque that may clog cerebral veins.

#4 might help prevent Parkinson’s Disease or Alzheimer’s

Research shows that flavonoids may have neuroprotective properties, counteracting -or preventing- injuries induced by neurotoxins, in addition to reducing neuroinflammation. It’s too early to tell, but it’s a compelling reason to study the effects of chocolate on the brain.

#5 may help you feel more alert

One of the easiest ways to experience the benefits of cocoa in your life is replacing your coffee with a healthy chocolate alternative; cocoa also has a small amount of caffeine and may help you beat the afternoon slump according to this research paper.

#6 cocoa could reduce the effects of sleep deprivation

We often talk about the link between cortisol and sleep, but we hardly ever discuss how sleep deprivation (-6 hrs of sleep per night) leaves you as impaired as drinking six or more beers. This study found that just one serving of cocoa after one night of total sleep deprivation maintained working memory and improved alertness in healthy women. 

#7 may improve your mood in stressful situations

One of the most well-known effects of chocolate on the brain is that “boosts endorphins,” but it might do more than that.  This UK study monitored the anxiety levels of 30 adults during stressful tasks and found that drinking cocoa helped them feel and perform better.

#8 could decrease mental fatigue

The same study found that drinking a healthy hot chocolate alternative with 520mg to up to 994mg of cocoa benefits mental focus and reduces self-reported “mental fatigue.”

#9 it might reduce sugar cravings 

Dark chocolate could be the answer to the question: how to curb sugar cravings? Turns out that one of the blissful side effects of chocolate on the brain, may also be good for your waist; cocoa flavonoids in dark chocolate may help signal your brain that you’re satisfied faster than milk chocolate, candy, or other sugary snacks.

#10 could improve the brain and gut connection

The benefits of cocoa drinks keep growing, scientists followed twenty-two individuals for four weeks and found that one cocoa drink a day significantly improved gut bacteria and prebiotic flora. Unbalanced guts trigger sugar cravings, mental health issues, and mood swings.

#11 may keep your brain young longer

Some unexpected side effects of chocolate on the brain come from regulating that gut flora; bad gut bacteria tend to lower the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF,)  which helps neurons survive, grow, mature, and stay healthy. 

#12 might reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression

In this study, scientists found the effects of chocolate on the brain reduced cortisol, balanced gut microbiome, and normalized stress-related energy levels. Potentially making alternative treatment for people with anxiety and depression.

Get The Benefits of Cocoa with Gold Chocolate

If these studies had you running for a hot cup of cocoa, you’re in luck! Gold Chocolate is a treat you can have anytime and anywhere. Full of 12 clinically studied adaptogenic & superfood ingredients from our seasonal-favorite adaptogenic blend our Gold Chocolate is a flavonoid-rich cocoa powder that also has all the stress management benefits of Reishi mushroom powder, turmeric, and more!

It adds cocoa powder (the rockstar ingredient) to the relaxing adaptogenic blend of our signature Gold: ginger, cinnamon, coconut milk, turkey tail mushroom, lemon balm, and pepper to better absorb the turmeric. 

Consider this reminder to eat and drink dark chocolate and benefit from the fantastic effects of chocolate on the brain.

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