For a Healthy Brain, Feed it This Candy!

When you think about chocolate, the first thing that crosses your mind may be its rich, delicious taste and texture. But if you’re a medical researcher, visions of chocolate-boosted brainpower may also dance in your head.

As sales of chocolate expand every year (about 7 percent annually in the U.S.),1 scientists have expanded their studies into the ways chocolate improves the health of brain cells.

One of the most recent advances in our knowledge of chocolate and its benefits focuses on plant compounds found in chocolate called polyphenols. Scientists at Johns Hopkins have been particularly interested in how polyphenols known as catechins (also contained in green tea) influence the survival and growth of neurons in the brain.2

Those neurons, which are the highways and byways along which your memories and thoughts travel, need a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in order to grow and survive. The Hopkins researchers launched their investigations because they were trying to find ways to restore the cognitive powers of people with HIV. Victims of HIV suffer reduced levels of BDNF and that deficiency is at the root of many of the problems they have remembering things.

In their studies, the Hopkins scientists discovered that the catechins in chocolate help protect neurons by increasing the production of BDNF. Importantly, the scientists found that these natural chemicals travel across the blood-brain barrier—not all nutrients can breach that border. This means that after you digest chocolate and these chemicals enter your bloodstream, they can reach the brain and efficiently contribute to neuron growth and function.

Improves Blood Flow to The Brain

Blood flow to the brain is another key element required for vigorous use of your mental faculties. When the blood supply to the brain is blocked, your cognitive abilities can also be dammed up.

Here, too, chocolate has been shown to open the gates to better brain health. Research at the University of Nottingham, in England, has demonstrated that phytochemicals in dark chocolate can increase cerebral blood flow for up to three hours after you eat chocolate. These scientists also believe the blood flow-boosting effect of chocolate is potentially useful for treating dementia and strokes.

According to researcher Ian Macdonald, professor of metabolic physiology at the University of Nottingham, “The demonstration of an effect of consuming this particular beverage (cocoa) on cerebral blood flow raises the possibility that certain food ingredients may be beneficial in increasing brain blood flow and enhancing brain function, in situations where individuals are cognitively impaired such as fatigue, sleep deprivation, or possibly aging.”3

A Brain Honed on Chocolate

Along with showing that chocolate sets the physiological stage for better brain health, researchers have tested chocolate eaters to see whether their improved physiology is reflected in sharper mental performance. They haven’t been disappointed: Their tests have shown measureable increases in mental power.

In a study at Northumbria University, researchers recruited 30 people aged 18 to 35 and brought them into the laboratory for chocolate drinks and computerized assessments.4

On each visit to the lab, the participants had to complete tasks that analyzed how anxious they felt and measured their ability to perform mentally demanding tests. The results clearly showed that eating or drinking chocolate boosted their test results and eased their emotional distress.

 Chocolate Wins the Prize

If you’d like more evidence for chocolate’s brain benefits, consider a survey by researchers at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital and Columbia University. They found that the countries of the world with the highest chocolate consumption win the most Nobel prizes per capita.5 And a survey of Norwegians in their seventies demonstrated that those who consistently ate chocolate did better on word tests than did chocolate abstainers.6

To enjoy the brain benefits of chocolate, it’s generally agreed that you should eat the darkest chocolate, with the least amount of sugar added. Research in Australia shows that about 3.5 ounces a day of dark chocolate (about two bars) should be enough to brighten your mental future. The best option is baker’s dark chocolate—no milk, no sugar—but it’s bitter and not to everyone’s taste. If you prefer “real” candy, nearly all health food stores now stock plenty of chocolate bars with labels that clearly tell you the percentage of dark chocolate, ranging as high as 85%. Sugar-free bars that use safer sweeteners are readily available.