Love Chocolates? So Does Your Brain.
Who doesn’t love chocolate? From the ancient Aztecs to the modern global citizen, it has appealed to the palette and imagination of millions of people through centuries. And yet, it also has the reputation of being ‘sinful’. Not just because of the pleasure it invokes, but also because of increasing health concerns.
Over-consumption of sweet treats such as chocolate is directly linked to rise in severe health risks like obesity, heart diseases, and blood sugar irregularities. But does that mean chocolate itself is bad for your health?
Not at all. In fact, chocolate has several great benefits for your cognitive functions and overall brain health, both in the short and long term. July 7 is celebrated the world over as Chocolate Day. Let us take this occasion to talk about just how great this ‘sinful’ treat can be for your brain.
First, however, a word of caution.
Not all chocolates are alike – and beneficial
The beneficial properties of chocolate are indeed great in number, but those benefits come from raw cocoa and the 300+ chemical compounds present in them. Edible chocolate is made by processing raw cocoa beans, separating chocolate liquor and butter, and then mixing them with plenty of sugar and milk.
The ratio of cocoa to sugar & milk changes depending on the type of chocolate. The type we call dark chocolate is usually with 70% or more cocoa content. Milk chocolate has more sugar & milk and less cocoa; and white chocolate has even less cocoa content.
Now, the harmful effects of excess sugar consumption are well-known, and most of the problems that an excess consumption of chocolate can bring, comes from the sugar-milk part of it. Milk chocolate and white chocolate, therefore, counteract any benefits that the cocoa content in them brings, because the harmful effects of sugar and milk are much higher.
The benefits discussed here are based on the consumption of dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content.
How chocolate affects your brain
Cocoa is rich in over 300 antioxidants and natural neuro-productive chemicals. The most important for your brain among these is Flavanol, which has been found to provide an almost instant cognitive boost to your brain. Chocolate is also rich in Caffeine, Phenylethylamine, Anandamide, and Xanthine among others, that impact memory, cognition, focus, and mood.
Increases blood flow to the brain
Flavanol instantly increases blood and oxygen flow to several key areas of the brain for 2-3 hours after digestion, and helps boost cognitive performance by aiding visual information processing, particularly in demanding conditions like sleep deprivation and fatigue. This is why having some chocolate is often recommended when you are tired but need to go on. It has particularly beneficial effects on cognitively vulnerable situations. Recent studies have also indicated that long term consumption of cocoa can be effective in rehabilitating brain functions in Dementia patients and old age-related brain degeneration.
Improves memory and recall
A recent study found that consumption of chocolate enhances our memory and recall abilities by changing the brain wave frequency related to them. This type of frequency is called gamma, and it is related to the highest levels of cognitive functioning. The antioxidants present in chocolate has the power to enhance and cause an upsurge into these frequencies, particularly in areas related to information processing and reasoning.
Chemicals like caffeine and xanthine are psychoactive substances that increase alertness for a time after consumption. Chocolate is rich in both. This is why chocolate is a particularly effective remedy for clearing your mind if you are fatigued or overworked.
Regulates mood and pain
Chocolate has several compounds that have a profound effect on your moods. It enhances the flow of neurotransmitters like Dopamine and Serotonin. While the former enhances motivation and pleasure, the latter is especially beneficial in calming you down and alleviating feelings of pain. The intense pleasure you feel after eating a piece of chocolate is due to a spike in these feel-good chemicals in your brain, and is also helps subside the distress we feel after a painful experience, physical or emotional.
Chocolate may be ‘sinful’, but its enormous positive impacts on the brain and its many functions make it a blessing indeed. If you have a care to choose the right kind, and consume in moderation, chocolate can be a great friend to your brain. Next time you feel tempted to try some dark chocolate, therefore, don’t feel too guilty!