Dark chocolate boosts mood, protects the brain from damage, improves memory and focus, reduces stress and much more. Learn how to judge quality chocolate.
“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
— Charles M. Schulz
- Americans eat 3 billion pounds of it every year.
- But US consumption lags far behind that of the top chocolate-loving countries like Switzerland, Germany, and Great Britain. (1)
- It’s rare that something so downright delicious is also good for you, but dark chocolate is an exception to the rule.
- You’ll find dark chocolate at the top of any brain foods list.
Let’s take a look at 9 proven brain health benefits of dark chocolate to see why.
1. Eating dark chocolate can make you happy.
Dark chocolate boost the production of “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins. (2)
Endorphins bind with opiate receptors in the brain leading to feelings of euphoria, like the kind joggers get from “runner’s high.” They also reduce pain and diminish the negative effects of stress. Chocolate is a top dietary source of tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter of happiness and positive mood.
Chocolate is the main food source of anandamide, a naturally occurring compound called the “bliss molecule.” This neurotransmitter is very similar to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive component in marijuana. Dark chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, a compound called the “love drug” because it creates a brain buzz similar to being in love. Theobromine, a compound found in chocolate that’s related to caffeine, is thought to make chocolate a mild aphrodisiac.
2. Dark chocolate improves blood flow to the brain.
Compounds in dark chocolate boost memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving skills by increasing blood flow to the brain. The flavonoids in chocolate have been shown to improve blood flow to the brain in young and old alike. In one study, a single dose of flavonol-rich cocoa increased blood flow to the brain in healthy, young adults.
A study at Harvard Medical School found that drinking two cups of hot chocolate increased blood flow to the brain for 2-3 hours. This blood flow boost improved scores on a working memory speed test by 30%. Increased blood flow to the brain may help prevent mental decline in seniors.
3. Dark chocolate protects the brain against free radical damage.
Your brain uses a lot of oxygen, about 20% of the body’s total intake.
This makes it highly susceptible to free radical damage.
Free radicals are unattached oxygen molecules that attack your cells much in the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust. If you’ve ever seen a sliced apple or avocado turn brown, you’ve seen free radicals at work. Wrinkles, age spots, and sun damage on your skin are visible signs of free radical damage. The same process is going on inside your brain. Antioxidants protect brain cells by neutralizing free radical damage and preventing premature brain cell aging. Cocoa powder contains more antioxidants than other “superfoods” such as acai, blueberry, and pomegranate powders. When tested against coffee and tea, cocoa powder drink came out ahead of green tea but behind coffee.
4. Dark chocolate improves learning, memory, and focus.
Cocoa’s flavonoids penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus. Chocolate contains flavonoids which improve standardized cognitive test scores. Chocolate also contains some caffeine, a known brain booster that in low doses improves memory, mood, and concentration.
5. Dark chocolate can help relieve stress.
Magnesium is so good at helping you relax that it’s been dubbed the “original chill pill.”
This essential mineral reduces stress by suppressing the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Magnesium is largely missing from our diets but chocolate contains a substantial amount of it. It’s largely believed we crave chocolate for its magnesium.
Getting more magnesium from chocolate can improve memory, focus, mood, sleep, and resilience to stress.
6. Eating dark chocolate can help control food cravings.
Chocolate is the most widely craved food. But indulging in cheap, mass-produced chocolate doesn’t reduce cravings. In fact, it fuels them. On the other hand, dark chocolate is extremely satisfying so you’ll be happy eating much less. Eating a little dark chocolate has been shown to reduce cravings for junk food of all kinds — sweet, salty, and fatty.
Consequently it can help you make healthy food choices, cut calories and lose weight.
7. Dark chocolate consumption can protect your brain for a lifetime.
There have been many exciting findings surrounding chocolate’s use in treating brain-related medical conditions like strokes and dementia. The powerful antioxidants found in dark chocolate reduce risk of dementia. In fact, the more chocolate seniors ate, the less likely they were to develop dementia. Chocolate’s flavanols improved cognition in seniors diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Dark chocolate decreases insulin resistance. This is significant because many experts believe Alzheimer’s is a disease of insulin resistance — form of diabetes of the brain. When brain cells become insulin resistant, they don’t get the glucose they need, and subsequently die.
The consumption of flavonoid-rich foods like cocoa holds the potential to limit, prevent, or reverse age-related deterioration of brain functions.
8. Dark chocolate supports good intestinal bacteria, helping your brain.
One of the most unusual dark chocolate health benefits is that it increases beneficial bacteria in your intestines. And oddly, this is good news for your brain!
Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are two of the most prevalent “good” bacteria in your gut and are found in most probiotic supplements. They act as antioxidants, protecting your brain from free radical damage. Chocolate acts as a prebiotic, keeping good bacteria levels high and bad bacteria in check. An overabundance of bad bacteria can lower levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This important brain chemical is essential for keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating the formation of new brain cells.
9. Eating dark chocolate may make you smarter.
You’ve already seen that eating chocolate can improve your ability to learn, focus and remember.
One study reports that the more chocolate a country consumes, the more Nobel prize winners it has!
While this may sound like a joke, the study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious organization not known for pranks.
But seriously, eating chocolate has been shown to be neuroprotective and enhance brain plasticity — a trait that’s linked to increased intelligence.