A daily cup of cocoa boosted the brains of people with signs of “cognitive impairment” … fuzzy thinking, that is.
As with heart health, cocoa is proving itself a powerful ally in brain health.
And a new study suggests that even in small amounts, its distinctive antioxidants boost key brain functions.
One key link between our hearts and brains is their need for ample oxygen-rich blood … and that explains in part why cocoa appears to benefit both.
Among other properties helpful to cardiovascular health, cocoa aids our arteries in a serious way (Arranz S et al. 2013).
Recent clinical studies show that cocoa and dark chocolate can also aid key aspects of people's brain function or performance (Scholey A et al. 2013; Sokolov AN et al. 2013; Nehlig A 2013).
These benefits mean that cocoa may help older people stay fully cognizant, and protect the brains of generations to follow.
A small new clinical study – conducted in people starting to show brain-performance problems – offers more evidence that cocoa boosts brain functions and key aspects of performance.
Cocoa boosted brain functions and performance seniors
The authors of a Boston-based clinical trial sought to explore connection among cocoa, brain performance, and “neurovascular coupling” (Sorond FA et al. 2013).
Neurovascular coupling is the mechanism that fits the brain's energy (oxygen and blood sugar) supply to meet its current demands … and it's become a hot brain research subject.
A boost in brain activity requires added glucose and oxygen, so brain blood flow increases in response.
Many researchers suspect that declining neurovascular coupling capacity accelerates (and/or accompanies) brain aging and promotes dementia.
The Boston team, led by Farzaneh A. Sorond, MD, PhD of Brigham and Women's Hospital, recruited 60 older adults (average age 73).
All the participants had moderate risk factors for dementia: occasional hypertension, taking blood pressure drugs, and/or well-controlled diabetes. None of them had dementia or either of two major risk factors: heart problems or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
All 60 people received cocoa powder (Mars, Inc.) to mix with water and were asked to drink two cups daily for 30 days.
They continued regular medications and were asked to cut back on calories by 100 per day (to prevent weight gain or worsening of diabetes) and refrain from chocolate and caffeine.
Before and after the 30 day study period, the volunteers were all given tests of mental performance, brain blood flow in response to thinking tests, and neurovascular coupling capacity.
In addition, 24 underwent MRI brain scans to map their normal and abnormal brain white matter.
After 30 days, the retests showed two benefits, primarily in those who showed poor neurovascular coupling capacity at the outset:
- Significantly better neurovascular coupling capacity (10 percent better)
- Significantly better performance on two standard brain-performance tests
In contrast, neurovascular coupling improved in only one-third (36 percent) of those who showed good coupling capacity at the start of the trial, and gain was much smaller.
Nor did the good-coupling-capacity people show improvement on the brain-performance tests given again after 30 days.
In other words, cocoa helped those with poor coupling capacity, but not those who already had a healthy capacity.
Finally, the Boston team saw improvements in brain white matter in the 24 people who underwent before and after MRI scans.
As the authors wrote, “[we] conclude that neurovascular coupling is related to cognitive performance and cerebral white matter structural integrity in elderly subjects with vascular risk factors … and that neurovascular coupling can be modified by cocoa.” (Sorond FA et a. 2013)
Tiny amounts of cocoa boosted impaired brains Importantly, it looks like – unlike other demonstrated cocoa benefits – cocoa's key antioxidants either weren't responsible for the brain benefits seen in this study, or worked even in tiny amounts.
To see whether flavanols were responsible for any effects detected, the 60 volunteers were divided in two groups, with each getting a different cocoa mix:
- Flavanol-rich cocoa (609mg per serving)
- Flavanol-poor cocoa (13mg per serving)
Cocoa features an uncommon family of antioxidants called flavanols that's clearly responsible for many of its apparent health benefits.
Unfortunately, the very common (almost universal) cocoa-processing method called “Dutching” destroys 90 percent of the flavanols in cocoa, or more.
Surprisingly, both kinds of cocoa produced the benefits, regardless of their flavanol levels.
The researchers suggested that either something else in cocoa boosts neurovascular coupling, or that coupling is very sensitive to even small amounts of flavanols.
The idea that coupling is extremely responsive to flavanols seems plausible, because their effects in the body result largely from “nutrigenomic” influences on our genes, which can occur at very low flavanol blood levels.
Dark chocolate just as good, if not better
As Dr. Sorond noted, her team could have asked people to consume cocoa in the form of dark chocolate (65-85 percent cocoa solids), which is generally made from natural, non-Dutched cocoa and therefore rich in flavanols.
If you decide to drink cocoa, be sure to look for brands that say “natural cocoa” in the ingredients list and avoid brands that say alkali or Dutched on the label.
And be aware that – ironically, given their healthy, natural image – many certified-organic cocoa powders are Dutched (alkali-treated) and offer very few flavanols.
Arranz S, Valderas-Martinez P, Chiva-Blanch G, Casas R, Urpi-Sarda M, Lamuela-Raventos RM, Estruch R. Cardioprotective effects of cocoa: clinical evidence from randomized clinical intervention trials in humans. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2013 Jun;57(6):936-47. doi: 10.1002/mnfr.201200595. Epub 2013 May 3. Review.
Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):716-27. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x. Review.
Scholey A, Owen L. Effects of chocolate on cognitive function and mood: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2013 Oct;71(10):665-81. doi: 10.1111/nure.12065.
Sokolov AN, Pavlova MA, Klosterhalfen S, Enck P. Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Dec;37(10 Pt 2):2445-53. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.013. Epub 2013 Jun 26.
Sorond FA, Hurwitz S, Salat DH, Greve DN, Fisher ND. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurology. 2013 Sep 3;81(10):904-9. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182a351aa. Epub 2013 Aug 7.