How Chocolate Affects Your Brain, According To Experts
Having a bite of something chocolatey can really hit the spot when you're feeling tired, stressed out, or in a bad mood. And that could because, in addition to tasting amazing, chocolate affects the brain in several profound ways. It's why you often hear experts recommending the occasional square or two, along with foods that contain similar ingredients, like antioxidants.
"The best chocolate to consume is dark chocolate for its health benefits," Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, MA, the director and founder of Your Brain Health Matters, LLC and an Atlantic Senior Fellow with the Global Brain Health Institute, tells Bustle. Unlike milk chocolate and other candies, the cocoa in dark chocolate can lower inflammation levels in the body, and help reduce your risk of certain diseases.
In order to get these benefits, experts recommend looking for certain ingredients in your chocolate. "I tell my clients to look for one that is 85% or higher cocoa, organic, and unsweetened, or sweetened with stevia or pure monk fruit," Tess Bredesen, a cognitive health nutritionist and founder of Sia Brain Health, tells Bustle.
With that in mind, read on for ways chocolate impacts the brain, according to experts.
1. Chocolate May Improve Brain Function
While there's a long list of foods that are linked to improving brain health, chocolate may offer specific benefits. "Eating chocolate can be protective for your brain and enhance your brain’s plasticity, the lifelong ability to change and adapt," Culler says. Chocolate has also been shown to be "neuroprotective," so it may help preserve the integrity of the brain as well.
But again, since this isn't true for all chocolate-based candies, or milk chocolate, Culler recommends consuming dark chocolate.
2. It Helps Release Endorphins In The Brain
Ever find yourself reaching for chocolate on particularly tough days? That's because experts say it could have a way of improving your mood, at least temporarily.
"Chocolate boosts the production of endorphins, better known as the 'feel-good' chemical of your brain," Culler says. After eating it, you may experience a more positive outlook, and possibly even a sense of "euphoria," all thanks to the way it impacts your hormones.
Dr. Shaheen Lakhan, neurologist and head of R&D at The Learning Corp, points to research where people given chocolate reported improvements in self-rated calmness, contentedness, and cognitive performance, while also mitigating "mental fatigue."
3. Chocolate Wakes You Up
Chocolate, just like a cup of coffee, contains caffeine, and that can give a boost to your central nervous system, Culler says. A bar of dark chocolate contains 70 mg of caffeine and a bar of milk chocolate contains 9 mg of caffeine, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can really do the trick whenever you're feeling a dip in energy.
But the hit of caffeine isn't the only reason why chocolate can help you stay alert. "Dark chocolate can improve blood flow to the brain, which can improve attention span, memory, reaction time, and problem-solving skills," Culler says.
4. It Plays A Role In Healthy Aging
It's important to do good things for your brain as you get older, as way of preventing age-related health issues like dementia. And due to the way it impacts the brain, researchers have been looking into the benefits chocolate may have to offer.
"Chocolate is very appealing in those prone to cognitive decline like individuals with or at risk of Alzheimer’s disease because the flavonols — antioxidants found in certain plants — in cocoa stimulate new brain cell growth and prevent existing brain cell death," Lakhan says.
Some studies have also associated chocolate intake with a decreased risk of stroke, Lakhan says, since it stimulates blood flow to the brain.
5. Chocolate Can Apparently Put You In The Mood
Besides oysters, watermelon, and (surprisingly) asparagus, chocolate is often considered to be one of the foods that may increase libido.
"There are several chemicals contained in chocolate that are thought to positively impact our friskiness," Dr. Anna Cabeca, a triple board-certified physician, tells Bustle. L-arginine is one, along with zinc, which is another supposed libido booster as it enhances adrenal function, which may support sex drive.
6. It May Enhance Your Overall Well-Being
Chocolate contains quite a few mood-boosting ingredients, including tryptophan, which stimulates the mood-boosting hormone serotonin, and a compound called anandamide, which can provide a sense of well-being as it binds to the dopamine receptors in the brain, Cabeca says.
Studies are currently being done to assess the role these compounds might play in mental wellness. "The word is still out on whether chocolate can help manage depression or anxiety," Lakhan says. "The studies are mixed on the effect, and perhaps how much intake one has (dose) is a factor. It may be that low levels of chocolate intake in the short-term may improve anxiety, but higher levels are stimulating and anxiety-provoking. In the long-term, it may help with some of the symptoms of depression."
7. It May Help Reduce Stress
While there are plenty of foods that contain magnesium, like peas, bananas, and leafy greens, chocolate is another way to get this important nutrient.
"Chocolate is [...] a good source of magnesium, which may help reduce stress by suppressing the release of the stress hormone cortisol," Melissa Nieves, LND, RD, MPH, a registered dietitian, tells Bustle. But as with anything, it should be a part of other stress-beating tricks.
While chocolate isn't a cure-all, it can impact the brain in lots of interesting ways, including temporarily boosting your mood, and relieving stress. Now go treat yourself to some.
Experts & Studies:
Santiago-Rodríguez, E., Estrada-Zaldívar, B., & Zaldívar-Uribe, E. (2018). Effects of Dark Chocolate Intake on Brain Electrical Oscillations in Healthy People. Foods, 7(11), 187. doi: 10.3390/foods7110187
Haskell-Ramsay, C., Schmitt, J., & Actis-Goretta, L. (2018). The Impact of Epicatechin on Human Cognition: The Role of Cerebral Blood Flow. Nutrients, 10(8), 986. doi: 10.3390/nu10080986
Nehlig, A. (2013). The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 75(3), 716–727. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.
Scholey, A. B., French, S. J., Morris, P. J., Kennedy, D. O., Milne, A. L., & Haskell, C. F. (2009). Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24(10), 1505–1514. doi: 10.1177/0269881109106923
Moreno-Ulloa, A., Nogueira, L., Rodriguez, A., Barboza, J., Hogan, M. C., Ceballos, G., … Ramirez-Sanchez, I. (2014). Recovery of Indicators of Mitochondrial Biogenesis, Oxidative Stress, and Aging With (−)-Epicatechin in Senile Mice. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 70(11), 1370–1378. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glu131
Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, MA, director and founder of Your Brain Health Matters, LLC and Atlantic Senior Fellow with the Global Brain Health Institute
Dr. Anna Cabeca, triple board-certified physician
Melissa Nieves, LND, RD, MPH, a registered dietitian