Cocoa is so rich in health enhancing properties that it is kind of a wonder that it isn’t already considered an essential vitamin. Cocoa may even slow cognitive declines associated with aging. Some of these cocoa compounds reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and cancer. Now that is something to think about next time you’re contemplating dessert!
So what gives the cocoa bean its health enhancing potential? Perhaps the secret is in the high polyphenol content which is found naturally in the raw theobroma cacao seed. As a natural antioxidant, these polyphenols, (also found in apples, tea, and red wine) can slow the aging process by offering protection against environmental stressors that result in free radicals. Flavanols, or flavan-3,ols, are one of the Polyphenol compounds gaining attention these days. Among this class of flavonoids are catechins. (-)-epicatechin, shown to boost circulation which can increase the amount of oxygen reaching the brain. Although the (-)-epicatechin in cocoa is a potential memory enhancer, and may improve spatial memory, human trials are still needed.
The catechins in cocoa may help stop atherosclerotic plaques from forming by reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and inhibiting the inflammatory response that causes platelets to clump together. Platelet aggregation can lead to atherosclerosis, the slow hardening of arteries which can be a risk factor in heart attack and stroke.
Over time, the health benefits of cocoa can really add up. Cocoa is also a mild diuretic and central nervous system stimulant thanks to its theobromine content. About 250 mg of theobromine can be found in 50 grams of dark chocolate.
Cocoa can also boost dopamine activity in the brain and release endorphins thanks its phenethylamine content which can, at times, simulate the intoxicating restlessness of infatuation. On the other hand, the flavanols found in cocoa just may be the cognitive enhancer you are looking for as it seems to have the ability to boost visual and searching attention, verbal fluency, memory, and attention in the elderly according to some studies. This could be good news for those suffering from mild cognitive impairment, which can include declines in language abilities, memory, judgment and thinking, and is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
The flavanols in cocoa seem to increase the bodies insulin sensitivity which not only lowers blood sugar, but may improve verbal memory and alertness.
How Much Cocoa Should I Eat?
This depends on many factors, but to give you an idea of what has been done:
The Kuna Indians who drink five cups of high-flavanol unprocessed cocoa daily have very low rates of hypertension.
Another study found that 1052 mg of cocoa flavanols per day significantly lowered blood pressure among participants with mild untreated hypertension.
A woman who lived to be 122 years old used to eat ten pounds of dark chocolate every month!
Risks and Side Effects of Cocoa
While a small bar of chocolate (1.5 ounces) may contain 50 mg of flavanols, a therapeutic dose of flavanols could require more than 10 ounces of dark chocolate per day, and at that point the fat and sugar content found in chocolate probably outweighs the benefits. So you may want to include apples and tea in your diet to diversify the source of your flavanols. And remember to include other healthful activities such as exercise to your health regime. Cacao may not be THE super pill that can do it all, but like any good vitamin, it plays a supporting role.
Processed cocoa will have far fewer flavanols than unprocessed cocoa. A little square of 70% cocoa may be all that is required to reap the brain benefits of cocoa. Flavanols are bitter, and while it might be an acquired taste, it is worth acquiring because that is where the health benefits lie. The lower the sugar content the better.
You might try making your own cocoa hot chocolate using unprocessed cocoa with a touch of honey, and maybe a touch of cayenne if you’re feeling adventurous… but you’ll want to avoid using milk because it interferes with the health benefits of cocoa. So if you are partial to milk chocolate, remember that one is strictly for pleasure, not the health benefits.
Individual results will vary so be sure to discuss your cocoa prescription with your doctor.