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Articles November 2013 Issue

Drinking Cocoa Boosts Cognition and Blood Flow in the Brain

Evidence suggests even ordinary cocoa might have brain benefits.

You may not have to go heavy on the cocoa to boost your brain. Previously, a special cocoa high in flavanols was shown to positively affect cognitive function in older adults with early memory decline (see the November 2012 newsletter).

But now a new study conducted in older adults with hypertension and/or diabetes has found that drinking just two cups a day of cocoa for a month was associated with significant improvements in cognitive function and blood flow in the brain.

The EU Commission recently approved a health claim that 200 milligrams of cocoa flavanols can “help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.” (Image © Thinkstock)

Higher levels of flavanols—the antioxidant compounds credited with cocoa and dark chocolate health benefits—made no difference. Overall, however, participants saw brain benefits once they started drinking either flavanol-enhanced cocoa or a lower-flavanol cocoa.

“Researchers are still trying to discover the optimal intake of flavanols,” comments Jeffrey B. Blumberg, PhD, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Antioxidants Research Laboratory. “That dose, along with different durations of consumption, may likely differ depending on factors like age, sex and health status. Also, the possibility should be considered that some of this apparent benefit may be derived from other bioactive compounds in cocoa.”

COCOA BEAN BEFEFITS: The flavanols found in cocoa and dark chocolate are part of a larger group of compounds called flavonoids that occur naturally in plant foods—in this case, the cocoa bean from which cocoa and chocolate are made. Flavanols are also found in red wine and tea. The flavanols in the cocoa bean, however, are a unique mixture of these phytonutrients. Scientists have found that cocoa flavanols positively affect the circulatory system and help maintain the flexibility of arteries. While this is obviously important to heart health, your brain also depends on adequate blood flow to function.

In the new study, published in Neurology, Farzaneh A. Sorond, MD, PhD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues tested the effects of cocoa consumption on 60 volunteers, average age 73. Although none had dementia, 17 suffered from a condition called impaired neurovascular coupling (NVC), a measure of blood flow in the brain as it relates to nerve cells (neurons). Researchers initially tested two levels of flavanols in cocoa, consumed twice a day for 30 days. Participants were encouraged to alter their diets to compensate for the extra calories in the cocoa.

No significant difference was seen between the two types of cocoa, so the results from both groups were merged. Participants free of impaired NVC showed no significant benefits from cocoa consumption.

But the small group of volunteers with impaired NVC saw dramatic changes after just a month of cocoa intake. Neurovascular coupling improved by more than double, and scores on standard cognitive tests jumped 30%.

BETTER BLOOD FLOW: Indications that cocoa flavanols might improve blood-vessel function in the brain were further supported by data from several other studies presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Researchers from the University of Nottingham Medical School in the UK reported findings that cocoa consumption resulted in increased blood flow to areas of the brain.
Lead scientist Ian A. Macdonald, PhD, commented, “This raises the possibility that certain food components like cocoa flavanols may be beneficial in increasing brain blood flow and enhancing brain function among older adults or for others in situations where they may be cognitively impaired, such as fatigue or sleep deprivation.”

Should you start sipping cocoa to support your brain? Tufts’ Blumberg advises, “The available evidence about the potential benefits of cocoa on the brain is far too limited to make any recommendations. However, it is noteworthy that the EU Commission recently approved a health claim that 200 milligrams of cocoa flavanols can ‘help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which contributes to normal blood flow.’ This dose is equivalent to 2.5 grams high-flavanol cocoa powder or 10 grams of high-flavanol dark chocolate (about one-fifth of a regular size chocolate bar).”

Comments (4)

This is a very interesting article. Unfortunately, I (and I suspect most readers) don't really know what NVC is or how to decide if drinking cocoa is of any benefit or not. (Just a little more information would have been very helpful.)

Posted by: James Kay | January 20, 2014 8:24 AM    Report this comment

I'd like to know what kinds of cocoa to get to drink it in hot chocolate form and also how much per day? Are you talking two 6-8 oz. cups/mugs?

Posted by: Georgea Muschel | January 30, 2014 6:01 PM    Report this comment

Great article but not quite useful to readers. Would really like to know, what type of cocoa and was it mixed with milk or water? Most commercial hot cocoa brands have a lot of sugar and other compounds that I don't think are healthy. If you can't name a particular brand, is there a recipe of cocoa powder to sugar proportions so readers could attempt to gain the health benefits? Milk vs water makes a huge difference for taste and milk has it's own health benefits, so could the two, cocoa and milk, enhance each other?

Posted by: Camille McLean | February 10, 2014 5:11 PM    Report this comment

From what I have read in other sources, the current evidence on the health benefits of cocoa is that you would want to (1) Ingest only non-alkali treated cocoa, as the alkali-treated (also referred to as Dutch processed) cocoa likely has some of the flavanols destroyed in the process. (2) A minimum of 1.75 tablespoons per day of cocoa powder (100%, no sugar or anything else) is needed to obtain 200 mg flavanols from cocoa, 200 mg of flavanols being roughly the minimum amount shown to have measurable salutary health benefits. The bonus of using only cocoa powder is that 1.75 tablespoons is only 20 calories. Alternatively, you could ingest baking chocolate (0.5 ounce) for a total of 70 calories to obtain the 200 mg of flavanols. Other forms of cocoa (dark chocolate, chocolate syrup, milk chocolate, for example) also contain flavanols, but at amounts that are high/er in calories. Milk chocolate would require more than 10 ounces at more than 1500 calories to obtain 200 mg flavanols.

Go with non-alkali cocoa powder and add it to something you ordinarily eat or drink. Personally, I add it to coffee with some soy milk.

Posted by: Denis Hart | February 11, 2014 8:56 PM    Report this comment

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