Cocoa: A Sweet Treat for Your Heart and Brain
Cocoa: A Sweet Treat for Your Heart and Brain
by Nicole Crane, B.S., NTP
Few things please me more than a delicious and nutritious superfood. Unprocessed cocoa is quickly emerging as the market’s newest and hottest superfood. The Latin name for cocoa, Theobroma, translates to “food of the Gods,” as many of us delightfully worship the altar of dark chocolate. As marvelous and enjoyable as cocoa and the chocolate it becomes can be, few people think of it as a food that benefits health.
Cocoa is a very interesting food, with a long and sordid history. There is historical evidence of the use of coca as a heath food as early as 1500 BC and it was the first form of currency used in Mesoamerica, where it was a native planti . Cocoa is a rich source of potassium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, folate, niacin, choline and lutein.ii There are over 600 volatile compounds that interact with our senses, many of which are distinctly un-cocoa like, that give chocolate its unique flavor and aroma.iii While cocoa itself is supremely healthy, after processing, alkalized sugar and dairyiv are added, drastically reducing its benefits. It is important to choose a cocoa powder that is unprocessed and sweetened with a healthy alternative like stevia. This retains the wonderful antioxidants and phytonutrients that give cocoa is super power ability.
Cocoa is rich in antioxidants, measuring an impressive 55,653 μ mol TE/100g on the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scalev . ORAC units are a measurement of the strength of antioxidants developed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To put that in to perspective, on the ORAC scale, blackberries measure at 5905vi and brewed green tea measures at 1253.vii Cocoa is in the top 20 of the most powerful antioxidants that have been measured. It contains several powerful phytonutrients, including the flavonoids epicatechin, theobromine and anthocyanadin. viii These are the same components that give foods like green tea and berries their fantastic nutritional benefits.
Cocoa really shines when it comes to benefiting the heart and cardiovascular system. After observing indigenous people of San Blas Island in Central America, who are daily consumers of a flavanol rich cocoa drink, it was noted that they maintain normal blood pressure well into old age. It is thought that flavanols increase production of nitric oxide (NO), a gas produced within the blood vessels that fosters relaxation of the smooth muscle cells within that blood vessel. NO allows blood vessels to remain wide open, which supports healthy blood flow. When the blood vessels remain open and blood flows freely, blood pressure often returns to normal levels. NO also makes blood less sticky and thick by supporting healthy platelet function, which also contributes to healthy blood pressure. ix A meta-analyses of 20 studies involving 856 mainly healthy participants showed that cocoa reduced blood pressure a statistically significant amount in as little as two weeks.x Healthy circulation is what keeps blood vessels healthy, flexible and strong, and brings oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. Considering we have 60-100,000 miles of blood vessels in our bodiesxi , circulation is such an important aspect of health to support.
Cocoa also seems to improve heart failure and other defects in energy production. One of the flavinols in cocoa, called epicatechin, has been successful at repairing the mitochondria of our cells. Mitochondria are responsible for energy production in our cells and they become highly dysfunctional in conditions like heart failure and diabetes. In one study, participants consumed dark chocolate and a cocoa drink providing 100 mg of epicatechin daily for three months. Biopsies of skeletal muscle were conducted before and after cocoa consumption. After three months, mitochondria volume and the number of cristae, part of mitochondria that contribute to efficient energy production, were measured via electron microscopy. Senior researcher Francisco J. Villarreal, MD, PhD of UC San Diego's Department of Medicine's Division of Cardiology reported: "After three months, we saw recovery -- cristae numbers back toward normal levels, and increases in several molecular indicators involved in new mitochondria production." xii Heart failure has a major impact on health and vitality and can even be life threatening. It is very exciting when something as safe (and delicious!) as cocoa shows promise to help the body heal from something so detrimental. Improved heart muscle function has widespread whole body benefits - efficiently pumping oxygen and nutrients to the tips of the toes all the way to the brain, while removing toxins and waste products. Supporting healthy blood flow and efficient energy usage can go a long way to support optimal health.
The sweet satisfaction of cocoa does a lot more than just heal the heart. The brain also seems to reap benefits from high flavinol cocoa. A part of the brain called the hippocampus plays a major role in our ability to remember and learn. The hippocampus is responsible for converting short term memories that last a few days into long term memory storage that can last a lifetime. A special part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus is responsible for normal age related cognitive decline, which occurs independent of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Cocoa has been shown to support the health of the dentate gyrus, significantly improving memory. In a 2014 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, 37 healthy volunteers, ages 50 to 69, were randomized to receive either a high-flavanol diet (900 mg of flavanols a day) or a low-flavanol diet (10 mg of flavanols a day) for three months. At the beginning and end of the study, participants underwent brain imaging and memory tests. After three months, the high flavanol group had noticeable improvements in the function of the dentate gyrus. The researchers reported that participants who had the memory of a typical 60 year old at the beginning of the study now had the memory of a 30 or 40 year old after three months on high flavanol cocoa.xiii Who wouldn't want to turn the clock back three decades to have the memory of a young person and the wisdom and experience of someone older? Incredibly, the cognitive benefits of cocoa do not end with memory and blood flow to the brain.
Many people might say that cocoa and chocolate makes them feel happy, but now there is hard evidence that cocoa can improve mood. The joy-boosting properties of cocoa can likely be attributed to flavinoids, which can make up 10% of the weight by volume of cocoa powder. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology examined the effect of cocoa on mood, memory and attention. A group of 72 healthy participants who had no dementia or cardiovascular disease, were randomly assigned to receive a drink mix containing either 500 mg (high dose), 250 mg (low dose), or 0 mg (placebo) of cocoa polyphenols once daily for 30 days. Cocoa benefits on cognitive and mental health were measured before the study began and after one month. After thirty days of drinking cocoa there were significant improvements on certain aspects of mood, including calmness and contentedness in the high flavinoid group.xiv The low and no flavinoid group did not experience the same mood-boosting effects, which were self-reported by the participants. What a wonderful way to put a smile on your face!
Other studies have shown that cocoa and chocolate modulates inflammation in the brain and fosters neurogenesis, the making of new brain cellsxv . Reducing inflammation positively and effectively increases levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of our most important feel-good brain chemicals, and plays a major role in proper sleep, balanced appetite, emotional wellbeing and a positive outlook. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with violence, rage and poor impulse control.xvi While there are many factors that influence mood and a positive outlook, it is no coincidence that cocoa and chocolate make us feel good. The release of serotonin prompted by cocoa is similar to feelings that occur when we feel love. Women tend to have more serotonin than men and also seem to be more sensitive to the effects of cocoa. Chocolate cravings may be the result of a drop in serotonin prior and during menstruation. The effects of cocoa on brain chemistry go beyond serotonin. Cocoa contains small amounts of the brain chemical Phenylethylamine, or PEA. PEA stimulates the release of endorphins, which make us feel good and give us a sense of pleasure. PEA levels also increase when we fall in love, and the feelings of restlessness and exuberance that we feel when we are in love can be attributed to the increase of PEA. This special feel good chemical also increases dopamine and helps it work efficiently. Dopamine is another feel good brain chemical that also increases feelings of romance, love and joy. xvii Cocoa is a fantastic supporter of mood and the tremendously pleasurable emotions we feel when we are in love. No wonder that cocoa is considered an aphrodisiac and has long been associated with love, romance and bliss.
If you do right by cocoa, by consuming it raw and without sugar and diary, it can transcend from your guilty pleasure to a food that nourishes your whole body. When we eat cocoa in the form of milk chocolate or hot cocoa made with milk, the benefits are simply negated. Milk has been shown to significantly interfere with the absorption of antioxidants like epicatechin.xviii Dark chocolate is a better choice, so long as you are consuming 70% cocoa dark chocolate. Even then, many of the most beneficial cocoa constituents are often removed from dark chocolate candy bars because of their bitter taste. The process of “Dutching” or alkalizing cocoa also removes many of the benefits. An unheated, minimally processed, non-Dutched (alkalized) dairy and sugar free cocoa mixed with almond milk or water is the best way to get the full spectrum of benefits. No-bake recipes and protein shakes get flavor and health boosts from cocoa as well. Cocoa is so powerful as an antioxidant that it fights nearly all inflammation related diseases, of which there are many, with far reaching effectsxix . All of your -itises may just benefit from a tablespoon or two of cocoa per day.
Cocoa can go a long way to safely and effectively support circulation, normalize blood pressure, support the structure and function of blood vessels and even optimize the way the heart muscle uses energy. It also supports brain chemistry, positive mood, memory and overall cognitive function. Move cocoa from the list of naughty indulgence over to the list of superfoods for health. I cannot think of anything more delectable than high quality, unprocessed, nourishing cocoa. Cheers to your healthy heart and mind!
i Wood, G.A.R.; Lass, R.A. (2001). Cocoa (4th ed. ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Science. p. 2
iv Serafini M, Bugianesi R, Maiani G, Valtuena S, De Santis S, Crozier A (2003). "Nutrition: milk and absorption of dietary flavanols". Nature 424 (6952): 1013
x Karin Ried, Thomas R Sullivan, Peter Fakler, Oliver R Frank, Nigel P Stocks. Effect of cocoa on blood pressure. The Cochrane Library, 2012
xii Pam R.et al; “Alterations in Skeletal Muscle Indicators of Mitochondrial Structure and Biogenesis in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Failure: Effects of Epicatechin Rich Cocoa”. Clinical and Translational Science, 2012; 5 (1): 43
xiii Adam M Brickman, et al “Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults”. Nature Neuroscience, 2014
xiv Pase, Matthew P., et al. "Cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial." Journal of Psychopharmacology 27.5 (2013): 451-458
xv Sokolov, Alexander N., et al. "Chocolate and the brain: neurobiological impact of cocoa flavanols on cognition and behavior." Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 37.10 (2013): 2445-2453.
xvi Krakowski, Menahem. "Violence and serotonin: influence of impulse control, affect regulation, and social functioning." The Journal of neuropsychiatry and clinical neurosciences (2003)
xviii Mauro Serafini, et al; “Plasma antioxidants from chocolate.” Nature 424, 1013 (28 August 2003)
xix American Chemical Society. "Hot Cocoa Tops Red Wine And Tea In Antioxidants; May Be Healthier Choice." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 November 2003