The Kuna-Indians, residents of an archipelago on the Carribbean coast of Panama, seem to have got the recipe for a long healthy life right. Documented to live longer than other Panamanians, with very low rates of chronic diseases that plague nearly all first world countries: stroke, cancer, diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and high blood pressure. What’s their secret? Turns out, Chocolate1! The Kuna consume astronomically high amounts of cocoa each day (a whopping 5 cups of cocoa or about 1,880mg a day by some estimates). For comparison, a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder may have about 5mg of pure cocoa1.
What's the evidence?
The compound identified as responsible for chocolate's healthy kick is epicatechin, a type of flavonoid. In addition to being beneficial for our cardiovascular system, flavonoids have been found to have cognitive enhancing effects as well2. For example, healthy adults given a single dose, 520mg of flavanols in a chocolate drink, just before carrying out mentally challenging tasks, performed better compared to their counterparts that received only 46mg3. In other studies, a single dose of 773mg of cocoa flavanols were able to improve participant’s spatial working memory (responsible for remembering where your bed is in your room, for example)4.
Consistent chocolate consumption boosts mental performance in adults in early stages of memory decay. Eight weeks of daily intake (48mg, 520mg or 993mg) of cocoa flavanols showed that higher cocoa intake yielded better results in cognitive performance measures in addition to having positive effects on blood pressure and insulin resistance (associated with development of Type 2 diabetes)5.
How does it work?
Yes, cocoa is an antioxidant. Yes, cocoa is anti-inflammatory. But it seems like everything you read about these days is anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. Well, let me say this: It's all about those blood vessels -he millions and billions of blood vessels found in your brain! Not only does cocoa open up the billions you already have, it creates new ones. So, let that blood flow go and nourish that money-maker!
Chocolate when you're sad?
Do you find yourself self-medicating with chocolate when your day just isn't going that great? Cocoa contains several mood-enhancing molecules, most notably anandamide. Known as the ‘bliss molecule’, anandamide is a neurotransmitter that functions in the endogenous cannabinoid system in the brain6. Yes, yes, that same system that marijuana affects.
So no, easting boat-loads of candy isn't good for your brain. Eating 100 grams of store-bought chocolate is not the same as eating 100 grams of flavanol, most of the stuff found in candy – milk chocolate is mostly sugar;stay away! The processing of cocoa known as 'dutching' strips out much of the flavanoid content. The less processed (darker) the chocolate, the better. Remember, when it comes to chocolate: go black and never go back.
Hollenberg NK, Fisher NDL, McCullough ML. Flavanols, the Kuna, Cocoa Consumption, and Nitric Oxide. Journal of the American Society of Hypertension : JASH. 2009;3(2):10.1016/j.jash.2008.11.001. doi:10.1016/j.jash.2008.11.001.
Socci Valentina, Tempesta Daniela, Desideri Giovambattista, De Gennaro Luigi, Ferrara Michele. Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2017;4:19 URL: https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnut.2017.00019
Scholey AB, French SJ, Morris PJ, Kennedy DO, Milne AL, Haskell CF. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in acute improvements in mood and cognitive performance during sustained mental effort. J Psychopharmacol (2010) 24:1505–14. doi:10.1177/0269881109106923
Field DT, Williams CM, Butler LT. Consumption of cocoa flavanols results in an acute improvement in visual and cognitive functions. Physiol Behav (2011) 103:255–60. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2011.02.013
Desideri G, Kwik-Uribe C, Grassi D, Necozione S, Ghiadoni L, Mastroiacovo D, et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study. Hypertension (2012) 60:794–801. doi:10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.112.193060
Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 2013;75(3):716-727. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x.
Gu L, Kelm M, Hammerstone JF, Beecher G, Holden J, Haytowitz D, Gebhardt S, Prior R. Concentrations of Proanthocyanidins in Common Foods and Estimations of Normal Consumption. J. Nutr. 2004 March 1;1334(3):613-617
Chun Shing Kwok, S Matthijs Boekholdt, Marleen A H Lentjes, Yoon K Loke, Robert N Luben, Jessica K Yeong, Nicholas J Wareham, Phyo K Myint, Kay-Tee Khaw. Habitual chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease among healthy men and women. Heart, 15 June 2015 DOI: 10.1136/heartjnl-2014-307050