Can Eating Chocolate Actually Be Proven To Be Good For Your Brain?

What could be more comforting than eating a piece of chocolate while watching your favorite movie? Let's face it: Chocolate makes us feel good and can be addictive. Its rich flavor tantalizes the senses, leaving you craving more. As it turns out, this delicious treat is actually good for mental health. Research in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology indicates that chocolate interacts with dopamine, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters that regulate mood. What's more, it increases endorphin production, which in turn may help relieve stress, depression, anxiety, and pain, explains the Cleveland Clinic.

Generally, it's best to opt for dark chocolate because it has the highest cocoa content. Cocoa is rich in polyphenols, flavonoids, and other antioxidants that promote good health. These compounds may improve blood lipids, reduce high blood pressure, and protect against heart disease, according to a 2008 research paper published in the journal Molecules. As the researchers note, dark chocolate boasts the highest polyphenol content of all types of chocolate. Cocoa, its primary ingredient, also contains theophylline, theobromine, peptides, minerals, and other nutrients with potential anti-obesity, anti-cancer, and cardioprotective effects.

Need one more reason to love dark chocolate? This antioxidant-rich treat could be the key to a healthy brain and mental well-being. Here's what you should know about its brain benefits. 

Chocolate could boost memory and cognition

The flavonoids in dark chocolate support brain function through several mechanisms. For example, a 2020 study featured in the journal Nutrients investigated the effects of white and dark chocolate on memory, mood, and other mental health markers. Subjects who consumed 35 grams of dark chocolate with a 70% cocoa content experienced more significant improvements in verbal memory performance and alertness than those eating white chocolate. Previous studies also showed that cocoa flavonoids may enhance working memory, mood, and executive function.

In addition, dark chocolate may boost cognitive performance and prevent memory decline, suggests a 2017 review published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition. After analyzing several studies, researchers concluded that cocoa flavonoids exhibit positive neurocognitive effects and may protect against dementia. These compounds increase blood flow to the brain and enhance neuronal survival, leading to improved cognitive function. The effects are both immediate and long-term. Cocoa flavonoids could also counteract the impact of sleep loss on cognitive function and allow you to get things done even when you're tired.

A more recent study found that cocoa flavanols, a class of flavonoids, may improve brain vascular function, according to Scientific Reports. These nutrients increase the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the frontal cortical regions and other brain areas, leading to better tissue oxygenation and enhanced cognitive outcomes. What's more, flavanol-rich foods could boost the brain's ability to function under high cognitive demands. 

Eat chocolate to fight stress and anxiety

Did you know that stress can affect your mood, memory, and cognitive performance? Harvard Medical School warns that chronic stress may alter brain function and increase the risk of dementia. Moreover, it can contribute to anxiety and impair the brain's ability to handle difficult situations. Some of these changes are irreversible.

If you're feeling stressed out, go ahead and reach for a piece of chocolate. The sweet treat is clinically proven to reduce stress and anxiety, leading to a better mood. "Dark chocolate may be helpful in relieving anxiety due to its antioxidants, flavanols, and, of course, taste," dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman told Well+Good. The antioxidants in cocoa reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as lower the production of catecholamines, a class of hormones released in response to stress. When secreted in excess, catecholamines may cause increased sweating, anxiety, chest pain, and heart palpitations, explains the National Cancer Institute.

In one study, both dark and milk chocolate decreased perceived stress in students, reports the International Journal of Health Sciences. Researchers attribute these potential benefits to cocoa flavanols. Research also suggests that dark chocolate may reduce anxiety and depression symptoms in as little as three days, according to the Malaysian Journal of Psychiatry. At the same time, it can boost your energy and alertness, improve mental well-being, and elevate mood, say the study's authors.