Good news for chocaholics: Scientists have found new proof that chocolate might be good for your brain. Two preliminary studies being presented this week at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting in San Diego found that regularly eating the stuff can boost your mood, brain health, memory and immunity.
Dark chocolate is a major source of flavonoids, potent plant-based antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. Past research has found that chocolate may reduce inflammation, boost your immune system and improve your mood. It suggested that flavonoids in chocolate penetrate and accumulate in the hippocampus of your brain (the area involved in learning and memory), although just how that impacts your brain hadn’t been studied — until now.
“For years, we have looked at the influence of dark chocolate on neurological functions from the standpoint of sugar content — the more sugar, the happier we are,” said lead study author Lee S. Berk, associate dean of research affairs at Loma Linda University, who holds a doctorate in public health, in a statement. “This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-size chocolate bar in humans … and are encouraged by the findings.
In first study, four healthy people ate 48 grams (roughly the size of a standard Hershey bar) of 70 percent chocolate after having abstained from high-antioxidant foods and supplements for the previous two days. They continued to eat 48 grams of chocolate per day for eight days. Blood samples were taken before they ate any chocolate and two hours after their first dose, and again one week later. Levels of expressed genes in their DNA were analyzed and compared.
Within two hours of eating chocolate, there were slight differences in some genes, with significant improvements in the function of 177 genes involved with immunity after one week. Chocolate also boosted genes involved with neural signaling and sensory processes — key components of brain function.
In the second study, researchers gave five volunteers the same dose of chocolate. They looked at the electrical activity in their brains using an EEG (electroencephalography) before eating and again 30 minutes and two hours later. They found an increase in gamma waves, which are linked to neuroplasticity, and concluded that chocolate has behavioral and brain-health benefits.
“The researchers found that the cacao in chocolate had a positive benefit on how our brain signals or transfers information and neuroplasticity, which is how we learn, experience and change based on interactions within our environment,” says nutritionist Kelly Plowe, RD.
Keep in mind, both of these studies are very small and conducted on people in a limited age range (22 to 50 years old), and they haven’t yet been peer-reviewed or published. While the results are promising, more research needs to be done to confirm the findings.
More research, however, has actually been done on the benefits of chocolate and heart health, notes Plowe. Just like antioxidants protect and repair plants from environmental toxins, they do the same for the human heart, protecting us from environmental toxins like cigarette smoke and reducing oxidation, which can cause LDL cholesterol to form plaque on the artery walls. The flavanols found in chocolate also help to reduce overall blood pressure, while other research shows that chocolate can help control blood sugar.
So go ahead and indulge in up to two squares of a dark chocolate daily. Just avoid eating the whole bar to keep calories in check. Choose one that’s at least 70 percent cacao to enjoy the benefits of chocolate.
“These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects,” said Berk in a statement.
Plowe also recommends choosing a bar that hasn’t undergone Dutch processing, which is when chocolate is treated with an alkali (a chemical salt), because processing lowers flavanol levels.