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The Brain Drink

April 8, 2009 Written by JP       [Font too small?]

Throughout history mankind has sought to find novel techniques for improving the way the brain works. In more recent times, this quest was often a direct response to test taking in the academic arena and job performance in our professional lives. In both instances, we are often asked to mentally function at a peak level while under a certain degree of stress. There is new research about a common food that just may provide an added mental edge when we need it most.

Earlier this week a presentation was given at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference in Brighton, England. The topic was the role that cocoa flavanols (a type of antioxidant) have on cognitive performance during a mentally demanding task.

Cocoa Flavanols

Under discussion was a new study that had generated quite a lot of scientific buzz at the conference. The design of the trial included 30 healthy volunteers who were asked to consume one of three drinks on separate days. The beverages consisted of the following components: a) a cocoa drink with 520 mg of flavanols, b) a cocoa drink with 993 flavanols and c) a placebo drink (with no flavanols).

The researchers, based at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Center at Northumbria University discovered a few interesting differences among the volunteers based upon what drinks they consumed:

  1. Both dosages of the beverages enriched with the cocoa flavonols promoted better performance on a series of mathematic tests.
  2. The subjects who drank the cocoa drinks reported feeling less fatigued by the mental exercises they were asked to perform.

Based on these findings, I did my own preliminary investigation to try and understand how cocoa extracts might benefit brain function. Here’s a summary of what I dug up:

  • When we take any type of test, it often provokes a certain degree of anxiety. A study published in October of 2008 found that rats undergoing a stressful “T-maze” test exhibited an anti-anxiety effect when cocoa extracts were administered prior to testing.
  • A July 2008 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that administering a cocoa extract to older rats for a 1 year period improved brain performance as it pertained to several tests. In addition, it was noted that the cocoa delayed the development of “age-related cognitive deficits” and increased lifespan. The researchers commented that cocoa powder, “may be beneficial in retarding age-related brain impairments, including cognitive deficits in normal aging and perhaps neurodegenerative diseases.”
  • A trial in 2006 presented evidence that a drink containing 150 mg of cocoa flavanols used over the course of 5 days or a single serving of 450 mg could increase blood flow to the brain in healthy young volunteers. This research was further validated by another 2006 study conducted at Harvard University. That research demonstrated similar results in healthy, older volunteers as well.
  • A recent scientific review entitled, Flavanols, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Alzheimer’s Dementia specifically points to the emerging importance of cocoa extracts in the management of cognitive decline.
  • Finally, a study way back in 2002 found that flavanols, such as those contained in cocoa, can be found in the brain tissue of rats after oral ingestion. This indicates that there may be some direct protection to brain tissue provided by these phytochemicals (plant chemicals).
Cocoa Does a Body Good

I want to add a comment about the picture above that illustrates the positive and negative effects of cocoa in the human body. The lead content of any high quality, responsibly produced cocoa should be minimal. If you have any question about this, do not hesitate to contact the manufacturer of the product you’re using and ask if they screen for heavy metals. If they can’t answer your questions satisfactorily, consider switching to another brand.

The warning about cocoa and obesity is not of real world relevance, provided that you don’t consume chocolate products that are loaded with lots of added sugar. As an example, the cocoa powder I use contains only 10 calories per tablespoon of pure, organic cocoa.

I know that I’ve used cocoa in a similar way to that described in the research presented today. Anecdotally, I do believe it helps to improve my mental performance. Further studies will help to better establish the optimal dosage of cocoa needed to provide the greatest possible cognitive benefits. I’ll keep a look-out for such information and do some personal experimentation while I wait. You might want to do the same.

Be well!

JP

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4 Comments & Updates to “The Brain Drink”

  1. Sweden Says:

    Thanks for writing this interesting post! One question though, cocoa and chocolate is not the same thing, right? Cocoa is the powder produced from the cocoa bean while chocolate is a mixture of cocoa powder and sugar + a lot of other ingredients.

    So for the picture above that illustrates the positive and negative effects of chocolate in the human body, is it really fair to say that it has the same effects for just cocoa to?

    I mean, can you get addicted to cocoa powder? Hasn’t that a lot to do with the sugar most people add to it? I don’t believe you can get obese by drinking just the cocoa with water and honey… What do you think about it? :)

  2. JP Says:

    Sweden,

    Almost all the positive research conducted on “chocolate” is based on cacao/cocoa extracts rich in natural antioxidants (mostly flavanols) or dark chocolate which is also abundant in said antioxidants.

    The illustration above is rather general in nature. The negatives would apply primarily to processed chocolate with added sugar that lacks the naturally occurring fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals present in cacao/cocoa or high-cocoa dark chocolate. The exception to this might be the “lead issue”. This can largely be avoided by buying high quality cocoa or chocolate from manufacturers that test for heavy metal content in their products.

    Cocoa can have a positive effect on brain chemistry but I don’t think it possesses any real life addictive potential. Cravings for chocolate likely indicate something other than an addiction such an intuitive attempt to address low blood sugar, magnesium deficiency, poor mood, etc.

    In my opinion, it would be hard to become obese simply by including pure cocoa into one’s diet – even with added honey. Having said that, I personally prefer sweetening my hot cocoa with calorie-free stevia.

    Be well!

    JP

  3. Sweden Says:

    I agree, thank you for the answer! Be well!

  4. JP Says:

    You’re welcome! :)

    That reminds me … I think it’s time to make some hot cocoa!

    Kind regards,

    JP

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