‘Tis the season, as they say. The holidays and chilly weather have finally arrived.
And what goes better with both than a steaming mug of hot cocoa? After all, everyone deserves a guilty pleasure or two at this time of year.
Well, what if I told you that you can enjoy that cocoa without even a twinge of that guilt? Or, even better, that indulging from time to time could actually be GOOD for your health?
It’s true. And I think you’ll agree one of the best feelings in the world has got to be when a so-called “bad habit” turns out to be anything but.
You know, like when I shared the news that a little booze could help protect your heart and brain. Or explained that a juicy, grass-fed, organic steak isn’t a heart-harming villain.
New research confirms that cocoa deserves to be on that list of good-for-you “guilty pleasures,” too. Because researchers say molecules buried deep inside this delicious treat can literally help boost brainpower.
Cocoa flavanols bring the benefits
If you’ve been a Healthier Talk reader for a while, you probably know I’m a confirmed coffee fan. But when the chill rolls in, I love to curl up under a blanket with a big mug of hot cocoa.
But not one of those super sugary varieties, of course. I stock up on good dark chocolate cocoa with the deliciously bitter bite. Because it’s not just tasty, it’s filled with nutrients called flavanols that studies have ALREADY found are good for our health.
For example, in one trial, a group of folks battling painful peripheral artery disease received either a flavanol-rich cocoa drink or a placebo daily. After several months the volunteers who got the real-deal cocoa had significantly less cramping, pain, and numbness in their legs.
The cocoa drinkers were even able to walk far further than those receiving the placebo drink. And in other studies, dark chocolate flavanols have been linked to better blood pressure and improved cholesterol.
Now researchers from the University of Illinois say those same cocoa-derived nutrients appear to improve vascular function and cognitive performance in healthy adults. And in the real world, that could translate into being able to think quicker on your feet.
THREE times faster and stronger
At the start of the study, the 18 volunteers were tested to get some baseline numbers. Then two double-blind trials were conducted. In the first, the participants drank a flavanol-rich cocoa drink. In the second, they received processed look-alike cocoa with very low flavanol levels.
Two hours after both trials, researchers had the volunteers take a standard carbon dioxide breathing test to see how well the vessels in their brains were responding. The body reacts to higher CO2 levels by increasing blood flow to the brain, boosting oxygen levels, and eliminating carbon dioxide.
The team then measured oxygenation to the frontal cortex, the part of our brains that help us plan, make decisions, and regulate our behavior. This allowed them to measure how well the brain was defending itself against the excess CO2.
But the researchers didn’t stop there. They also had all the volunteers complete complex tasks to challenge their brains. And the results were quite dramatic.
Most of the volunteers had FAR faster and stronger brain oxygenation after drinking the flavanol-rich cocoa than they did at baseline or after drinking the low-flavanol cocoa. In fact, in the folks it worked for, the measurements were more than THREE times higher.
Flavanol-rich cocoa linked to a brainpower boost
And the benefits didn’t end there. After drinking the high-flavanol cocoa, the participants aced some of the cognitive tests too. On the most challenging brain benders, they correctly solved the problems 11 percent faster than at baseline or after the other drink.
The flavanols didn’t do the trick across the board. Four unlucky participants didn’t seem to get the brain boost that the majority of the volunteers did. However, it turns out they also had the highest brain oxygenation measurements before the study began. In other words, there was very little room for improvement anyway.
So if you feel like indulging in a steaming mug of hot cocoa this holiday season… or anytime, really… go right ahead. Your brain and heart could benefit.
Just make sure to choose a high cocoa content mix or a 100 percent cocoa powder. And use a healthier sweetener such as monk fruit or stevia. You can also get the high-flavanol content you’re looking for from snacking on cocoa nibs or taking a supplement.