It was Ben Franklin, founding father and all-around incredibly successful person, who reportedly once said, "Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Now, some Italian scientists have discovered a corollary--especially if you're the kind of person who likes sweets as much (or more) than booze.

Writing in the academic journal Frontiers in Nutrition, a quintetto of researchers in Rome and L'Aquila, Italy say they've demonstrated a clear link between consumption of a natural compound found in cocoa and chocolate, and stronger brain function.

Nobody is claiming that chugging through chocolate bars makes you a genius of course. But, the researchers say they believe they've shown that eating chocolate can have a real effect on brain power, especially for people who are sleep-deprived, or who face other cognitive challenges. Here's what they found.

The review and the findings

The researchers combed through 10 previous studies to determine what happens to people's brains in the hours after they consumed compounds called flavanols, which are commonly found in cocoa and chocolate.

In nine of the 10 studies, involving a total of 467 subjects, according to the Italian researchers' synopsis, participants who ingested measured doses of cocoa or chocolate (and thus, of flavanols), had at least some increased proficiency on cognitive tests:

Although still at a preliminary stage, research investigating the relations between cocoa and cognition shows dose-dependent improvements in general cognition, attention, processing speed, and working memory. Moreover, cocoa flavanols administration could also enhance normal cognitive functioning and exert a protective role on cognitive performance and cardiovascular function specifically impaired by sleep loss, in healthy subjects.

Among their key findings:

  • For women especially, ingesting cocoa after a night of "total sleep deprivation" was actually able to "counterac[t] the cognitive impairment (i.e. less accuracy in performing tasks) that such a night brings about." The researchers were especially jubilant that this finding might help people who endure chronic sleep deprivation as a result of working night shifts (to say nothing of sleep-deprived moms everywhere).
  • The bigger the cognitive challenges subjects faced, the more consumption of cocao flavanols helped. Older women who were suffering severe sleep deprivation saw more dramatic results from eating chocolate or cocoa, for example, than younger people who had endured only minor or moderate sleep deprivation.
  • Daily chocolate consumption also had a measurable positive impact on cognitive abilities over longed time periods (counting from 5 days to as long as three months), according to the researchers. Again, the positive effects were most measurable in those subjects who needed it most: " older adults with a starting memory decline or other mild cognitive impairments."

Putting the results into practice

Is it good news? Of course. Does it mean chocolate is suddenly a health food? Keep dreaming. The researchers were careful to point out that there's an obvious downside to chocolate consumption: the high calories, high sugar content, and low nutrient value of chocolate (notwithstanding the current research).

However, they also point out that consumption of "cocoa and cocoa-derived products... have been clearly shown to exert cardiovascular benefits." And as with just about every other study you've ever read on anything, the researchers say further study is needed.

But even while we're waiting for "further research [that would] include complex experimental designs ... and directly compare immediate versus long-lasting cognitive effects," however, the researchers in this study say they're not taking any chances.

Having finished their current study, they said they're personally increased their chocolate intake. As they said in a press statement: "Dark chocolate is a rich source of flavanols. So we always eat some dark chocolate. Every day."

Published on: Jul 6, 2017
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