A British study has shown that cocoa an important ingredient in chocolate, improves our mental acuity as well as the supply of oxygen to the brain.
Drinking your hot chocolate in the morning or eating a few squares of cocoa in the afternoon gives your brain a little boost. A study published in Scientific Reports on November 24, 2020, indicated that a family of organic molecules present in cocoa, but also in other plants, improves the brain’s oxygen supply and cognitive alertness!
The cocoa bean is rich in polyphenols, molecules of the flavanol family, known for their antioxidant properties. Despite the conversion of cacao beans into cocoa, it is estimated that flavanols, more precisely epicatechin and catechin, are still present in chocolate at a level of 53.5 milligrams per 100 grams. That is as much as a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
A brain that is more oxygenated
To demonstrate the beneficial effects of flavanols, the scientists prepared two cocoa-based drinks: one enriched with flavanols (150 mg of epicatechin and 35.5 mg of catechin) and another poor in flavonols.
These two drinks were distributed randomly in a double-blind study to 18 healthy adult men. Part of the group received a placebo instead of the tested drinks. Two hours after drinking the drinks, the scientists conducted two experiments.
The first allowed them to observe the increased oxygen supply to the brain during hypercapnia, that is when the CO2 levels are higher than normal. To achieve hypercapnia, participants performed a breathing exercise in air consisting of 5% CO2. Then they monitored the concentration of oxyhemoglobin in the brain.
Regardless of the beverage consumed (rich or poor in flavanols), the same regions (concentrated in the frontal region) of the participants’ brains regained the normal oxygen levels, however, there was a significant difference in the time it took. In those who consumed the flavanol-enriched beverage, it took the brain about three minutes to reach 90% brain oxygenation, compared to more than four minutes for the other group.
The researchers then performed a cognitive test called the “Double Stroop”. This experiment tests the brain’s ability to focus on important information and react to it despite being bothered by other stimuli. Normally, the word “blue” appears in red and the participant has to click on the word that corresponds to their color and it is written in the correct color (red is written in red) within a certain time. This test requires a lot of effort from the brain, and the researchers were interested in the latency time needed for the participants to react.
In the Double Stroop test, the flavanol-enriched drink offered a significant advantage. People who have consumed it reacted faster and more accurately to the test. In simpler cognitive tests there was no significant effect. The fastest participants in the Double Stroop test were also those who reached the 90% maximum brain oxygen saturation the quickest.
These results show that cocoa flavanols not only improve the brain’s oxygen supply but also its cognitive abilities during a complex task. These effects occur approximately two hours after the consumption of the beverages. The researchers also pointed out that these effects on the brain may also be seen with other flavanol-rich foods such as grapes, berries, and apples.
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