Drinking hot chocolate can improve your brain function

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Do you ever drink hot chocolate to start your day? A recent study by professors at the University of Birmingham and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign asserts that consuming cocoa can make you smarter.

"Well, that might be a bit of a stretch," says psychology professor Monica Fabiani of the University of Illinois.

A cup of cocoa doesn't necessarily make you smarter, but it can help your brain through daily cognitive challenges.

Professor Catarina Rendeiro from the University of Birmingham and Professors Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton of University of Illinois were interested in the impact of consuming flavanols on the brain.

What's a flavanol? It is a naturally occurring molecule in foods like fruits, vegetables, and cocoa. Flavanols give fruits their bright color. The professors chose cocoa to use in their study. Their reason wasn't just because it was their favorite food.

"The decision was straightforward," says Fabiani. "There are data from many years ago showing that raw cocoa helps with aging, like high blood pressure, things that are common in older adults."

In the study, young, healthy adults were given a complex cognitive task to complete. Additionally, participants breathed air concentrated with higher than normal totals of carbon dioxide. This isn't dangerous for the participants, it is just a way to trick the brain into thinking it is being challenged for the purpose of the study.

"The brain wants to protect itself from this kind of activity," says Gratton.

The body reacts by sending more oxygen to the brain.

Where does the cocoa fit into all of this? Participants drank a hot cocoa beverage a few hours before these challenges. The people who had hot chocolate had a faster, stronger flow of oxygen back into their brain. They were able to perform better on the cognitive tests compared to participants who didn't drink anything, or who drank cocoa with no flavanols.

If consuming chocolate can help your brain function when it's up against a challenge, why don't we all eat chocolate all the time? It sounds too good to be true.

"We do a lot of things for our health that I'm not particularly fond to do," says Fabiani. "But if chocolate were good for you, this would be a really great thing!"

The problem is that most chocolate we know and love is Dutch processed. Raw cocoa has a bitter taste. Processing adds to the flavor of chocolate, but it also removes the flavanols (the healthy part). Most chocolate at the supermarket isn't the "good" kind.

You can still get the benefits of flavanols from eating fruits and vegetables. Fabiani also recommends adding a scoop of raw cocoa powder into your morning cup of coffee. Of course, it would be more fun (and yummier) if we could get the benefits from eating chocolate or drinking hot cocoa.

Fabiani is hopeful that chocolate producers might see the impacts of flavanols and decide to keep them in their chocolates one day.

This year has been frustrating for Fabiani and Gratton. Their research includes close contact with participants- touching their faces and securing electrode caps. With the pandemic, they haven't been able to get any new data. In the future, they have several additional tests to explore.

"The people in this study were young, fit adults," says Fabiani. "Our lab focuses on aging. If you think about people who are more at risk with their vasculature because of high blood pressure and age, the hope is that these kinds of interventions might really help those groups. That's the next step in the research."

The professors are hopeful to start studying the impacts of flavanols on these at risk groups as soon as it is safe.

For now, I'll raise my mug of cocoa knowing my brain is ready to face the challenges of the day.



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