Sleep deprived? Undo the damage with chocolate

Flavanols in cocoa have a positive effect on cognitive performance, according to a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

Researchers from the University of L’Aquila in Italy examined the available literature to establish the effects of chocolate consumption on different areas of the brain.

They aimed to establish what happens to your cognitive abilities a few hours after you eat chocolate, and what happens when you sustain a cocoa flavanol enriched diet for a prolonged period of time.

The researchers found that, in women, eating cocoa after a night without sleep counteracted the cognitive impairment they would otherwise experience.

Study participants also showed enhancements in working memory performance and improved visual information processing.

The effects of chocolate consumption differed depending on the length and mental load of the cognitive tests performed. In young and healthy adults, for example, a demanding cognitive test was required to demonstrate its immediate impact.

The long-term ingestion of cocoa flavanols (from 5 days to 3 months) has particularly positive effects in old people. Factors such as attention, processing speed, working memory, and verbal fluency were greatly affected, especially when subjects were already experiencing memory decline or other mild cognitive impairments.

The study’s lead author, Valentina Socci, said: ‘This result suggests the potential of cocoa flavanols to protect cognition in vulnerable populations over time by improving cognitive performance. If you look at the underlying mechanism, the cocoa flavanols have beneficial effects for cardiovascular health and can increase cerebral blood volume in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. This structure is particularly affected by aging and therefore the potential source of age-related memory decline in humans.’

‘Regular intake of cocoa and chocolate could indeed provide beneficial effects on cognitive functioning over time. There are, however, potential side effects of eating cocoa and chocolate. Those are generally linked to the caloric value of chocolate, some inherent chemical compounds of the cocoa plant such as caffeine and theobromine, and a variety of additives we add to chocolate such as sugar or milk.’