Peak performers know that “food” and “drugs” technically have the same definition. Both are substances that have physiological effects when introduced to the body.
When we understand the effects that different foods and substances have on our bodies, we can make smarter choices to optimize our physical and cognitive performance.
For exactly this reason, we at Peak Brain Institute encourage our clients to include dark chocolate as part of a brain-healthy approach to snacking.
Listed below are the 9 ways you can use chocolate to help optimize your brain health, but most important of all is that you:
CHOOSE WISELY / GO DARK
When we say that chocolate is good for you, what we really mean is that the cacoa beans from which chocolate is made have many health-boosting properties, like flavonoids and other antioxidants. But not all chocolate is created equal.
Dark chocolate simply means chocolate without milk solids added. (One study found that the addition of milk reduces the antioxidant capacity of cocoa products by about 30%! ).
Truly healthy dark chocolate will contain minimal ingredients, and never have sugar listed first. If present at all, sugar will be listed after the cocoa ingredients.
Truly healthy dark chocolate will also never contain high fructose corn syrup, chemical additives, partially hydrogenated oil, artificial color or flavoring, or any other artificial ingredients. Lastly, when chocolate is “processed with alkali,” it means many of the healthy compounds have been removed.
To make a truly healthy dark chocolate choice, 70% (cocoa solids per bar) is a good place to start. The “darker” the chocolate, the higher potency of healthy cacao benefits you get.
Now That You Know How To Choose The Best Chocolate, Here’s How To Use It Like A True Peak Performer:
1. GIVE YOURSELF A MOOD BOOST
There are a lot of ways dark chocolate helps with mood.
First, eating healthy dark chocolate boosts endorphin production. Endorphins are hormones that reduce your perception of pain (both physical and emotional), and give you a generally positive feeling.
Chocolate is also a natural source of what scientists dub “the bliss molecule.” This neurotransmitter, officially named anandamide after the Sanskrit word for bliss, produces a gentle feeling of euphoria. Interestingly, anandamide interacts with the same endocannabinoid receptors as the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis.
While naturally produced anandamide breaks down very quickly in your system, the anandamide you get from consuming cacao comes along with two other compounds (tryptophan and polyphenols) that slow its breakdown, extending its euphoric effects .
Lastly, chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a compound that stimulates your brain cells to release dopamine. When the phenylethylamine combines with dopamine, it gives you a mild antidepressant effect.
Note: Despite these positive mood altering effects, it is also important to note that too much chocolate consumption may have a downside. Some studies suggest that too much chocolate may actually promote depression and anxiety, although these don’t take into account the quality of the chocolate consumed. (Truly healthy dark chocolate, or sugar-laden commercial junk food?) Just remember to choose wisely and eat in moderation.
2. GIVE YOURSELF AN ENERGY BOOST
The phenylethylamine in cacao not only boosts dopamine, it also increases levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine). For this, dark chocolate can increase energy, focus, and alertness.
Chocolate is also a source of the known benefits of coffee because it contains small amounts of caffeine, as well as larger amounts of theobromine, a gentler neurostimulant. Combined, these compounds help you feel more alert. And it’s not just a feeling! Studies have shown that these compounds improved performance on mental tasks and reduced mental fatigue in participants. Additional research has even found that cacao flavanols can offset the cognitive impairment caused by a night of sleep deprivation !
3. GIVE YOURSELF AN “IMMEDIATE COGNITIVE ENHANCEMENT”
Eating dark chocolate has been found to produce an “immediate cognitive-enhancing effect.” This effect is due in large part to cocoa flavonols’ ability to improve blood flow to the brain. Different areas of the brain need energy to complete their tasks, and in total the brain demands 20% of the body’s total energy supply. As energy is delivered through blood flow, improvement in blood flow improves cognition.
Excitingly, the blood flow boosting, cognitive enhancing effects of cacao were found to sustain performance “particularly in cognitively demanding conditions, including fatigue and sleep loss” .
4. GIVE YOURSELF A LONG-TERM COGNITIVE ENHANCEMENT
For peak brain performance, cerebral blood flow “needs to be well maintained to support constant oxygen and glucose supply to neurons” . Because dark chocolate is so well proven to increase blood flow to the brain, making it a dietary staple has great implications for peak performance over a lifetime.
In fact, one fascinating study found that people with high flavonoid intake had “better cognitive evolution” over a 10 year period .
Another study found that “habitual chocolate intake was…significantly associated with better cognitive performance on [an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests, including:] the Global Composite score, Visual-Spatial Memory and Organization, Working Memory, Scanning and Tracking, Abstract Reasoning, and the Mini-Mental State Examination” .
From boosting the speed of processing visual imagery to the speed of memory recall, it seems eating dark chocolate daily is a no-brainer for peak performance.
5. AMPLIFY YOUR CAPACITY FOR LEARNING
Cocoa’s flavonoids penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus, according to researchers. These flavanols increase blood flow to the brain, promote the formation of new neurons, improve the functioning of neurons, enhance connections between neurons, and protect neurons from death by free radicals .
Peak performance tip: Consuming healthy dark chocolate 30–40 minutes before you need your brain at peak function can help with neural recall!
6. DE-STRESS YOURSELF!
Dark chocolate boosts levels of the calming brain neurotransmitter serotonin. It also contains significant amount of magnesium, an essential mineral that can be difficult to obtain from natural foods. Magnesium reduces stress by suppressing the release of the stress hormone cortisol. This combination of more serotonin and less cortisol is a one-two punch to take down stress.
7. PROTECT YOUR BRAIN AGAINST AGING AND OXIDATION
Cocoa is a rich source of natural neuroprotective compounds called cocoa flavanols. Flavanols are a type of flavonoids, or plant-based antioxidants. All flavanoids are found to be “anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic and anti-carcinogenic properties coupled with their capacity to modulate key cellular enzyme function”.
Cocoa flavanols in particular are known to be neuroprotective. They protect brain cells from free radicals, unattached oxygen molecules that attack your cells. Chocolate’s antioxidants also prevent premature brain cell aging.
8. REVERSE COGNITIVE DECLINE
Research indicates that regular, long-term intake of cocoa flavanols may protect against cognitive decline.
One study found that 900mg of flavanols a day improved memory function in participants. Researchers reported, “If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old” [10.]
Another study worked with 67–78 year olds with “compromised blood flow to the brain and white matter damage.” After drinking cocoa for a month, the blood flow in their brains improved by 8% on average. Not only that, “the time it took them to complete a working memory test dropped from 167 seconds to 116 seconds” . Wow!
Lastly, there is even evidence that high flavanoid consumption can decrease risk of dementia !
9. INCREASE YOUR GAMMA WAVES
Gamma brainwaves are the fastest of the brainwave frequency and relate to simultaneous processing of information from different brain areas. Experiments on experienced meditators such as monks and nuns tell us that gamma waves are associated with feelings of blessings, universal love and altruism. They are also associated with peak concentration and extremely high levels of cognitive functioning.
One cacao consumption study found a “subsequent [gamma wave] increase in the cerebral cortical brain” of its participants. The authors commented, “We suggest that this superfood of 70% cacao… enhances neuroplasticity for behavioral and brain health benefits” .
The next time you’re tempted to indulge, remember the good doctors (PhD neuroscientists) at Peak Brain Institute say, “Please do!” Just choose wisely, and go dark.
Visit us: www.peakbraininstitute.com