'I'm a Neurologist, and Here's What I Want Everyone to Know About How Chocolate Impacts Brain Health'

Chocolate bars

While sugary treats are generally considered flat-out bad for your body and brain (sorry), there's one exception that comes up often: dark chocolate. Specifically, certain compounds in cocoa, which is the main ingredient in chocolate. 

Those compounds are called flavanols, and flavanols have antioxidant properties and can fight off free radicals that cause oxidative stress inside your body and damage your cells. They’re known for being anti-inflammatory too. Over the years, a growing number of researchers have analyzed the effects of those flavanols and their impact on brain health. Here's what to know about how chocolate can benefit the brain (or not).

What the Research Says About Chocolate and Your Brain

Some research has found that flavanols in cocoa seem to reverse age-related memory decline, such as a study led by scientists at Columbia University Medical Center that found such a benefit in healthy adults between the ages of 50 and 69.

For a 2020 study published in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers conducted a randomized double-blind trial to examine the effect of a special high-flavanol cocoa drink on cognitive performance in slightly younger adults (between the ages of about 20 and 40). They found that the study participants who drank the high-flavanol beverage experienced improvements in their blood flow, which translated into improved cognitive performance on certain challenging tasks.

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Sounds good, right? Here’s the “but”: the beverage high in cocoa flavanols isn’t something that you can just buy off the shelf at your local grocery store.

“Unfortunately, it is not necessarily true that the chocolate you buy would have the potential benefits that we are talking about,” says Dr. Gabriele Gratton, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In fact, he adds, certain processes used in making chocolate can decrease the amounts of flavanols that are contained in cocoa. One example is a process called Dutch processing, or alkalization. Also, roasting has been shown to reduce flavanols and the antioxidant potential of cocoa beans. However, processing is necessary to process cocoa beans to make the final product—the chocolate you know and love—taste good.

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Consider Chocolate a Treat

Dr. Carolyn Fredericks, MD, calls herself a big fan of chocolate. And as a memory disorders expert, she’s interested in the growing body of research into the possible cognitive benefits of chocolate.

“There’s some pretty decent research out there,” says Dr. Fredericks, a neurologist at Yale School of Medicine. But Dr. Fredericks stops short of suggesting that anyone should start gobbling up chocolate to improve their memory or cognitive function.

Milk chocolate products, for example, tend to contain a lot of added sugar, so if you start eating a lot of it, “any slight benefit of the cocoa that’s in there is not going to outweigh the downsides,” she says.

Instead, she suggests looking at chocolate as a “sweet treat” that is a small part of an overall healthy diet. Dr. Thomas Vidic, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), agrees. “We all need our little rewards, so a piece of chocolate may not be all bad,” he says.

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Other Ways to Support Your Brain

Research does suggest that certain biologically active components in cocoa have a positive benefit on the cardiovascular system. As Dr. Gratton noted, arterial function is important for brain function. In other words, keeping your blood vessels and cardiovascular system healthy and functioning well is also good for your brain.

However, chocolate might have some other ingredients that counteract those compounds. More research could reveal more details that could be useful in the future, and scientists may learn more about the potential benefits and how to harness them. In the meantime, it’s important not to count on chocolate to preserve or enhance your memory or attention span or ward off decline.

What you can do, however, is turn to other proven strategies. Eating a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet and making sure you include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, is one such strategy. According to Dr. Fredericks, there’s some evidence that dark green leafy vegetables have a lot of promise for brain health, “but it seems to be about the overall variety,” she says.

Getting regular exercise is another strategy that’s good for both the body and the brain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular physical activity can decrease your risk for developing cognitive decline, such as dementia. It can also help improve your memory and your mood.

According to activity guidelines, you should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week. But the type of activity is up to you. “The exercise program that’s best for them is one that they’ll do,” says Dr. Vidic

It’s also important to keep your brain active. Now you have a good excuse for doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles or playing your favorite brain games, like Wordle and Connections. You can also exercise your brain by being socially active, perhaps by joining a book club or taking a class at your local arts center.

“Anything that you do that stretches your brain and you enjoy is okay,” says Dr. Fredericks. “It does have to be challenging and interesting enough that you keep doing it.”

The bottom line is that you don’t want to expect too much from chocolate, at least not at this point. “An occasional piece of chocolate, maybe even as a reward for exercising, would not be unacceptable,” says Dr. Vidic. “But if you are going to sit on the couch and eat chocolate all day as a way of helping your memory, we’re not there yet.”

Next up: The #1 Change I Noticed When I Ate Dark Chocolate Every Day for a Week