Healthy Living

Cocoa Improves Mental Health

woman chocolates
Image REUTERS/Jeff J Mitchell UK

New research says that cocoa, if consumed daily, can improve the cognitive abilities of a person.

A compound called flavanol found in cocoa and in other foods like tea, grapes and red wine may protect neurons from injury, improve metabolism and in turn improve brain blood flow, researchers said in a press release.

The study was based on a small group of 90 participants with mild cognitive impairments. Participants were randomly assigned to drink flavanol-based drinks that were 990 milligrams (high), 520 mg (intermediate) or 45 mg (low) every day for eight weeks. Participants were kept on restricted diet to avoid foods that contained flavanol.

Cognitive functions of the participants were assessed by neuropsychological tests.

Researchers found that participants who drank higher levels of cocoa based flavanol drinks had higher scores in the tests when compared to participants who had lower levels of cocoa in their drinks. These participants were better at word association, working memory ability and had improvements in tasks that required the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses.

Also, participants who had high or intermediate levels of cocoa in the drinks had reduced oxidative stress, insulin resistance and blood pressure.

Researchers aren't sure if the improvements in cognitive ability are due to cocoa flavinoids or due to improved health.

"The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function," said Giovambattista Desideri, MD, from University of L'Aquila in Italy and lead author of the study.

Previous research has shown that cocoa consumption lowers the risk of heart diseases. A recent study had recommended that people who eat dark chocolate every day for ten years are at lower risk of developing heart-related problems.

"Given the global rise in cognitive disorders, which have a true impact on an individual's quality of life, the role of cocoa flavanols in preventing or slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia warrants further research," Desideri said.

Researchers say that larger studies are required to determine what amount of cocoa consumption will lead to cognitive improvement and for how long.

Participants in the present study were kept on controlled diets that accounted for the extra calories of cocoa based drinks. It is recommended that people consult their physicians before making any major changes to their diet.

The study was published in Hypertension.

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