It’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t love chocolate, which is made from roasted cocoa beans. People all over the world are consuming more chocolate than you can imagine. In fact, in 2017, it is estimated that chocolate sales in the United States will reach about 22.4 billion U.S. dollars.
But getting health benefits from cocoa isn’t as simple as heading to the 7-11 and picking up your favorite candy bar. The more pure your chocolate is, the more actual benefits you experience. Eating a Snickers has less benefit than say, a Lindt 85% Dark (and there is no cocoa in ‘white chocolate’ – the name is a misnomer but it is still delicious). Eating the actual bean is even better.
The Power of Cocoa
When we talk about the power of cocoa, we can start by talking about flavonols and flavanols; specifically epicatechins and procyanidins (you can find each of these compounds in other plants but cocoa contains the largest amount of epicatechins compared to any other plant). Flavonols and flavanols are a type of phytonutrient. Phytonutrients are nutrients that are not considered essential for life but can offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
If you’re a bodybuilder or extreme athlete, for example, you’re probably very familiar with epicatechins. Epicatechins have been found to enhance muscle growth and strength and lower cholesterol levels, as well as improve blood flow and endurance. And there is this added bonus: a Harvard University study from 2007 showed that epicatechins appeared to lower the risk of lethal events (or as they are more commonly known: deaths) linked with four common causes – diabetes, strokes, cardiovascular disease and cancer – by approximately 10%.
Procyanidins are also antioxidants and are said to enhance brain function. Studies of procyanidins in chocolate show a relationship between high consumption and a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease in a few population studies. Other studies have shown that high cocoa consumption is associated with a decrease in overall cardiovascular mortality.
On the more ‘mystical’ side of things, cocoa is used religiously and treated reverently in some cultures. Records from ancient Mayan society, for example, reveal the significance of cacao in the Mayan rituals. Raw and superfood guru David Wolfe talks about chocolate’s power as an aphrodisiac in his book ‘Naked Chocolate’ – and there’s science to back that up.
Cocoa contains Phenylethylamine, or PEA, which stimulates the central nervous system and triggers the release of endorphins. PEA also potentiates the activity of dopamine. But most importantly: it mimics the feelings we get when we are falling in love. Levels of PEA in the body increase during periods of romance. In fact, levels of PEA rise in the body during sex and when we achieve orgasm. Some scientists question whether there is enough PEA in chocolate to recreate the feeling. If it is a myth, is sure is a well accepted – and experienced – one.
There are two other compounds in cocoa, in addition to PEA, that support that good feeling associated with chocolate.
Anandamide is one star performer. A neurotransmitter, it is called the “bliss molecule,” and was named for ananda, the Sanskrit word for joy, bliss, or happiness. It has both anti-anxiety and antidepressant properties because it stimulates neurogenesis, or the formulation of new nerve cells. In fact, Anandamide is linked to the euphoric ‘runner’s high’ experienced by athletes.
It has been thought for years that many of us craved chocolate because our bodies needed magnesium. However, chocolate contains Anandamide; because it already exists in the brain, eating chocolate results in a ‘net gain’ of Anandamide. This results in the feelings of bliss – and may explain the cravings. But what about those of us who feel energized when we eat chocolate? We can thank Theobromine.
Theobromine has quite the reputation thanks to Silicon Valley circles where it is used as an alternative to caffeine. Like caffeine, Theobromine provides an energy lift and increases focus. It works in a similar way to caffeine, targeting and blocking the adenosine receptors, which increases alertness. But it lasts longer than caffeine, is easier on the nervous system, and has a more subtle effect.
Although Theobromine can be found in other plants, such as tea (Yerba Mate is a great source of Theobromine, for example) Cocoa Bean contains more than any other source. Because of its soothing effect on muscles and the nervous system, Theobromine provides a lift without the jitters.
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