Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Don't Want Coffee? Try Cocoa Instead

In many countries, most people drink coffee on a regular basis, whether we like to pair the buzz with work or socialising. Some people, however, are addicted to caffeine or just can't tolerate it, and so are looking for an alternative that boosts brain function and energy without being so stimulating. One such alternative could be cocoa, especially when paired with spearmint.

Cocoa pods and seeds. Source: Lolay (CC: 2.0)
While coffee does contain polyphenols with a wide range of health benefits, even decaffeinated beverages can cause heartburn and overstimulation in some people. Too much coffee can deplete levels of noradrenaline, which helps us with energy and cognition. Other natural compounds, such as those in cocoa and spearmint, boost cognition by preserving neurotransmitters like noradrenaline, so they may be a better alternative. Cocoa also protects and improves the health of our blood vessels, right down to the capillaries, which ensures delivery of oxygen and nutrients both now and in the future. Many dementia cases are in fact caused by poor microvascular health.

Of course, it is the quality of the cocoa that makes all the difference. In a study of sixty older adults, with an average age of 73 and all with either hypertension or type II diabetes, volunteers had two cups every day of a cocoa beverage that was either rich or depleted in flavonols. Everyone had their cognitive function and neurovascular coupling measured before the study, on day 1 and on day 30, the last day. Neurovascular coupling is the ability of blood vessels to increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to areas of the brain that suddenly become more active while you're doing something. After 24 hours, volunteers with previously poor neurovascular coupling had this parameter improve by 10.6%, and at 30 days their scores on a test measuring attention significantly improved. Before the study, they took an average of 167 seconds (2 minutes and 47 seconds) to complete the test, but after 30 days this was shortened to 116 seconds (just under 2 minutes). Surprisingly, both flavonol-rich and poor drinks had the same effects. Another study on younger adults, with an average age of 33, found that it may be the small amount of caffeine in cocoa together with another phytochemical, theobromine, that is responsible for its cognition-boosting effects. It is most likely to be the result of all phytochemicals in cocoa working together.

As for spearmint, some of its phenolic compounds inhibit the acetylcholinesterase enzyme, thus increasing levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This is critical for cognitive function and memory. One phenolic, rosmarinic acid, has been shown to protect neurons in the brain's memory centres against oxidative stress, which can kill cells if severe enough. To make things even better, rosmarinic acid and some other phenols in spearmint can even increase the growth factors required to make new brain cells! The old paradigm of "no new neurons" is gone. Overall, perhaps hot chocolate isn't so bad after all, but watch for quality and sugar content.

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