Foods for Sleep, Mental Health, and Relaxation Part 3: Dark Chocolate

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Dark chocolate can help, in these ways, to fuel your brain.

In this first of our three-part series on foods related to the sleep, mental health, and relaxation triad, we focused on oats. Then, in part two, we looked at how nuts and seeds help. This week, in our final part of this series, we will see how dark chocolate provides these benefits. 

Sleep

You may be surprised to find out that dark chocolate can help you sleep, because it contains caffeine and has thus been cautioned for years not to have before bed. “In fact, chocolate/cacao does not generally produce insomnia or cause anxiety.” [1]

This is due to another huge component in cacao: theobromine. “Grander et al. have studied dietary nutrients associated with short and long sleep duration in a US nationally representative sample (n = 5587) showing that the largest contributor to sleep duration was theobromine.” [2]

Theobromine’s effects are so great that it counterbalances the effects of caffeine in cacao. “Brewed cocoa can attenuate the anxiety provoking effects of caffeine alone.” [3]

To get a goodnight sleep, then, feel free to have some guilt-free dark chocolate.

Mental Health

Remember that dark chocolate contains caffeine. From our article Is Coffee Good For you? Here are 8 Things the Science Says, it was found that caffeine helps some mental processes.

Various flavonoids are also in dark chocolate, which also play roles in mental functioning. “The absorbed flavonoids penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus.” [4]

Furthermore,

“in humans flavanols in dark chocolate, including EPI [epicatechin], also positively affect cognitive ability. Both epidemiological and clinical studies show that the intake of these flavanols is correlated with a lower incidence of cognitive impairment and cause significantly better cognitive performance in older people.” [5]

Finally, “flavanol-rich chocolate counteracted vascular impairment after sleep deprivation and restored working memory performance. Improvement in cognitive performance could be because of the effects of cocoa flavonoids on blood pressure and peripheral and central blood flow.” [6]

Dark chocolate can help, in these ways, to fuel your brain.

Relaxation

The flavonoids in dark chocolate responsible for mental acuity are also helpful in reducing stress. “Chocolate also induces positive effects on mood and is often consumed under emotional stress.” [7]

Furthermore, “Dark and Milk chocolate appear to be an effective way to reduce perceived stress in females.” [8]

In men, too, results “indicate that a single consumption of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate blunted the acute prothrombotic response to psychosocial stress, thereby perhaps mitigating the risk of acute coronary syndromes triggered by emotional stress.” [9]

The flavonoids in dark chocolate are largely responsible for the effects of sleep, mental acuity, and relaxation. Combined with caffeine and other unique components, dark chocolate is a great dietary choice towards bettering your wellness.

Conclusion

We’ve seen in this three-part series that whether it’s more sleep, better mental functioning, or less stress you’re looking for, incorporating more oats, nuts and seeds, and dark chocolate in your diet can help achieve your goals.

There are many other food choices that can give similar benefits. Also, things like exercise, meditation, and yoga can lessen the strains of daily life. What other foods or habits work for you? Let us know in the comments below.

References

[1] Franco, Rafael, Ainhoa Oñatibia-Astibia, and Eva Martínez-Pinilla. "Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate." Nutrients 5, no. 10 (2013): 4159-173. doi:10.3390/nu5104159. p. 4169.

[2] Franco, Rafael, Ainhoa Oñatibia-Astibia, and Eva Martínez-Pinilla. "Health Benefits of Methylxanthines in Cacao and Chocolate." Nutrients 5, no. 10 (2013): 4159-173. doi:10.3390/nu5104159. p. 4166.

[3] Boolani, Ali, Jacob B. Lindheimer, Bryan D. Loy, Stephen Crozier, and Patrick J. O’Connor. "Acute Effects of Brewed Cocoa Consumption on Attention, Motivation to Perform Cognitive Work and Feelings of Anxiety, Energy and Fatigue: A Randomized, Placebo-controlled Crossover Experiment." BMC Nutrition 3, no. 1 (2017). doi:10.1186/s40795-016-0117-z. p. 9.

[4] Sokolov, Alexander N., Marina A. Pavlova, Sibylle Klosterhalfen, and Paul Enck. "Chocolate and the Brain: Neurobiological Impact of Cocoa Flavanols on Cognition and Behavior." Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 37, no. 10 (2013): 2445-453. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.013. p. 2445.

[5] Fernell, Maria, Cayley Swinton, and Ken Lukowiak. "Epicatechin, a Component of Dark Chocolate, Enhances Memory Formation If Applied during the Memory Consolidation Period." Communicative & Integrative Biology 9, no. 4 (2016). doi:10.1080/19420889.2016.1205772. p. 1.

[6] Grassi, Davide, Valentina Socci, Daniela Tempesta, Claudio Ferri, Luigi De Gennaro, Giovambattista Desideri, and Michele Ferrara. "Flavanol-rich Chocolate Acutely Improves Arterial Function and Working Memory Performance Counteracting the Effects of Sleep Deprivation in Healthy Individuals." Journal of Hypertension 34, no. 7 (2016): 1298-308. doi:10.1097/hjh.0000000000000926. p. 1298.

[7] Nehlig, Astrid. "The Neuroprotective Effects of Cocoa Flavanol and Its Influence on Cognitive Performance." British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 75, no. 3 (2013): 716-27. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x. p. 723.

[8] Sunni, Ahmed Al, and Rabia Latif. "Effects of Chocolate Intake on Perceived Stress : A Controlled Clinical Study." International Journal of Health Sciences 8, no. 4 (2014): 397-406. doi:10.12816/0023996. p. 400.

[9] Känel, Roland Von, Rebecca Meister, Monika Stutz, Petra Kummer, Angela Arpagaus, Susanne Huber, Ulrike Ehlert, and Petra Wirtz. "Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on the Prothrombotic Response to Acute Psychosocial Stress in Healthy Men." Thrombosis and Haemostasis 112, no. 12 (2014): 1151-158. doi:10.1160/th14-05-0450. p. 1151.