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Cacao - Natures Superfood For The Brain

Here's a sweet fact for all chocolate lovers: cacao, the key ingredient in chocolate, can positively influence brain chemistry! 

Cacao's key elements - flavonoids, phenylethylamine, tryptophan, and theobromine - are believed to be potent protectors against oxidative stress and different types of damage, potentially leading to improved and elevated cognitive function. Here’s how:

Flavonoids are the most powerful phytochemicals in the plant kingdom, and their vibrant blue and purple pigments are found in nutrient-dense produce such as blueberries, cherries, raspberries, and grapes. Flavonoids have been linked to elevated brain health because they decrease neuro-inflammation and enhance blood flow to the brain, which helps protect neurons against injury, suppresses neuroinflammation, and potentially improves memory, learning and cognitive function. A 2022 review found that ingesting a flavonoid-rich diet that includes cacao can improve cognitive and memory function, especially for much older adults. Some studies have shown that flavonoids can even prevent beta-amyloid plaque building up in the brain, a known cause of Alzheimer's.

Research shows that low levels of tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in cacao that produces serotonin and melatonin, can contribute to moods and mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and impair cognition, including long—term and short-term memory loss. Why? Serotonin (otherwise known as the “happiness hormone”), found mainly in the brain, nervous system, blood platelets, and digestive system, is a neurotransmitter that transmits nerve impulses that regulate emotions, including joy, happiness and anxiety. Studies show selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications relieve mood disorders by increasing their activity in the brain. Serotonin levels also impact sleep patterns and quality as the body needs serotonin to form the sleep hormone melatonin, which is vital for daily life: when you sleep poorly, your stress level accelerates, your energy nosedives, and you can lose focus, making even the most straightforward mental task challenging.

Theobromine, a bitter compound obtained from cacao seeds, is an alkaloid in plant chemistry, and while trace amounts are found in green tea and coffee, the cacao plant is its primary source in nature. Its name comes from the cacao tree - theobroma, which translates as 'god drink' ('theo' meaning 'god' and 'broma' meaning 'drink'). Theobromine and caffeine are molecules known as methylxanthines and possess very similar chemical structures but impact brain chemistry differently.  Like caffeine, theobromine can help boost energy levels but without the anxiety and jittery side effects. It is also well known for its cognitive-enhancing activity and ability to reduce amyloid plaque levels, a precursor of Alzheimer's disease. 

Phenylethylamine is a compound that can boost serotonin and endorphin levels (the “feel-good” hormones), which is why it is often dubbed the "chemical of love."  Studies show that reduced serotonin levels in the brain may cause memory issues and low moods and are also likely to affect a person negatively if they have previously suffered from depression. Phenylethylamine is also said to amplify dopamine, a potent neurotransmitter the body produces, which the nervous system uses to send messages between nerve cells. Dopamine is closely associated with pleasure, and research suggests it could be the brain's secret sauce for long-lasting love and monogamy.

While some people may think eating sweet is a sin, scientific research tells us another story: Cacao can, in fact, help make us smarter, more efficient, and happier. It turns out that loving something so delicious is not just in our heads!