Boost Your Memory & Improve Your Mood With Dark Chocolate

dark chocolate benefits for brain healthChocolate has been highly revered around the world since ancient times. In Mesoamerica, for example, the Aztecs and Mayans used cacao seeds and chocolate in important offerings and rituals. More recently, scientists have been discovering the powerful antioxidant effects that dark chocolate can have on the body – notably on blood circulation and heart health. But did you know that dark chocolate can also help your brain? Keep reading to learn about powerful dark chocolate benefits for brain health, concentration and even mood improvement.

But first, before you go grabbing for that bag of M&M’s, let’s clear up exactly what kind of chocolate products we’re talking about.

What Exactly is ‘Dark Chocolate’ and What Cacao Percentage is Best?

All chocolate is made from cacao beans, which is also what’s responsible for chocolate’s multitude of health benefits. But most commercial chocolate products, especially varieties of milk chocolate, don’t actually contain that much cacao. Those products get mixed with milk, sugar and other chemicals, which can dilute and diminish the main benefits of cacao, not to mention its true flavor.

Dark chocolate, simply put, means chocolate without milk. But even dark chocolate products usually contain added sugar and other stuff. And that’s understandable, considering that ‘100% cacao’ can taste very bitter to most people, making it difficult to consume any more than tiny amounts.

The key is to find the right type of chocolate that contains enough cacao to be healthy but that also tastes good to you. It’s generally believed that a minimum of 70% cacao is what you should be looking for to really benefit from what you’re eating. (7)

Basically, that means 30% of the bar contains added stuff to make the chocolate sweeter and easier to eat for most people. If that amount of added ingredients bothers you, just look for a higher percentage of cacao.

Keep in mind that the higher percentages of cacao might take some time to work up to. While I couldn’t eat 85% or 90% cacao dark chocolate before, over time I’ve grown to love the stuff!

If the makers of the chocolate product don’t even bother writing the percentage of cacao on the box, it’s probably not going to be that good for you overall.

Cacao vs Cocoa

This is where things get confusing, as some chocolate makers put a percentage of ‘cacao’ on the label, while others write ‘cocoa.’ What exactly is the difference between cacao and cocoa, then?

Cacao powder used to make a chocolate bar is made by cold-pressing raw (unroasted) cacao beans. Cocoa powder, on the other hand, comes from roasted cacao beans. And as my previous research on raw vs. cooked food tells me, heating any food product at high temperatures can diminish its nutrient and enzyme content. (8)

Don’t worry too much about it, though, as a chocolate bar made with a high percentage of cocoa, and not cacao powder, can still be beneficial. In fact, even some of the studies referenced below tested cocoa rather than raw cacao. Still, you may want to look more carefully at the label next time you shop. This can be tricky considering how similar the two words look!

At the end of the article I’ll get into some recommended dark chocolate brands to be on the lookout for. But now let’s look at the main dark chocolate benefits for brain power.

dark chocolate improves memory
When it comes to getting all the brain-boosting benefits of dark chocolate, the darker the better

1. Dark Chocolate Helps Blood Flow Through The Brain

Dark chocolate improves brain function because of the compounds it contains. These compounds also boost problem-solving skills, reaction time, attention span, and memory by effectively increasing the amount of blood flowing to and through the brain.

To be specific, chocolate contains flavanoids that have been found to improve the flow of blood. In a recent study (3), the researchers found that even a single dose of cocoa – which is also flavanol-rich – increased the amount of blood flowing to the brain among young and healthy adults.

The study, conducted by the Harvard Medical School, concluded that adults who drank a minimum of 2 cups of hot chocolate made using dark cocoa powder could increase the brain’s blood flow for up to 2 to 3 hours.

This boost to blood flow was also found to improve scores among study participants on working memory speed tests by as much as 30 percent (6). The increase in blood flow to and through the brain has even been linked to the prevention of mental decline among seniors.

2. Dark Chocolate Improves Memory & Concentration

Did you know that dark chocolate improves memory? More specifically, dark chocolate and serotonin are useful in protecting your brain against free radical damage, which might lead to memory loss.

The brain uses about 20% of the total amount of oxygen your body takes in. As such, it is highly susceptible to the damage of free radicals. Simply defined, free radicals refer to the unattached molecules of oxygen that attack the body’s cells in the same way that the gas attacks metal to form rust (3).

If you’ve ever seen an avocado or sliced apple turn brown, then you probably have an idea of how free radicals work. Some of the effects and visible signs of this type of damage on your body include sun damage, age spots, and wrinkles.

The same process works inside the brain. Antioxidants work to protect your brain cells by neutralizing and reducing free radical damage (5). This prevents the premature aging of these cells.

Raw cacao and cocoa powder, which are used to make dark chocolate, contain more of these antioxidants than any other super food! That means that dark chocolate has more antioxidants than pomegranate powders, blueberry, and acai.

When tested right up against tea and coffee, dark chocolate and drinks made from cocoa powder were found to be more effective in this regard than green tea, but slightly behind coffee (1).

Dark chocolate for concentration
Dark chocolate has been proven to aid in focus and concentration

3. Can Chocolate Affect Your Mood? Absolutely!

Dark chocolate with a cacao or cocoa percentage exceeding 70% has been found to contain PEA (phenylethylamine) – the same chemical that the brain creates when people feel like they are falling in love (4). This chemical encourages the brain to release more of the feel-good endorphins you require to improve your mood.

When dark chocolate boosts the production of these feel-good endorphins, the chemicals will bind themselves to the brain’s opiate receptors (6). In the process, your brain will produce feelings of intense euphoria – the same type of feeling joggers and athletes get from “runners’ high.”

These chemicals are also effective at reducing pain and diminishing stress levels. This is boosted by the fact that chocolate is one of the top dietary sources of tryptophan (4) – the amino acid required to make serotonin, which in turn improves mood and creates happiness.

Furthermore, dark chocolate is a dependable source of anandamide – a compound that occurs naturally and which is referred to as the bliss molecule. This compound is quite similar to tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), the primary psychoactive chemical in marijuana. It starts to become more clear, then, why some ancient cultures may have consumed raw cacao as part of their rituals.

Last but not least, the theobromine found in dark chocolate is also related to caffeine, and it’s a chemical that is thought to turn dark chocolate into a mild aphrodisiac (1).


dark chocolate and serotonin
A mural by Diego Rivera showing the Aztecs trading cacao beans


Some Healthy Dark Chocolate Varieties to Look Out For

As mentioned above, when buying dark chocolate, you want to look for a percentage of 70% or above. That could be of either cacao or cocoa, but cacao is generally better because the bean in its purest form retains more of its nutrients.

If you consider yourself an environmentally and socially conscious person, you may also want to look out for labels such as ‘fair trade’ or ‘earth-friendly.’ That’s a whole separate issue that I’m not going to get into here, though, as the focus of this article is purely dark chocolate benefits for brain health.

Here are just a few types of dark chocolate to keep an eye on during your next shopping trip:


Nowadays, there’s a lot of guilt associated with eating chocolate, but that’s largely due to people’s total ignorance of the difference between a raw chocolate bar and a Hershey’s kiss. Next time you’re at the supermarket, don’t hesitate to walk down the ‘candy’ aisle and pick out a healthy brand of chocolate that’s 70% cacao or higher. As you can see from the examples above, there are plenty of reasons to turn to dark chocolate for brain power and memory enhancement. It’s about time we start eating more, not less, of this delicious and traditionally revered superfood.











Boost Your Memory and Improve Your Mood with Dark Chocolate
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