Cocoa: Nootropic Benefits, Uses, Dosage, & Side Effects

the nootropic benefits of cocoa depicted in artistic image with a brain and neurotransmitters

Cocoa, derived from the beans of the cacao tree, has been consumed for centuries and is renowned for its rich flavor.

But beyond its delectable taste, cocoa also offers a range of cognitive benefits.

This article explores how cocoa consumption can boost brain health, its neuroprotective effects, optimal dosages and forms of cocoa, potential side effects, and more!

What is Cocoa?

a cocoa tree depicted with fruit in a landscape setting with a detailed representation of the molecular structure

Cocoa (also known as Theobroma Cacao and Chocolate Bean) is the dried and fermented seed of the cacao tree, which is native to tropical regions of Central and South America.

The seeds, or beans, are processed into cocoa solids and cocoa butter – key ingredients in chocolate production.

Cocoa contains a complex mix of over 300 compounds, including flavanols, theobromine, caffeine, and minerals like magnesium and iron.

The composition varies based on the cacao variety, growing conditions, fermentation, and processing methods.

What Compounds in Cocoa Affect Brain Function?

Cocoa contains several compounds that can influence brain function, including:

  1. Flavanols (epicatechin, catechin, procyanidins): Antioxidants that improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, and stimulate brain cell growth and connectivity. Cocoa flavanols enhance cognitive function and protect against age-related memory decline.
  2. Theobromine: A mild stimulant similar to caffeine that increases alertness and reduces fatigue. Theobromine improves mood and cognitive performance.
  3. Magnesium: An essential mineral involved in neurotransmitter synthesis and function. Cocoa is a good source of magnesium, providing 10% of the recommended daily intake per 100g.
  4. Tryptophan: An amino acid precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, and appetite. Cocoa contains small amounts of tryptophan.

What is Cocoa’s Bioavailability?

Cocoa’s bioavailability refers to the extent and rate at which its bioactive compounds are absorbed and utilized by the body.

The flavanols in cocoa, particularly epicatechin, have been shown to have high bioavailability.

Epicatechin is rapidly absorbed, with peak plasma concentrations occurring 2-3 hours after ingestion.

What Are the Cognitive Benefits of Cocoa?

Cocoa consumption has been linked to several cognitive benefits, including:

  • Improves working memory
  • Enhances processing speed
  • Boosts attention and focus
  • Promotes neurogenesis
  • Protects against age-related decline

How Does Cocoa Consumption Influence Brain Health?

Firstly, cocoa is a rich source of flavanols, a type of polyphenol with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Flavanols help reduce oxidative stress in the brain, which is a major contributor to cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases.(1)

Secondly, cocoa flavanols improve blood flow and oxygenation in the brain. A study found that high-flavanol cocoa consumption increased cerebral blood flow by 10-15% compared to a low-flavanol control.(2) Better blood flow ensures the brain receives the nutrients and oxygen it needs for optimal function.

Lastly, cocoa contains magnesium, a mineral essential for brain health. Magnesium plays a crucial role in neurotransmitter signaling, synaptic plasticity, and learning and memory processes. Adequate magnesium intake from cocoa helps support these important brain functions.

What Are the Neuroprotective Effects of Cocoa?

The flavanols in cocoa, particularly epicatechin, have been shown to protect neurons from oxidative damage and beta-amyloid toxicity, which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.(3)

A study done in 2013 demonstrated that cocoa polyphenols reduced neuroinflammation and neuronal death in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease.(4)

The study suggests that cocoa’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties may help slow the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

Moreover, cocoa consumption has been associated with a lower risk of stroke. A meta-analysis by Dr. Larsson found that high chocolate consumption (mostly dark chocolate rich in cocoa) was linked to an 18% lower risk of stroke compared to low chocolate consumption.(5)

How Does Cocoa Reduce Oxidative Stress in the Brain?

Cocoa reduces oxidative stress in the brain through its high content of polyphenols, especially flavanols. These powerful antioxidants neutralize harmful free radicals that can damage brain cells and contribute to oxidative stress.

Additionally, the main flavanols in cocoa, epicatechin, and catechin, have been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and directly scavenge free radicals in the brain.(6)

How Does Cocoa Improve Blood Flow and Oxygenation in the Brain?

A study by Dr. Sorond found that consumption of a high-flavanol cocoa drink (900 mg) increased cerebral blood flow velocity by 8% after 1 week and 10% after 2 weeks in healthy elderly subjects.(7)

Improved blood flow ensures that the brain receives an adequate supply of oxygen and glucose, which are essential for optimal brain function.

What Are the Optimal Dosages and Forms of Cocoa for Cognitive Benefits?

a pile of cocoa beans depicted in the sunlight

Most studies demonstrating cognitive improvements have used high-flavanol cocoa drinks or supplements providing 500-1000 mg of flavanols per day.

However, it’s important to note that not all cocoa products are created equal. To obtain the most cognitive benefits, choose minimally processed cocoa products with a high percentage of cocoa solids (70% or higher).

How Do Different Cocoa Products Compare in Potency?

The potency of cocoa products for cognitive benefits primarily depends on their flavanol content. Here’s a comparison of common cocoa products, ranked from most to least potent:

High-flavanol cocoa supplementsConcentrated extracts providing 500-1000 mg flavanols per serving
Natural cocoa powderNon-alkalized, minimally processed cocoa powder retaining high levels of flavanols. Roughly 200-500 mg flavanols per 10g serving
Dark chocolate (70%+ cocoa)Typically contains 50-100 mg flavanols per 10g serving. The higher the cocoa percentage, the more flavanols
Milk chocolateSignificantly lower flavanol content due to lower cocoa solids and higher sugar and milk content. About 15-30 mg flavanols per 10g serving
Alkalized cocoa powderDutch-processed cocoa with greatly reduced flavanol levels. Around 20-50 mg flavanols per 10g serving
White chocolateContains no cocoa solids and thus no flavanols

For optimal cognitive benefits, opt for high-flavanol cocoa supplements, natural cocoa powder, or dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids.

What Are the Best Ways to Consume Cocoa for Cognitive Benefits?

To maximize the cognitive benefits of cocoa, consider the following consumption methods:

  • High-flavanol cocoa supplements: Take as directed, usually once or twice daily. Look for supplements providing at least 500 mg flavanols per serving.
  • Cocoa powder: Add 1-2 tablespoons of natural, non-alkalized cocoa powder to smoothies, oatmeal, or yogurt. Avoid adding too much sugar.
  • Dark chocolate: Enjoy 1-2 squares (10-20g) of dark chocolate with 70% or higher cocoa solids daily. Savor it slowly to make the most of its cognitive-enhancing effects.
  • Cocoa-based recipes: Incorporate natural cocoa powder or dark chocolate into healthy recipes like energy balls, granola bars, or muffins. Balance with other nutrient-dense ingredients.
  • Cocoa-based beverages: Prepare hot cocoa or chocolate milk using natural cocoa powder and minimally processed milk (e.g., whole milk or plant-based milk). Limit added sugars.

Remember to consume cocoa as part of a balanced diet and pair it with other brain-healthy habits like regular exercise, adequate sleep, and stress management for optimal cognitive benefits.

What Are the Potential Side Effects and Risks of Cocoa Consumption?

While cocoa offers numerous cognitive benefits, it’s important to be aware of potential side effects and risks, especially when consumed in excess:

  1. Caffeine sensitivity: Cocoa contains small amounts of caffeine, which may cause jitteriness, anxiety, or sleep disturbances in sensitive individuals.
  2. Digestive discomfort: Some people may experience digestive issues like bloating, gas, or diarrhea when consuming large amounts of cocoa due to its fiber and polyphenol content.
  3. Allergic reactions: Rarely, cocoa can trigger allergic reactions in some individuals, causing symptoms like itching, hives, or difficulty breathing.
  4. Interactions with medications: Cocoa may interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners or antidepressants. Consult your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.
  5. Heavy metal contamination: Some cocoa products may contain trace amounts of heavy metals like cadmium or lead, which can be harmful in high doses. Choose reputable brands that test for contaminants.
  6. Tooth decay: Cocoa products high in sugar, like milk chocolate or sweetened cocoa drinks, can contribute to tooth decay if consumed excessively and without proper dental hygiene.

How Can Excessive Cocoa Consumption Affect Blood Pressure and Heart Health?

Cocoa itself contains flavanols that have been shown to lower blood pressure and improve endothelial function.

However, many commercial cocoa products are high in added sugars and saturated fats, which can negate these benefits.

A diet high in added sugars can contribute to obesity, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure, all of which are risk factors for heart disease. Excessive saturated fat intake can also raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.

To avoid these negative effects, limit the consumption of sweetened cocoa products and opt for dark chocolate or natural cocoa powder instead.

What Are the Potential Interactions Between Cocoa and Medications?

Cocoa can interact with certain medications due to its caffeine and polyphenol content. Here are some potential interactions to be aware of:

  1. Blood thinners (e.g., warfarin): Cocoa flavanols may enhance the effects of blood thinners, increasing the risk of bleeding.
  2. Antidepressants (e.g., MAOIs): Cocoa contains tyramine, which can interact with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and cause a dangerous rise in blood pressure.
  3. Diabetes medications: Cocoa polyphenols may improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels. If you are on diabetes medication, monitor your blood sugar closely when consuming cocoa products.
  4. Stimulant medications (e.g., Adderall): The caffeine in cocoa may enhance the effects of stimulant medications, leading to increased heart rate, anxiety, or insomnia.
  5. Calcium channel blockers: Cocoa flavanols may further lower blood pressure when combined with calcium channel blockers, potentially causing hypotension (low blood pressure).

What can you do to minimize the risk of interactions?

Consume cocoa in moderation and consult your healthcare provider if you have any concerns, especially if taking prescription medications.

a photorealistic depiction of nootropic cocoa powder and chocolate in a pile

What Are the Effects of Different Fermentation Methods on Cocoa’s Potency?

The fermentation process plays a crucial role in developing cocoa’s flavor profile and bioactive compounds, which in turn influence its cognitive-enhancing potential. Different fermentation methods can affect cocoa’s potency in the following ways:

  1. Traditional fermentation: This method involves piling cocoa beans and allowing them to ferment naturally for 5-7 days. It results in well-fermented beans with optimal levels of flavanols and other beneficial compounds.
  2. Controlled fermentation: Some producers use controlled fermentation techniques, such as inoculating beans with specific microorganisms or adjusting temperature and humidity, to achieve desired flavor profiles. This method can lead to more consistent flavanol levels.
  3. Under-fermentation: If cocoa beans are fermented for too short a period, they may retain higher levels of polyphenols but have a more astringent and bitter taste. Under-fermented beans may offer more cognitive benefits but less palatable flavor.
  4. Over-fermentation: Fermenting cocoa beans for too long can result in a loss of polyphenols and the development of off-flavors. Over-fermented beans may have reduced cognitive-enhancing potential.
  5. Heap fermentation vs. box fermentation: Heap fermentation involves piling beans on the ground and covering them with banana leaves, while box fermentation uses wooden boxes. Box fermentation allows for better control of the process and may result in more consistent flavanol levels.

What Are the Optimal Roasting Conditions for Preserving Cocoa’s Cognitive-Enhancing Potential?

the ideal roasting conditions for preserving cocoa flavanols are:

  • Temperature: 120-140°C (248-284°F)
  • Duration: 20-30 minutes

Roasting at higher temperatures or for longer durations can result in significant losses of flavanols.

For instance, roasting at 180°C (356°F) for 30 minutes can reduce epicatechin content by up to 90% compared to unroasted cocoa beans.

Let’s discuss how you maximize the potential of cocoa’s cognitive benefits…

The key is to choose cocoa products that have been minimally processed and roasted under gentle conditions.

Sources, Studies, and Scientific Research
  1. Ayaz, Muhammad et al. “Flavonoids as Prospective Neuroprotectants and Their Therapeutic Propensity in Aging Associated Neurological Disorders.” Frontiers in aging neuroscience vol. 11 155. 26 Jun. 2019, doi:10.3389/fnagi.2019.00155
  2. Mastroiacovo, Daniela et al. “Cocoa flavanol consumption improves cognitive function, blood pressure control, and metabolic profile in elderly subjects: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) Study–a randomized controlled trial.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 101,3 (2015): 538-48. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.092189
  3. Minocha, Tarun et al. “Flavonoids as Promising Neuroprotectants and Their Therapeutic Potential against Alzheimer’s Disease.” Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity vol. 2022 6038996. 28 Aug. 2022, doi:10.1155/2022/6038996
  4. Kujawska, Małgorzata, and Jadwiga Jodynis-Liebert. “Polyphenols in Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic Review of In Vivo Studies.” Nutrients vol. 10,5 642. 19 May. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10050642
  5. Yuan, Sheng et al. “Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies.” Nutrients vol. 9,7 688. 2 Jul. 2017, doi:10.3390/nu9070688
  6. Nehlig, Astrid. “The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance.” British journal of clinical pharmacology vol. 75,3 (2013): 716-27. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2125.2012.04378.x
  7. Sorond, Farzaneh A et al. “Cerebral blood flow response to flavanol-rich cocoa in healthy elderly humans.” Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment vol. 4,2 (2008): 433-40.

Jacob Kovacs is a cognitive neuroscientist and author at WholisticResearch, specializing in nootropics and neuroactive peptides. His expertise in neuroscience and psychopharmacology bridges cognitive science with drug development. Kovacs’ work focuses on enhancing cognitive functions and brain health through innovative, efficient neuroactive compounds that overcome traditional pharmacokinetic challenges. His contributions are pivotal in advancing the understanding and treatment of neurological diseases.