Cheer up, Chill out, and Get Smart About Chocolate

Did you know that happiness has a direct correlation with effective brain function? Research shows that your brain is 31% more effective when you’re positive than when you’re feeling negative, stressed, or even neutral.  When you feel a genuine sense of happiness, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins are released. When your brain is flooded with these neurotransmitters, it functions better. Think of this as the fuel tank for the brain’s learning centers.

So, what’s the secret to staying happy and keeping your brain fueled up running smoothly?

Surprisingly, chocolate can help us cheer up, chill out, and get smart.  Given that chocolate is the number one food craved by women (especially between the ages of 25 and 40) and Americans eat 3 billion pounds of it every year – that translates to 100 pounds of chocolate consumed every second – we should be in a perpetual state of bliss, right?

Not so fast.  Recent brain-based research tells us that it’s much more than a guilty pleasure, and you have to be smart about your chocolate choices. Before you race off to grab a bag of M & M’s from the vending machine, you need to know that not all chocolate is created equal. Here is a quick crash course on chocolate and a few ways it can work for you.

“All you need is love.  But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

-Charles Schulz

Cacao vs. Cocoa

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, which literally means “food of the gods.” The cacao bean contains almost 12,000 natural chemical ingredients making it the most pharmacologically complex food source in the Amazon rainforest. Cacao, the purest form of chocolate you can consume, is raw and unprocessed and the top source of antioxidants and magnesium of all foods.

Cocoa is the form of cacao that you can buy in just about every grocery store. Cocoa powder is produced through a high heat process to break down the raw cacao. Despite the processing, it still retains many of the nutrients and antioxidants that have significant benefits to the heart, skin, brain and stress levels.


Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) is one way we measure the antioxidants in foods. Antioxidants protect the body from free radical damage we can actually see like wrinkles and age spots. Free radical damage occurs in the brain, too.

The key is in the percentage of pure cacao in the chocolate. The higher the cacao levels, the more antioxidants it contains.  The more antioxidants it contains, the better it protects the brain from free radicals, prevents premature brain cell aging, and promotes brain plasticity (which is directly related to intelligence).


Cacao nibs are whole raw cacao beans crumbled into small pieces and are the least processed form of chocolate you can eat. In addition to containing high levels of antioxidants, they also contain flavonoids. Flavonoids improve blood flow to the brain, and then gather together in the parts of brain responsible for learning and memory. This enhances memory, attention span, and problem-solving abilities for several hours after you’ve eaten the chocolate. (Healthworks produces USDA certified organic 100% raw cacao nibs.) Pure cacao also stimulates the production of phenylethylamine, also known as the “love drug” for the blissful mental state it creates like that of being in love.


Chocolate also contains tryptophan, a compound that stimulates the production of endorphins and floods your brain with serotonin and dopamine. Endorphins bind to receptors in your brain and reduce your perception of pain and stress. In this pain-free, stress-free state, the serotonin and dopamine start to flow giving you a natural high. It’s like organic morphine without the addictive after-effects.


You can also get an energy boost from just a small amount of dark chocolate thanks to the high levels of magnesium it contains.  While an estimated 80% of Americans are deficient in magnesium, this nutrient is essential for maintaining healthy nerve function, regulating blood sugar levels, improving metabolism, and increasing energy. Magnesium is “nature’s chill pill” because it counters cortisol (stress) as it stimulates the production of serotonin. In addition to improving mood, a decrease in cortisol also improves your focus and concentration.

In addition to the brain-boosts we get, chocolate can help the body in many other ways like improving cardiovascular health, skin density, and blood pressure. The bottom line: go dark and natural. Dark, unprocessed chocolate has more of the brain-boosting compounds and less of the bad stuff like sugar and fats found in milk chocolate and white chocolate.

As with everything in life, too much of a good thing ruins everything. So, go ahead, indulge… just don’t overindulge.

If you enjoyed this post, share it with a chocolate lover in your corner of the world!

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people who are looking for ways to more effectively teach and learn. We deliver dynamic workshops to help organizations improve their work by learning about learning and thinking about thinking.


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