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Popular winter beverage may actually make you smarter

Cocoa is the cosy beverage of choice during dark winter evenings. You wrap yourself in a Christmas blanket, turn on an appropriate movie and just sip your hot cocoa. However, it is not just delicious – it is also good for your brain, as this new study from the University of Birmingham has shown. But how can it be helpful to maintain mental agility?

Cocoa has flavanols, which improve blood circulation and cognitive agility. Image credit: Famartin via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientists invited 18 healthy 18-40 year old males to participate in this study. At first, they were breathing air with 100 times higher concentration of carbon dioxide than normal. This caused hypercapnia – increased concentration of CO2. Our bodies naturally react to it by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood. Scientists measured and observed this effect using non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy, which allowed them to track the increased brain oxygenation in the frontal cortex. And then it was time for cocoa.

Participants did two more of these tests after drinking cocoa. One of those times they drank flavanol enriched cocoa. Cocoa has some flavanols already, but scientists added even more of them. They found that enriched cocoa helped the brain to increase the level of oxygen much more rapidly and much more efficiently. Participants also had to do some cognitive tests. After drinking  flavanol enriched cocoa they scored higher in higher complexity tasks. They were more accurate and around 11 % faster.

It’s been known for some time now that flavanols improve cardiovascular health. They can help lowering blood pressure, improving blood oxygenation levels (which is what helps in cognitive performance) and even stamina. However, this is the first time that scientists managed to show that flavanols help cognitive performance as well. And you don’t have to drink cocoa, if you don’t like it. Usually cocoa beverages include a lot of sugar, which is not good for anything. Flavanols are also found in apples, grapes, tea, berries and some other natural foods.

Dr Catarina Rendeiro, lead author of the study, said: “Our results showed a clear benefit for the participants taking the flavanol-enriched drink – but only when the task became sufficiently complicated. We can link this with our results on improved blood oxygenation – if you’re being challenged more, your brain needs improved blood oxygen levels to manage that challenge”. Flavanols are especially beneficial in cognitively demanding tasks, but scientists also found that some people do not experience the same benefits. This could be because they are already fit and sharp.

This is a relatively small study. This means that further studies with more participants are needed. However, it is a good idea to improve your diet with flavanols, because it is very likely to improve your mental agility.

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