Who doesn’t love chocolate? You might think tucking into a naughty bar of chocolate is pure indulgence, but there are signs that chocolate can actually be very good for you. Maybe it’s not going to be good for your hips, but your brain can certainly reap the benefits from all that cocoa goodness. Scientists are beginning to understand the effect chocolate can have on the brain and how it can give a short-term boost to your cognitive skills, which makes it an interesting choice for a team building event.
Chocolate is derived from cocoa beans, which are the seeds of the cocoa tree, or Theobroma Cocao. There are many different types of chocolate, beyond white, milk and dark and not all chocolate has the added effect of improving brain function. If you’re wanting to eat chocolate for scientific, rather than vanity reasons, then stick to chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids, rather than the mass-market chocolate that is generally only high in sugar and fat.
Cocoa solids are one of the richest sources of flavanol antioxidants, especially dark chocolate. Studies have shown that acute eating or drinking of food with these antioxidants boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain for up to 3 hours. This increase in flow improves performance in many tasks and general alertness. This effect on brain functions are used on people fighting fatigue or those suffering from sleep deprivation and even the effects of ageing. Similar effects have been shown with other ingredients with equally high levels of flavanol antioxidants such as red wine, green tea and blueberries. This works because the cerebral blood vessels become dilated, hence more blood can flow through them. As more blood flows, so the brain gets more oxygen. As interesting as this research is, it did use a level of cocoa solids that aren’t commercially available. An average person would need to eat 25lbs of chocolate to replicate some of these effects, so what physiological effects can the average person see from eating a normal amount of chocolate?
The cocktail of 380+ compounds found in chocolate would make an amazing drug, if they were in much higher concentrations. Chocolate contains chemicals that are similar to those found in marijuana, morphine and ecstasy. Thankfully, the amounts found in your favourite chocolate bar are miniscule. Still, eating chocolate can be an incredibly pleasurable experience.
That feeling of warmth and happiness you get isn’t a coincidence, it’s your brain’s receptors reacting to the pleasure-generating neurotransmitters (e.g. dopamine). These transmitters work in one of two ways. Either they bind to the receptor making it release the neurotransmitters (giving a feeling of pleasure through electrochemical impulses) or they bind to the site preventing the reabsorption of them. The reason you don’t get overtly ‘high’ when you eat chocolate, is purely down to your brain. Through everyday life, our brain is constantly exposed to a barrage of chemical compounds that come from food, drink and smells, not to mention visual and audio cues. The problem is that your brain can only cope with so much so the number of receptors available decrease and those that do remain become more tolerant to stimulation. This occurs as your body is always seeking a state of equilibrium; a balance between the chemicals that exist in your body, including the brain. As chemicals that heighten your pleasure senses are released, for example, by eating chocolate, your body will consequently shut down other receptors to balance itself. This is the same reason why those who take drugs need more and more just to maintain the same level of ‘pleasure’.
The chemical effects on the brain so far have sounded anything but indulgent, but it’s not all bad. In many of those 380 chemical compounds found in chocolate, most have wonderful qualities that only appear as your body metabolises them. These include tryptophan and serotonin both of which create a feeling of relaxation and xanthines, which provide extra alertness similar to caffeine. Fundamentally, when we eat chocolate we enjoy it. We don’t think about the chemical reactions taking place, but merely the taste sensations in our mouth and it makes us happy.
So, all of this means that Chocolate Making is actually a rather good team building exercise because it puts you in exactly the right mood in which to bond relationships. As if anyone needed a scientific reason!