Cocoa Is Good For Your Brain (Really!)

DSC_0234(Ed. This week our wellness expert Dr. Kate Naumes, ND calls on her colleague, expert in natural strategies to promote brain health Dr. Deneb Bates, to weigh in on ways to keep our noggins smart and strong.)


By Dr. Deneb Bates, ND

Taking steps to promote and protect brain health is important at any age. Short-term and long-term brain health is greatly determined by how we live, the choices we make, and the foods we eat. Fetal brain formation during pregnancy; childhood brain growth, development, mood, and function; and cognitive longevity in our adult years can all be impacted, either positively or negatively, by how we live our lives.

Pregnancy is a critical time for brain development. It is important for a pregnant mother to have optimal nutrition so that her baby’s brain develops properly. Some of the most important nutrients for brain formation during pregnancy include adequate folic acid and Omega-3 essential fatty acids, particularly DHA. Folic acid is naturally found in green vegetables, like spinach and asparagus, and is also abundant in beans such as black-eyed peas and red kidney beans. Pregnant women should also supplement with a pre-natal vitamin to assure adequate folic acid intake during pregnancy.


DHA is an essential fatty acid that is especially important in brain and central nervous system development as well eye health. The standard American diet does not contain enough DHA for optimal health. Food sources rich in DHA include wild Alaskan salmon, sardines, and anchovies. A quality fish oil supplement is an option for people who don’t eat fish regularly.

While tuna is also a good source of omega-3 fats, unfortunately it is also high in mercury. Pregnancy is a time to be extra cautious about any toxic exposures. The developing brain of your baby can be greatly harmed by small amounts of substances that don’t cause adults any noticeable harm. For this reason, it’s best to avoid tuna during pregnancy, as well as other substances that are toxic to an unborn baby, such as alcohol, unnecessary drugs and supplements, and environmental chemicals. Naturopathic doctors are the professional experts in environmental medicine. Consider consulting with one to learn more about avoiding toxins and optimal nutrition during pregnancy.

Childhood is naturally a time of learning and movement. Both of these are necessary for the growing and developing brain to reach its full potential. Limit sedentary activities such as TV and video games, and encourage your child in new activities. A very important part of brain protection at this life stage is to wear a helmet during any activities that involve impact or the risk of a fall.

Encourage your child to try new foods and experience new flavors. Do your best to keep your kids away from sugary foods that contain artificial flavors and colors. Opt instead for the original colorful foods—veggies, fruits, and especially berries, which are kid-friendly and full of brain supporting anti-oxidants.

Many of our choices as adults effect how our brains age as well as our mood and daily functioning. Nutrition, exercise, stress, and sleep all play important roles in brain health. Feed your brain by consuming a plant based diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables as well as herbs and spices. These foods are some of the highest in the anti-oxidants that protect brain from the harmful oxidative stress that accumulates over the years, contributing to aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Lean protein and DHA are important for good mood and brain function at any age. Some particularly good brain foods are blueberries, turmeric, wild Alaskan salmon, and non-Dutch processed cocoa.

Exercise your brain, in both physical and mental ways, to keep it young. Research in animal models shows that exercise promotes neurogenesis—the birth of new neurons. The mental exercise of learning new things also promotes new brain pathways that keep brain functioning better longer. Sudoku puzzles, ballroom dancing, and other activities that challenge you to learn new things and step out of your comfort zone are all activities that promote better brain health.

And finally, a healthy body makes a healthy brain. Most of the major neurological diseases (like Alzheimer’s Diseases, Parkinson’s Disease, stroke, and age-related dementia) share the same risk factors. These include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and insulin resistance or Metabolic Syndrome. These risk factors are all conditions that respond well to changes in diet and lifestyle. A consultation with a licensed Naturopathic Doctor can help you learn to prevent or manage these diseases to take care of your body and to protect your brain.


Deneb Bates, Washington State Licensed Naturopathic Doctor, is an expert in natural strategies to promote brain health. Dr. Bates is a member of the world renowned International Multiple Sclerosis Management Practice and Tisch MS Research Center in New York, where she partners with neurologists to provide optimal care to people living with Multiple Sclerosis.