chocolateIf you have lousy sleep in your premenstrual week, you’re not alone. The culprit (surprise, surprise) is plunging estrogen, which tries to thwart good sleep about a dozen different ways: It makes you more sensitive to light, noise, smells, scratchy pj’s and other annoyances that can wake you up. It makes aches, pains and discomforts more intense. It prompts more negative thoughts to race through your brain, making it more difficult to drift off or get back to sleep once you wake up. And, if that weren’t enough, it triggers bursts of noradrenaline (a hormone-like chemical that causes alertness) in the middle of the night, which can wake you up out of a sound slumber for no good reason at all.

Unfortunately, lack of sleep has been shown in studies (such as this and this) to sap your working memory (the kind needed to juggle multiple pieces of information at once–kind of like your mental whiteboard) and slow your thinking. So, what can you do on nights when sleep is just impossible to come by?

Try eating dark chocolate shortly before you need a boost in working memory and mental speed.

A new study in the Journal of Hypertension reveals that flavanols in cocoa reverse impaired working memory and mental sluggishness caused by sleep deprivation by increasing blood flow to the brain. And, the darker the chocolate, the stronger the effect because it means you’re getting more brain-revving flavanols. (full study)

To be honest, I was a little skeptical of this tip since it seems a bit too easy–and too delicious–to work. But, as luck would have it, I had some seriously lousy premenstrual sleep last night and my brain was ready to call it quits. And I also happened to have dark chocolate with 72% cocoa left over from a chocolate mousse recipe I whipped up a couple of weeks ago. So, I ate about two and half squares and waited to see what would happen.

I think it took about five minutes for me to feel an initial buzz. And after 10 minutes, my brain was really whirring to life. Then, for the next couple of hours, I was at the top of my game, completing an article that was due to my editor, reorganizing text for a card game I’m launching soon, doing a brainstorming session with my husband, Douglas, and now writing this Hormonology post. That’s a lot considering I was ready to faceplant into my keyboard. I’m thinking next time I’ll try taking a short nap first, then eating the chocolate since I suspect this would have an even greater brain-sharpening effect than doing either of these brain-boosters alone.

By the way, you can use this tip during any phase of your cycle–not just premenstrually–when you’ve had a bad night’s sleep. And, it works for men, too. One of Douglas’s male guitar students came in today complaining that he was foggy-headed because of lousy sleep he got last night. So, knowing I did my chocolate experiment today, Douglas grabbed me and asked if I wanted to try it on his student. (He knows me so well!) So, I gave the student two squares of the same dark chocolate I consumed (and they were my last chocolate squares–I’m obviously very dedicated to science) and checked back with him about 30 minutes later. The verdict: He said he was surprised to be feeling clearer-headed and more alert–and it was so effective he was going to use it again the next time bad sleep sapped his brain.

One thing I want to point out: If you’re wondering if it’s the caffeine in chocolate that’s prompting this mentally invigorating effect, that’s likely not the case. That’s because contrary to popular belief, chocolate contains only a small amount of caffeine–up to 20 mg. per ounce in dark chocolate and 8 mg. per ounce in milk chocolate. Compare that to coffee, which typically contains 95 mg. to 200 mg. of caffeine per 8-ounce cup. Since I drink about three to four cups of caffeinated black tea per day (which has up to 70 mg. per 8 ounces), the small amount of caffeine in chocolate wouldn’t have an impact on me.

However, there are other compounds in chocolate that are known to boost mental vigor, including theobromine and phenylethylamine, which have stimulating and mood-lifting effects. Despite this, the researchers in this study believe that the increased blood flow from the flavanols are the real heroes behind chocolate’s brain-sharpening effects.

Whatever’s causing the brain boost, I’m happy to continue experimenting with dark chocolate to test its effects and report on it for you. Oh, the sacrifices I make for my Hormonology readers….

[Photo: russellstreet]