During the month of April, we will explore all the ways you can increase your energy levels.
How Chocolate Boosts Your Energy — from my book, “Eat Chocolate Lose Weight”
Chocolate can increase your energy levels through the specific kind of antioxidants most abundant in cocoa: catechins and epicatechins. These antioxidants do two very important things to increase your muscles’ ability to create more energy for you to use. First, they increase the amount of nutrients your muscles have to work with, and then they further increase the micromolecular organelles that produce the energy itself.
To nourish and power your muscles in the first place, you have to get the nutrients into the muscular fibers. This, of course, happens when the oxygenated blood in your large arteries flows out into the smaller arteries, then into the smaller arterioles, and finally inside the muscle tissue via tiny capillaries. The diameter of a capillary is about 0.0003 inches, or about the width of one single red blood cell. In other words, your red blood cells have to go through the capillaries in a single-file line.
This spidery array of branching capillaries is so small that nutrients can pass from the bloodstream into the tissue. So, if you need more energy, you’ll need more nutrients, and you’ll need more capillaries to infiltrate the tissue. That’s the first need.
The second requirement is to be able to turn those extra nutrients into extra energy. For this, you need the mitochondria, which are tiny organelles. What’s an organelle? You know how Pluto recently got demoted from a Planet to a “Planette,” or mini-planet? Well, an organelle is basically a mini-organ—a self-enclosed structure that performs a function for your body. Organs like the liver and kidney may be bigger and doing more things that are more central to your living another day, but your organelles are just as critical—only smaller!
The mighty mitochondria organelles are the power plants that make the energy that make you move. Without them, you don’t move. And, if you are feeling lethargic and don’t want to do anything but veg out on the couch, you can blame your mitochondria. It won’t do you any good, and it’s not their fault anyway, but it will certainly make you feel better to blame something that you can’t see or touch, and most people don’t even know what they are.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Just being a slug on the couch. It’s my mitochondria.”
“Oh, that sounds awful. What is it?”
“Mitochondrial malaise, you know, a medical condition with tons of syllables.”
You’ll be so impressive, right up until the moment your friends discover Google.
Chocolate may be what you turn to during your attack of mitochondrial malaise, but it also happens to be a solution for that very same affliction. Not chocolate per se, but the cocoa in chocolate, which has the highest levels of epicatechins. That’s because sustained cocoa consumption produces a happy downstream effect on top of the increased capillary formation in your muscles: new mitochondria formation. [ref 1 below]
In other words, the epicatechins you get when you eat high-cocoa chocolate do both things that you need in order to increase your energy. This is definitely good news for athletes, and also for anyone who wants to eat chocolate.
But here’s a mistake you cannot make. Yes, high-cocoa chocolate can create energy for you at the cellular level. Yes, this can give you the energy to get off the couch in the first place. It can also give you more energy to take whatever activity you are doing to the next level. However, chocolate is not going to save you. It can’t hoist you off the couch. It can’t run you down the street or get you to move. It is no more and no less than your most delicious activity support system ever. If used as a support system for your activity, it can help you help yourself.
So, yes, you do in fact get these benefits by just eating the chocolate. However, you actually get more of a boost when you combine activity with high-cocoa chocolate consumption. The number of capillaries to your muscles increases (including your heart muscle, by the way), and the number of new mitochondria increases when those muscles are activated.
By the way, the reverse is also true. I just told you that high-cocoa chocolate can increase capillary and mitochondria growth all on its own. The same is true of exercise. On its own, exercise will increase the number of capillaries to your muscles. Likewise, exercise alone will increase the number of mitochondria generated in them. Again, though, the combination of activity plus high-cocoa chocolate provides even more of them to both your skeletal and cardiac muscles.
How many more? According to one study, cocoa epicatechins alone produce a 30% increase in fatigue resistance and a 30% increase in new blood supply. However, the increase in energy that you get from combining cocoa epicatechins with exercise amounts to a boost of 50%! [ref 2 below] In layman’s terms, that’s a huge increase in your ability to complete your exercises and to go through a normal day with increased energy.
The outcome of this is simple: fatigue resistance. And think about what this would mean for you in the context of your normal day. How much would a little fatigue resistance be worth to you? For example, if someone had a pill that could reduce fatigue without also killing your liver, causing you to break out into boils, or sending you into convulsions you’d buy that. This side effect–free fatigue resistance comes from the combination of high-cocoa chocolate and moderate activity.
How long will it take for these changes to occur? It took 2 weeks for experimental animals to see a 30% increase in fatigue resistance. [ref 3 below] In a separate study, it took 4 weeks to see increased capillaries and mitochondria. [ref 4 below] And subjects with type 2 diabetes who were administered 100 milligrams of epicatechins per day for 3 months showed a significant increase in mitochondria. [ref 5 below] In fact, before taking the epicatechins, their energy-producing mitochondria had all but withered away. It was only with the addition of the high-cocoa chocolate that their mitochondria were restored.
Does that mean you have to have chocolate every day for 3 months before you see improvements in your energy levels? (Okay, worse things could happen.) No, you don’t have to wait 3 months. You’ll see an increase in energy within those first few weeks, because the increased capillaries and mitochondria are progressive and develop over time.
It turns out, too, that as you get older, chocolate’s improvement on your capillaries and energy level is even more evident. As you age, you notice yourself running out of energy more often. Where do you think that energy went? Those little mitochondria organelles and the nutrients carried in with the capillaries, erode over time. [ref 6 below] And you become lethargic.
Because of that, there are fewer of the organelles in your muscles to begin. And as a result, the improvement older individuals realize with increased high-cocoa chocolate consumption is actually greater than that of younger people. There are so very few perks to growing older. Perhaps this is one!
 L Nogueira et al., “(-)-Epicatechin Enhances Fatigue Resistance and Oxidative Capacity in Mouse Muscle,” Journal of Physiology 589, pt. 18 (September 15, 2011); 4615–31.
 I Ramirez-Sanchez et al., “Stimulatory Effects of the Flavanol (-)-Epicatechin on Cardiac Angiogenesis: Additive Effects with Exercise,” Cardiovascular Pharmacology 60, no. 5 (November 2012): 429–38.
 L Nogueira et al., “(-)-Epicatechin Enhances Fatigue Resistance and Oxidative Capacity in Mouse Muscle,” Journal of Physiology 589, pt. 18 (September 15, 2011): 4615–31.
 M Huttemann et al., “(-)-Epicatechin Maintains Endurance Training Adaptation in Mice after 14 Days of Detraining,” FASEB Journal 26, no. 4 (April 2012): 1413–22.
 PR Taub et al., “Alterations in Skeletal Muscle Indicators of Mitochondrial Structure and Biogenesis in Patients with Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Failure: Effects of Epicatechin Rich Cocoa,” Clinical and Translational Science 5, no. 1 (February 2012): 43–7.
 DC Wallace (1999), “Mitochondrial Diseases in Man and Mouse,” Science 283: 1482–1488.