Dark Chocolate: A Powerful Muscle Building Food and Nootropic?

By on January 9, 2017

The technical name for the cacao plant is Theobroma cacao, literally meaning ‘drink of the gods’. The name alludes to its popularity among Mesoamerican elites, who would enjoy drinking cocoa as a warm beverage.


But turns out, it may also have some other ‘Godly’ properties and could potentially be effective for boosting brain power and muscle building. In fact, one of the key active ingredients in dark chocolate (epicatechin) may just prove to be the next big muscle-building supplement! I’ve been enjoying dark chocolate with coffee for a while now (the bitterness of the coffee counteracts the bitterness of the chocolate and it tastes great!) and turns out it might have been doing me more good than I realized…

Cacao for the Brain

Those who know a little about natural nootropics will probably already know that dark chocolate contains theobromine. Theobromine is a vasodilator (meaning that it widens the blood vessels and thereby enhances bloodflow) as well as a mild stimulant (like caffeine). There is some concern that theobromine might be addictive and potentially cause insomnia/adrenal fatigue, but if you enjoy coffee with no problem, then I doubt dark chocolate is going to be an issue for you. In fact, some people enjoy raw cacao powder as an alternative to caffeine as it is a little less potent and has a 10 hour half-life.

More exciting are the flavonols, which include the interesting -epicatechin (yep, it has a minus in front of it and is pronounced ‘minus epicatechin’). One gram of cocoa will get you 1.5-2.8mg of epicatechin and you can also get a fair amount from dark chocolate (70%+).

Epicatechin increases nitric oxide production, which would further lead to vasodilation (1). In fact, one study found that consuming 30g of dark chocolate per day (70% cocoa) could raise NO by 54% in just 15 days (2)! This increased blood flow has been demonstrated in at least one study to improve cognitive performance by improving supply to the brain (3).

Note however that epicatechin is just one way to boost nitric oxide. The very best option for this particular effect is still probably beetroot juice.

Cacao and chocolate may actually be neuroprotective due to a high content of flavonoids with antioxidant properties. Dark chocolate, like red wine, is actually a source of resveratrol – also a flavonoid and one of the most sought-after antioxidants and mitochondrial-boosters usually associated with red wine.


These benfits may also explain why chocolate intake has been found in studies to be associated with better cognitive function. This was found in a large longitudinal study involving 968 participants aged 23-98 years (4). The suggested mechanisms of action were increased concentration due to methylxanthines (theobromine) and enhanced bloodflow due to epicatechin.

On the downside, cacao is actually high in omega 6 fatty acids. While omega 6 is an important nutrient, most of us have too much of it compared with our omega 3 content, which can result in inflammation. This in turn can cause brain fog. But seeing as flavonoids can reduce inflammation, they may be able to counteract this somewhat. And there isn’t too much omega 6 here either. To put it in perspective, one cup of raw cacao (86g) will get you 368mg of omega 6. The DV for adult men is 12-17 grams. To be on the safe side, my recommendation would be to take an omega 3 supplement if you’re considering adding dark chocolate or cacao to your diet. Actually, my recommendation is that you should be doing this anyway.

Another slight downside is that cacao is a diuretic (so is caffeine). This isn’t likely to be a big issue but you may just find yourself popping to the toilet a little more than usual…

It’s also worth noting that chocolate also stimulates the release of anandamide (the ‘bliss’ molecule) and oxytocin (the ‘love’ hormone), and even serotonin (the ‘feel good’ hormone) which is why it feels so goood.

Cacao for Muscle Building

Of course, many athletes and bodybuiders are interested in increasing their NO levels in order to improve circulation and to give themselves a better ‘pump’ during workouts. More recent research though also suggests that it might be able to increase the growth of satellite cells, which are used to repair and thicken muscle cells (5).

More exciting and interesting, is the fact that epicatechin might also be useful for inhibiting myostatin. Myostatin is a chemical that triggers the breakdown of muscle tissue and when mice are genetically modified to stop producing it… well they become hulk mice. There’s not much research on this yet but in one study, six middle aged participants were given 1mg of epicatechin per kg of bodyweight two times a day (so around 170mg for an average sized person). In that week, their follistatin increased by 49.2% and their myostatin dropped by 16.6%. They also saw an increase in grip strength of 7% – though there was no control group (6). Another study (7) found that using epicatechin in doses of 50-200mg daily could increase follistatin by 2.5x in 5 days. This was only a pilot study, so keep an eye out for more.


Another study has found epicatechin to be useful for insulin sensitivity and glucose dispersal (8), potentially making it a useful energy booster (especially when combined with resveratrol).

So, it’s early days yet but there’s enough evidence here to say that epicatechin is at least potentially interesting for bodybuilders and athletes.

How to Get These Benefits

Dark chocolate also has a ton of other great health benefits, ranging from an ability to improve blood pressure and cholesterol, to a very high mineral content (it’s high in zinc, potassium, magnesium, copper, selenium and LOTS of iron) and may even be somewhat useful for weight loss (due to the link between satiety and serotonin). It’s also a good source of fiber.

Of course dark chocolate often comes with added milk and sugar and the more processed it is, the more you lose out on some of the benefits such as the antioxidants. Get yourself some 70%+ dark chocolate though and consume around 40 grams of the stuff and you’ll be taking in under 200 calories while getting 30mg epicatechin and plenty of other benefits. If you’re watching calories then there’s a simple solution for most people: just switch your current lunchtime snack for this one. It’s still delicious but you’re getting a ton of nutrients and possibly some nootropic/anabolic benefits; instead of just the usual empty calories that you would get from something like a Mars bar.


This is what I’ve been doing for quite a while and although it’s always hard to rule out placebo, it is certainly something I look forward to and I think it helps give me a little more of an afternoon pick-me-up. Like I said, it goes great with a strong coffee.

There’s also a nootropic called IQ2 that utilizes raw cacao as one of the primary ingredients (alongside cholinergics, vinpocetine and guarana). In fact, these were the guys who introduced me to some of the benefits of cacao and encouraged me to research it further. I’ll be talking more about that product in future.

You’d need a little more pure epicatechin if you wanted to mimic the effects seen in the myostatin studies – somewhere in the region of 200mg. That would be several family-sized bars of dark chocolate though, so you may instead consider taking a pure epicatechin supplement aimed at bodybuilders. These aren’t cheap though and I can’t vouch for their effectiveness. If you have any experience then please let me know about it in the comments!



About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.


  1. Jorge says:

    Good article

    I love that you write about nootropics

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