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alarm_clockThis week is Sleep Awareness Week, an annual outreach and education event started by the National Sleep Foundation to promote—what else?—the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. It ends on Sunday when we “spring ahead” for Daylight Saving Time, but in the meantime here are two new sleep studies making headlines:

Lack of Sleep Linked to Higher Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Researchers at the University of Chicago recently found a connection between too little sleep and a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In a small study involving 19 adult men, those who got too little sleep (around four hours total) for a few nights in a row had higher levels of free fatty acids in the blood. These by-products of fat metabolism prevent the hormone insulin from doing its job of regulating blood sugar levels, and according to study authors the effects were similar to those seen in the early stages of diabetes.

Are Sleep Aids Increasing Your Risk for Dementia?
A new study from scientists at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy found that certain types of over-the-counter drugs—including sleep aids—increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in seniors. Even in small amounts the drugs have anticholinergic effects, which means they prevent the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from functioning properly and as a result impact cognitive function. However, the study found that heavier use dramatically increases the risk for cognitive impairment. Anticholinergic drugs also include some antidepressants, antihistamines, and medications for overactive bladder.

Still, blood sugar and brain health are just the beginning. Getting enough sleep is important for your whole body to function properly—not to mention for maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress, and improving mood. As you change those clocks this weekend, remember that most experts recommend getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep for optimal health.

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cocoa-heartGive the gift of chocolate this Valentine’s Day and you may be giving your sweetheart’s brain a healthy boost. After an eight-week study, researchers in Italy found more evidence that the natural flavanols in cocoa are linked to improved thinking and memory skills.

In a study of nearly 100 older adults in good mental health, those who consumed a daily beverage containing either 520 mg or 993 mg of cocoa flavanols performed better in tests that measured memory, attention span and overall cognitive function including reasoning and problem solving.

Flavanols are a type of plant nutrient found abundantly in cocoa beans, and previous studies have linked them to healthy blood pressure and improved cardiovascular function. Dark chocolate typically has more flavanols than milk chocolate, but experts say cocoa powder is best. And even better is cacao powder—a less processed version of cocoa powder available at health food stores.

Try these sweet and simple cacao recipes for Valentine’s Day!

Decadent Cacao & Avocado Mousse
Serves: 4
1 avocado
¼ cup cacao powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup unsweetened almond milk
2 tbsp. chia seeds

Directions: Place avocado, cacao powder, vanilla, and almond milk in food processor and process until smooth; stir in chia seeds. Transfer mixture to medium bowl; refrigerate 1 hour. Scoop into individual bowls and serve chilled.

Not-So-Sinful Nut Butter Cups
Makes 16 individual cups
5 tbsp. coconut cream concentrate (coconut butter)
5 tbsp. coconut oil (best if in liquid form)
6 tbsp. cacao powder
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. lo han (monk fruit) sweetener
3 tbsp. nut butter of choice (cashew, sunflower, almond)

Directions: Mix all ingredients except nut butter in a medium bowl. Place ½ tsp. of mixture into each cup of a mini muffin pan. Freeze about 10 minutes. Set remaining mixture aside. Add ¼ tsp. nut butter atop each frozen “cup.” Add another ½ tsp. of the cacao mixture on top of the nut butter; freeze again about 15 minutes (to harden).

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