Have a piece of chocolate!

There’s nothing like some chocolate cookies, or chocolate syrup dripped over some ice cream or that bar of chocolate candy you need mid day to recover your low energy. HHHMMM good! Well, how about some chocolate for your health? This not an April Fools joke – it’s not April! It has been known for sometime that chocolate had some health benefits but recent studies are elucidating just what kind of health benefits one gets from eating chocolate. OK, so its’ not the chocolate cookies, the chocolate syrup or the candy bar that’s being studied but it’s still chocolate!

The kind of chocolate that’s being studied and reported on is cocoa, the unsweetened, dark chocolate. This was compared to white chocolate that was shown not to have any health benefits. The difference in the two types of chocolate are, dark chocolate has chemicals called flavonols, a subclass of flavonoids, while white chocolate has none of these. Sorry! Flavonoids, without getting too technical, are a group of compounds (flavonols, flavones, anthocyanidins, catechins and others) that all contain polyphenols. Polyphenols are compounds found in fruits, vegetables, cocoa and other foods that have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants are those compounds that remove toxic free radicals (loose electrons or oxygen) from cells, mitochondria (a cell’s energy factory) and DNA (nucleic acid material of the cell that determines who and what we are) to prevent oxidative damage. Oxidative damage, simplified, is damage to other molecules, enzymes, proteins and the like, rendering them ineffective thus, changing their function, and/or damaging their affect and/or causing the production of inflammation.

As a group, flavonoids have been found to have antiviral, anti-allergic, anti-platelet, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor and antioxidant activities. In particular, the flavonols of chocolate, have been discovered to lower blood pressure, reduce insulin resistance, increase the sensitivity of endothelial cells (cells lining blood vessels) to nitrous oxide and lower elevated levels of C-Reactive Protein. (See discussions below)

Insulin resistance is the condition of the cell membrane losing its sensitivity to the hormone insulin and to nitrous oxide; insulin, which acts like a key to the cell membrane “door” allows the entrance of glucose into the cell to be used as a source of fuel/energy. When the membrane is resistant it takes much more insulin to allow the entrance of glucose. This resistance is the source of many metabolic problems such as Metabolic Syndrome and Type II Diabetes Mellitus. Endothelial cells are cells that line the interior of all blood vessels. They are responsible for repairing injured areas within blood vessel walls and also causing blood vessels to constrict or dilate. Nitrous oxide, a component of the air we breathe, stimulates endothelial cells to dilate allowing more blood to flow to tissues. This is a good thing! However, these cells in the presence of free radicals, aging, wear and tear, disease, no exercise, etc. can loose their sensitivity to nitrous oxide and remain constricted causing many symptoms such as brain fog, loss of cognition, angina (pain in the heart), and when severe, a heart attack or stroke.

C-Reactive Protein is a bio-marker. This means it is a test used to measure the condition or health of a tissue or organ. It is often used to assess if there’s inflammation in blood vessels of the heart. When elevated it allows us the ability to assess the risk of one having a cardiovascular event (medical lingo for a bad outcome involving the heart). This is determined without the need to do invasive heart procedures.

The benefits of cocoa were first recognized in Kuna Indians of the San Blas Island chain off the coast of Panama. It was recognized that these people had little to no atherosclerosis, hypertension, elevated lipids, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. It was also observed that their diet was rich in cocoa. This launched a series of studies into cocoa.

In the last 3 years there have been at least five well done studies, although small patient samples, from Italy, US, Argentina and Germany. The take home message in all the studies has been eating dark, unsweetened, chocolate is healthy and has the potential of helping you stay well. Eat about 50 grams or 2 oz. of unsweetened, dark chocolate every other day. Occasionally, treat yourself to the sweet stuff.

By Richard W. Walker, Jr. MD