- - Thursday, February 11, 2016

Our love for chocolate dates back to the Mesoamerican era, 3,500 years ago. Fast forward 2,000 years, chocolate houses opened throughout Europe and served as social clubs and meeting places for the elite. And today, it remains a prized love food of Valentine’s Day for everyone — and even throughout the year.

Chocolate has been a treasured treat for centuries and there are a number of research studies to show that it is not just delightfully delectable but can be good for our health. Its benefits are attributed to its primary ingredient — cocoa — which is rich in an antioxidant called flavonols.

Our body forms free radical waste products during normal bodily processes that can then go on to cause damage. And antioxidants can neutralize these waste products. Because dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of cocoa, it contains more antioxidants and potentially greater health benefits.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: About Dark Chocolate and Its Potential Health Benefits

Love Potion
Like Valentine’s Day, chocolate has been associated with love. Probably the most influential love compound in chocolate is that it naturally contains in small quantities the substance, phenylethylamine (PEA). This is the very same chemical that stimulates the nervous system and is introduced into the human body when love comes to call. Chocolate alone actually promotes the brain chemistry of being in love.

Blood pressure
In a review of over 20 studies, it was found that consuming either dark chocolate or cocoa powder each day, ranging from 3 to 100 grams, is associated with a 2-3 mmHg reduction of blood pressure on average. Flavonols can stimulate the inner lining of arteries to produce nitric oxide—a chemical that signals our arteries to relax and dilate. This results in decreased vessel resistance and is actually one of the mechanisms that pharmaceutical companies have harnessed to treat hypertension. While the findings are modest, they may complement other treatment options for those with high blood pressure, but cannot replace them.

Bad cholesterol
Flavonols are speculated to reduce “bad” cholesterol absorption in our gastrointestinal track and somehow raise “good” cholesterol in our blood. Sounds like a win-win.

Well there is another potential win. Because chocolate’s antioxidants can neutralize free radical waste products, it prevents “bad” cholesterol from reacting with them to create a toxic compound that can damage the inner lining of our heart’s arteries. And too, it can decrease the abnormal collection of cholesterol and other debris—plaques causing atherosclerosis—that occurs when the vessels are damaged.

Blood clots
In a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the researchers found that daily dark chocolate consumption can help thin the blood and consequently decrease the risk of developing a blood clot. Flavonols inhibit platelet activation—specialized cells in our body that gather together at a blood vessel tear to temporarily stop bleeding.

The reason this is beneficial is because abnormal platelet function plays a role in heart attacks and strokes—two leading killers and causes of major disability in our country. When blood vessels are injured—by cholesterol, high blood pressure, or smoking—cholesterol-rich plaques build up inside the vessels. And if these plaques rupture, platelets quickly attach to the exposed sites to form a clot that can go on to block blood flow. By inhibiting platelet function—the reason your healthcare provider advises you to take daily doses of aspirin—chocolate may decrease your risk for these conditions.

Cognitive impairment and dementia
In 2013, Harvard Medical School researchers found that cocoa consumption boosts memory, thinking skills, and “neurovascular coupling.” Neurovascular coupling describes how blood flow in the brain matches brain activity—oxygen and nutrients are increased to the areas of the brain that are working hard and where it is needed. This process becomes topsy-turvy in Alzheimer’s dementia and other brain conditions. In fact, there is some research to show that cocoa may also significantly improve cognitive function in elderly people with mental impairment.

In a perfect world, chocolate would have no calories. While this may not be the case, there is some good news: dark chocolate provides a sense of satiety, or feeling full. By decreasing our cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods, it functions as an “appetite suppressant” and can decrease our overall consumption throughout the day. However, this news does not give us carte blanche to consume as much chocolate as we want. Because chocolate still contains fat and calories, moderation is the key to get the best of both worlds.
Mood and Stress
Eating 40 grams of dark chocolate daily was shown to decrease stress hormone levels after just two weeks, according to Swiss scientists at Nestle’s Research Center. This effect has been attributed to chocolate being able to elevate our brain’s “feel good” chemicals. And you do not necessarily have to eat chocolate to get this benefit. Studies have shown that just the mere smell of chocolate can increase certain brain waves and trigger relaxation. So, keep calm and eat…and smell…chocolate.

Chocolate appears to be a yummy home remedy to suppress coughing. This is because it contains a compound called theobromine that blocks the action of sensory nerves that trigger the cough reflex. In fact at the National Heart and Lung Institute in the UK, scientists stated it was more effective than codeine—but without the drowsiness or other side effects of codeine.

Of course, with all the sheer delight - this doesn’t mean you should eat unlimited amounts of chocolate — it’s still high in calories, and can contribute to weight gain if you regularly eat too much. However, enjoyed in moderation, chocolate need not be such a guilty pleasure after all.

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