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The Rich Benefits of Eating Chocolate


Story at-a-glance -

  • Science now shows that chocolate may be good for you. Five chemical compounds contained in raw, unadulterated chocolate are highlighted to show exactly what they are and how they work.
  • First, antioxidant polyphenols that neutralize free radicals provide some of the most compelling aspects of eating chocolate because they can reduce processes associated with the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer.
  • Second, chocolate contains anandamide, named after the Sanscrit word for “bliss,” which is a neurotransmitter in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and anxiety.
  • The caffeine and theobromine in chocolate have been shown to produce higher levels of physical energy and mental alertness while, counter-intuitively, lowering blood pressure in women.
  • Chocolate’s heart-friendly properties may be due to the presence of epicatechins, antioxidants which are found in higher concentrations in darker and raw forms.
  • Studies showed that one-and-a-half ounces of dark chocolate a day for 2 weeks reduced stress hormone levels.

By Dr. Mercola

New research has emerged proving that chocolate is good not only for the soul, but for your mind and body as well.

According to a video released by the American Chemical Society (ACS), chocolate contains hundreds of compounds, and many of them come with benefits that go far beyond a few delicious moments of sweetness.

Studies have already established that chocolate contains a number of beneficial ingredients. For instance, resveratrol, an important compound in chocolate, may not only protect your brain and nervous system, but actually prolong your life.1

Dark chocolate is also an inflammation fighter, listed along with turmeric and following a Mediterranean-style diet as one of the healthiest, most natural ways to reduce the inflammatory processes underlying the chronic, degenerative diseases that afflict most of the developed world.

Five pieces of evidence highlighted in the ACS video show that other factors enhance the sweet, smooth goodness of chocolate, and those involve naturally-occurring chemicals. Read on.

Antioxidants – The Not-So-Sweet Things Chocolate Has to Say About Free Radicals

One of the most compelling reasons to make chocolate a part of your regular diet may be for the antioxidants it provides.

Few foods, and certainly not dessert foods, have as much therapeutic potential as this "candy" aisle treat, as evidenced by a wide range of accumulating scientific research linking its consumption to over 40 distinct health benefits.2

While most of us have heard about the importance of antioxidants, a primer might help, beginning with the explanation that the formation of free radicals – atoms, ions and molecules with unpaired electrons – in your cells can damage your DNA to the point that your risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer's, heart disease and cancer are elevated.

This is why the antioxidant polyphenols in chocolate are so valuable, as they have the ability to stop free radical mediated oxidation. This helps to decrease your risk of those and other diseases by directly interfering with one of the major preventable causes of chronic degenerative diseases.

A factoid from ACS's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry indicates that naturally-occurring polyphenols in cocoa, the fundamental component in chocolate, actually boost levels of HDL, the "good" cholesterol, while at the same time reducing the atherogenicity of so-called "bad" variety – LDL – by preventing its oxidation.3 Supporting evidence from the Cleveland Clinic study4 noted:

"Antioxidants are believed to help the body's cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing, and from environmental contaminants, like cigarette smoke. If your body does not have enough antioxidants to combat the amount of oxidation that occurs, it can become damaged by free radicals. For example, an increase in oxidation can cause low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as 'bad' cholesterol, to form plaque on the artery walls."

Chocoholics Aren't Weak-Willed – They Just Know What Makes Them Feel Good

If you're one of these individuals who gets a nice mood boost whenever you sink your teeth into a bar of pure, unadulterated chocolate, it is not happenstance.

There's actually a chemical reason called anandamide, a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression.

It's a derivative of the Sanskrit word "bliss," and one of the great things about chocolate is that it not only produces this compound, it also contains other chemicals that prolongs the "feel-good" aspects of anandamide.
But there's more to this brain chemical than just how it makes us feel.

As a scientist on the topic, Daniele Piomelli, from the University of California, Irvine, put it:

"Anandamide is also synthesized in areas of the brain that are important in memory and higher thought processes and in areas that control movement. That implies that anandamide's function is not just to produce bliss."5

Anandamide has been compared to the sensation derived from marijuana, but Piomelli says "We are talking about something much, much, much, much milder than a high."6 There's also evidence that this compound has the ability to help "sweeten" up your love life as well.

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Need a Brain Boost? A Surge of Energy? Reach for Chocolate!

Natural stimulants in chocolate produce a boost in both physical and brain energy, primarily from caffeine and theobromine. But one clinical study involving 24 healthy female subjects showed "synergistic" effects on cognition and mood, which incidentally translated into improved blood pressure.7 Everyone knows chocolate contains caffeine, a stimulant that can help heighten physical energy and alertness, but studies also show that it can inhibit inflammation in the brain that causes migraines.8

Also regarding brain health, a Johns Hopkins study found that dark chocolate may shield the brain from damage after a stroke by increasing cellular signals.9 Mice that had ingested epicatechin, a compound found in dark chocolate, suffered significantly less brain damage after undergoing induced stroke than mice that had not been given this compound. What this means for ischemic stroke victims (related to clot obstructions in the vessels supplying blood to the brain, a condition known as antherosclerosis)10 is that the epicatechin in dark chocolate may actually protect the brain.

Flavonols are the main flavonoids found in cocoa and chocolate, as a British study found.11 A pilot study evaluated the relationship between cerebral blood flow and a dose of flavanol-rich cocoa, which showed a marked increase in the cerebral blood flow to gray matter. The study results indicated that the flavonols in cocoa have the treatment potential against vascular impairment, which leads into the next point…

Raw Chocolate = Improved Heart Health… and Other Life-Saving Benefits

According to that same study,12 cocoa flavonols could be used to treat problems with vascular impairment, including dementia and strokes.13 Additionally, the ACS studies found that the polyphenols and catechins in chocolate may lower the stroke risk in men. More specifically epicatechins, which help prevent not only clotting but inflammation, is helpful, researchers say, in preventing some types of strokes.

What's interesting is that a 7-study meta-analysis14 sought to find a link between chocolate consumption and certain cardiometabolic disorders, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Along with those disorders are related problems like hypertension, elevated fasting glucose and triglycerides, and high cholesterol, abdominal obesity. But rather than negative effects, scientists found that chocolate – specifically the dark unprocessed raw cacao kinds – actually reduced the risk of such disorders.

Don't Worry - Eat Chocolate

Beyond the fact that chocolate contains the feel-good anandamide compound, there are additional clinically-confirmed reasons why chocolate has been referred to as "the new anti-anxiety drug." Another ACS study (in the Journal of Proteome Research) revealed that one-and-a-half ounces of dark chocolate a day for 2 weeks reduced stress hormone levels. Volunteers for the study, categorized as "highly stressed," were found at the end of the two-week period to have lower levels of the "fight-or-flight" stress hormone cortisol.

But remember that many chocolate brands are high in sugar, calories and unhealthy saturated fats, so buyer beware. First, be sure that the chocolate you're eating is dark chocolate. There is also a big difference in chocolates' health effects, depending on how much you eat. As mentioned in the Cleveland Clinic study:

"'...Be careful about the type of dark chocolate you choose: chewy caramel-marshmallow-nut-covered dark chocolate is by no means a heart-healthy food option.'15 Be aware that milk chocolate does not have the same healthy effect as unadulterated dark chocolate, because milk often prevents absorption of polyphenols.

It's also important to remember the word moderation. There's a measured and tested amount of chocolate – 6.7 grams a day (or one small square of chocolate two or three times a week) – that provides the best health benefits. While it undoubtedly comes as a pleasant surprise that chocolate is actually good for you, eating the right amount is crucial if you want it to be a benefit and not a liability."

If you're craving a decadent chocolate treat but want to avoid the downsides, take a look at this article featuring a video showing how you can make your own organic chocolate bars. Also, please be aware that many popular and seemingly artisan-quality chocolate companies are now owned by multinational corporations who use GMO ingredients, disregard fair trade standards, and otherwise are not interested in supporting organic and sustainable production methods.

As examples, Cadbury Schweppes bought Green & Black in 2005, who in turn was bought by Kraft Foods in 2010. Dagoba was bought by Hershey's in 2006. You will find this pattern recur quite often if you peek beneath the "wrapper" of the chocolate industry. So, please remember to choose carefully, and consider whether the companies you support are supporting you back.