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Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health

Probably the most well documented benefits of chocolate involve its ability to enhance the function of the heart and blood vessels. Dozens of studies confirm the ability of dark chocolate to protect the heart in a variety of ways, including fighting oxidation, inflammation, improving blood platelet function, decreasing the clotting of blood, and allowing blood vessels to relax and become more pliable, reducing blood pressure.

For instance, a team of scientists from Harvard School of Public Health reviewed 136 studies completed on the relationship of chocolate and cocoa to cardiovascular health. The review included all types of research from lab tests to human studies. The research team concluded that chocolate is a major source of flavonoids, (epicatechins, catechins, and procyanidins) and found that the principal fat in chocolate—stearic acid—did not have adverse effects on blood vessels, cholesterol levels or overall CV health because it is metabolized differently than other saturated fats.

The review confirmed the findings of many studies suggesting that regular chocolate intake has potentially beneficial effects. These include lower blood pressure, decreased inflammation in blood vessels, decreased blood clotting, increased levels of high-density lipids (the HDL or “good” cholesterol) and decreased oxidation of low-density lipids (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol), improved endothelial function (increased nitric oxide production), inhibition of leukotriene activity (which causes the constriction of blood vessels and contributes to chronic inflammation), and increased activity of prostacyclins, which help blood vessels “relax” and reduce blood platelets from forming clots.

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Chocolate and Diabetes

Just as chocolate can help support cardiovascular health, it also promises to help in an area closely linked to cardio trouble—diabetes. There has been an explosion of diagnoses of type-2 diabetes in recent years, and it is well known that the majority of diabetes-related deaths result from cardiovascular conditions such as atherosclerosis, infarction, stroke and peripheral vascular disease.

But diabetes’ effects go beyond the heart. Micro blood vessel damage is caused by elevated blood sugar (an oxidant) linking with blood vessel proteins (collagen), which ultimately causes scarring and blood vessel blockage. This damage is what causes neuropathy (pain in the nerves) and edema (water in the tissues) in extremities, which can lead to ulcerations and amputations. It also causes kidney damage (nephropathy) and even blindness (retinopathy).

The good news is that there is overwhelming support for chocolate’s diabetic-friendly benefits. In fact, a recent review of 42 studies found that the majority showed that subjects enjoyed distinct improvement in glucose and insulin balance when consuming some sort of antioxidant-rich cocoa food or beverage. The researchers stated, “We found consistent benefits of chocolate or cocoa on promising effects on insulin and insulin resistance . . .”

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Cell Protector and Cancer Fighter

Cancer, in its many forms, is one of today’s top killers and most feared diseases. And while progress has been made in the treatment of many cancers, there is still much to be learned regarding this insidious killer. In recent years, scientific research has uncovered the potential of chocolate’s main constituents to fight cancer.

Cocoa helps fight against cancer in various ways. One study found that procyanidins were potent inhibitors of tyrosine kinase (ErbB2) expression, a molecule responsible for increasing blood vessels in a tumor and making the cancer grow faster. In simple words, cocoa procyanidins stop new blood vessels from forming, which in turn decreases the ability of cancer cells to grow. Numerous cancers like colon, breast, lung, ovarian, and prostate cancers are controlled in part by the ErbB2 molecule. The researchers found also other receptor molecules that stimulate cancer cells were inhibited by the cocoa procyanidins.

They also found that cocoa flavanols inhibited reactive nitrogen species and formed nitrous derivatives, which inhibit cancer cell growth, especially gastrointestinal cancers.

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Chocolate and Inflammation

The vast majority of scientists familiar with the research on cacao, cocoa and chocolate agree that one of cocoa’s primary benefits is its ability to prevent or even reverse inflammatory response in the body. Though inflammation is generally a helpful and necessary process, continual exposure to inflammation is now thought to be a core contributor to a variety of diseases.

One of the major concerns of inflammation is cardiovascular disease. Mounting research shows that chronic, low-grade inflammation (which can be the result of numerous factors) is a primary contributor to artherosclerosis, stroke and other forms of cardiovascular disease. In a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers discovered that epicatechin and other flavanols found in cocoa proved to be effective at inhibiting the action of leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are inflammatory messengers that can be helpful in normal levels, but are also known to be a key contributor to inflammation-related conditions when produced in excess. The researchers also found that the availability of nitric oxide was enhanced by consumption of flavanols. Flavonoids are inhibitors of cyclooxygenase (COX-1), which contributes to inflammation.

A 2012 study from scientists in Spain found that a cocoa-based product was able to reduce inflammatory and other markers for cardiovascular problems. The researchers stated that “The [cocoa-based product] has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects in addition to lowering LDL cholesterol [and other markers].”

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Chocolate and the Brain

When it comes to our health and well-being, it’s no secret that the brain is critically important. The bad news, however, is that aging brings increased risk of cognitive decline and of dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders that affect the brain and nervous system, and thereby affect the rest of our bodies’ primary systems and organs.

There is now good news when it comes to slowing the progress of neurodegenerative conditions with chocolate. Cocoa, which contains several potent oxidant-fighting ingredients, possesses the same ability to decrease the free radical damage that may contribute to dementia and decline in mental function. University of South Florida published a study that found that a high flavonoids diet in some cases reversed normal age-related declines in memory and learning in rats. In a related stroke study, researchers found a decrease in stroke size in rats fed a high-flavonoid diet. It is felt that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substances in the diet reduced nerve cell injury and death triggered by the stroke.

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Chocolate and Weight Control

Obesity—we all know it’s a huge problem. In fact, many experts consider the problem to be of epidemic proportions, and its effect on other health conditions is also very alarming. Obesity and a general state of being overweight increase the risk of numerous diseases, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to cancer and arthritis.

Consequently, the obsession that many Americans feel with losing weight has made weight loss the number-one category among dieting programs, nutritional supplements and health books. But the problem doesn’t’ seem to be going away. It’s probably wise to concede that there is no magic pill that will make the pounds melt away. In fact, it’s estimated by experts that approximately 95% of all diets, programs and products fail to help customers achieve lasting weight loss.

Perhaps surprising to many is that cocoa and chocolate are now being recommended by various health professionals as a part of a healthy wellness regimen to lose weight. The reason is because of an emerging link between free radical damage, inflammation and weight gain. Scientists now believe that the oxidative stress induced by free radicals encourages the body to retain fat. We also know that fat cells send out more inflammatory signals than other cells, which further contributes to this cycle.

Findings now suggest that controlling free radical damage and inflammation with antioxidants can help encourage significant and lasting weight loss. For instance, a 2011 study published in the Journal of Bariatric Medicine found that volunteers enjoyed an average of 31 pounds lost over twelve weeks when consuming a high-antioxidant, cocoa-based beverage. The beverage contained vastly more antioxidants than what the average person consumes in a day. The findings also showed favorable results in other areas as well, including inches lost, hunger response, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

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Chocolate and Healthy Skin

As mentioned, one of the most obvious signals of premature aging is poor skin. Wrinkles, lines, spots, blotchiness, redness and other symptoms are usually good signs that our health needs to improve and that we are perhaps aging quicker than we want. The good news is that cocoa is a powerful source of antioxidants and other phytonutrients that provide a safeguard against the various threats to the skin, particularly free radical damage (oxidative stress).

A recent study published in the journal Annual Review of Nutrition focused on the protective abilities of flavanols (using a chocolate beverage as the source) against skin damage. The researchers found that the dietary flavanols found in the cocoa beverage can lower the markers lipid peroxidation (oxidation of fats). The findings suggest the flavanols exerted a protective effect against those compounds responsible for damaging the skin by absorbing UV light, relieving free radical damage, or influencing cell-signaling pathways to stop UV damage. The addition of vitamins and minerals also provide the needed nutrients to keep the skin healthy. Beauty from within comes from the nutrients found in cocoa. Ulcers, wrinkles, and other skin conditions do improve with cocoa consumption.

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Chocolate and Mood/Emotional Well-Being

We know that chocolate can provide very distinct protective properties for the brain. This is important because the brain is also the center of our mood and emotional well-being. If our brain is not healthy and its various chemicals are not in balance, there’s a good chance we’ll suffer from some sort of mood or emotional dysfunction.

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is also known as the “love-chemical.” In fact, it’s reported that Casanova often ate chocolate because of its aphrodisiac properties. The end result of increased PEA production is increased awareness and sense of well-being and contentment. It is believed to work by making the brain release b-endorphin, an opioid peptide that is the main source of chocolate’s production of “pleasure.” PEA is believed to be the driving factor behind chocolate’s fame as an aphrodisiac, as well as the feelings of excitement, giddiness, euphoria and attraction.

Studies also show that levels of dopamine and serotonin increase after consumption of chocolate, due to the presence of tryptophan, another of chocolate’s star players. Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin, a natural antidepressant, and increases its production. It also helps produce other neurotransmitters like melatonin and dimethyltryptamine, both associated with sleep. Cocoa contains natural dopamine, which elevates moods. Dopamine has been associated with increased mental acuity and concentration and with a positive attitude. These two vital chemicals help lower risk of depression and increase overall mental function.

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Chocolate and Oral Health

Virtually none of us enjoys going to the dentist. And despite advanced technology and products to fight it, tooth decay is still a big problem today. Tooth decay begins when bacteria, particularly Streptococcus mutans, accumulate on the teeth in the absence of adequate oral hygiene, forming plaque. These bacteria metabolize fermentable carbohydrates, leading to acid formation and a decrease in plaque pH. Frequent or sustained drops in the pH can result in progressive demineralization of the enamel, which ultimately leads to enamel decay and cavities.

There has long been a misconception that chocolate contributes to tooth cavities. However, research suggests that not only is chocolate not a major contributor to cavities, it also helps fight the processes that form them.

First, cocoa is not intrinsically cavity-forming because it does not contain significant amounts of fermentable carbohydrates. Chocolate's lack of cavity-causing properties may hold true even when chocolate is sweetened. Researchers for the classic 1950s Vipeholm study in Sweden reported no statistically significant difference in the incidence of cavities among a control group that consumed no sweets and another group that consumed chocolate. Another study tested the cavity-causing effect of several common snack foods on rats, and found solid milk chocolate among the lowest in of all the foods evaluated.

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