Here’s great news for chocoholics: Eating organic and unprocessed dark chocolate may help you avoid cardiovascular risks. A recent meta-analysis evaluated the link between chocolate and cardiometabolic disorders, which are certain risk factors that promote the development of stroke, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Examples of cardiometabolic disorders include:
- Elevated fasting glucose
- High cholesterol levels
- Abdominal obesity
- Elevated triglycerides
The results of seven studies, which collectively included over 114,000 participants, were used for the featured analysis. Five out of the seven studies confirmed that chocolate can reduce the risk of cardiometabolic disorders. The highest levels of chocolate consumption were linked to a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke. Dr. Joseph Mercola agrees with these findings but warns that the health benefits only come from unprocessed chocolate and/or raw cacao and not commercially-processed milk chocolate candy bars.
Organic raw cacao nibs from Ecuador are very healthy and delicious.
How Raw Chocolate Benefits Your Health
Chocolate’s benefits to your health have been known for a long time. Dr. Mercola says that five years ago, researchers found out that small amounts of dark chocolate can reduce your risk of a heart attack. This is because of its biochemical effect – similar to aspirin – that reduces blood clot-causing platelets. If a formed clot blocks a blood vessel, it can be fatal and may cause a heart attack. Another 2008 study revealed that diabetics can benefit from specially-formulated raw cocoa powder. For one month, diabetic patients were given a special, high-flavonol cocoa drink, which helped turn their severely impaired blood vessel function to normal. Dr. Mercola notes that improvement was similar to the effect of exercise and regular diabetic medications. The flavonoid epicatechin, which is found in dark chocolate, may also help protect your brain after a stroke (link). Epicatechin increases cellular signals that protect nerve cells from damage. A stroke is similar to a heart attack, except that it occurs when the blood supply to your brain, not your heart, is blocked or reduced. This deprives your brain of necessary oxygen and nutrients, prompting your brain cells to die within minutes.
Choosing a Healthy Type of Chocolate
Keep in mind that the healthful antioxidants and nutrients in chocolate are only present in pure cocoa. This means that every time you process the cocoa, the nutritional value is lost. This is why Dr. Mercola says that the best chocolate is bitter, not sweet. Raw cocoa powder has high antioxidant content. According to a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a cup of hot cocoa made with pure cocoa powder contains
- Almost twice the amount of antioxidants than a glass of red win
- More than double the amount of green tea
- Four to five times more than black tea (link)
Dark Chocolate Guards Against Brain Injury
Researchers have discovered that epicatechin, a compound in dark chocolate, may protect your brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals that shield nerve cells from damage. An hour and a half after feeding mice a single dose of epicatechin, animals that had ingested the compound suffered significantly less brain damage following an induced stroke. Eurekalert reports: “While most treatments against stroke in humans have to be given within a two- to three-hour time window to be effective, epicatechin appeared to limit further neuronal damage when given to mice 3.5 hours after a stroke. Given six hours after a stroke, however, the compound offered no protection to brain cells.”
Dr. Mercola’s Comments:
Strokes (which are sometimes referred to as “brain attacks”) occur when the blood supply to your brain becomes blocked or reduced. This deprives your brain of necessary oxygen and nutrients, causing your brain cells to begin to die within minutes. But researchers are looking into the protective qualities of certain antioxidants, in this particular case, epicatechins, a natural compound found in cacao, tea, red wine, and certain fruits and vegetables. And this compound may offer significant benefits to stroke victims. Antioxidant-rich cocoa has been consumed for about 2,600-years, and certain native tribes, such as the Kuna tribe described in the press release above, who regularly consume cacao drinks, may owe their extremely low rates of cardiovascular disease to this heart healthy food.
Dark Chocolate May Protect Your Brain After Ischemic Stroke
Although previous research has already shown that dark chocolate can restore blood vessel function and protect you from heart disease, this latest study evaluated cacao’s effect on brain function after ischemic stroke. The press release states: “Ninety minutes after feeding mice a single modest dose of epicatechin, a compound found naturally in dark chocolate, the scientists induced an ischemic stroke by essentially cutting off blood supply to the animals’ brains. They found that the animals that had preventively ingested the epicatechin suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound. While most treatments against stroke in humans have to be given within a two- to three-hour time window to be effective, epicatechin appeared to limit further neuronal damage when given to mice 3.5 hours after a stroke.” This is good news, considering that stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and if you’ve ever known anyone who survived, but suffered brain damage from a stroke, you know how devastating it can be to the entire family. Whenever you’re dealing with a stroke, every second count, so being able to extend the window of opportunity for successful treatment for as much as an hour is quite phenomenal. Being able to do it with a safe, natural compound is even better. How does it do it? According to the press release, the study “suggests that epicatechin stimulates two previously well-established pathways known to shield nerve cells in your brain from damage. When the stroke hits, your brain is ready to protect itself because these pathways are activated.” Interestingly, the mechanism of action appears to be an indirect one. Study author Sylvain Doré, Ph.D., is quoted as saying that, “Epicatechin itself may not be shielding brain cells from free radical damage directly, but instead, epicatechin, and its metabolites, may be prompting the cells to defend themselves.” This is a good thing because the epicatechin needed to “jump-start the protective pathway” is already present within your cells. So according to Doré, even a small amount of cacao may be sufficient to reap these protective health benefits.
Known Health Benefits of Pure CocoaWhile all flavonoids are antioxidants, some have stronger antioxidant properties than others, depending on their chemical structure. Raw cocoa powder ranks very high in terms of antioxidant properties and subsequent health benefits. For example, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that a cup of hot cocoa (using pure cocoa powder) had close to double the amount of antioxidants than a glass of red wine, more than double the amount of green tea, and four to five times more than black tea. Likewise, dark unprocessed chocolate has been exonerated in several studies as actually having some positive impact on your health, such as improving your:
- Glucose metabolism (diabetic control. In fact, one study showed that regular consumption of high-flavonol cocoa for one month improved participants’ diabetes as much as exercise and many common diabetic medications.)
- Blood pressure
- Cardiovascular system
Buyer Beware: Not All Chocolate is Created EqualIt’s important, however, to realize that the health benefits discussed above are mainly due to the high amounts of antioxidants present in the cocoa, and any time you process the cocoa, it loses its nutritional value. This is echoed by Dr. Doré, who warns that “the epicatechin found in dark chocolate is extremely sensitive to changes in heat and light. In the process of making chocolate, you have to make sure you don’t destroy it. Only a few chocolates have the active ingredient.” This means that the chocolate that offers the greatest health benefits is also the kind of chocolate that few people find truly mouthwatering, as it is very bitter – NOT sweet. Milk chocolate, therefore, rates very poorly in this regard as it is heavily processed. The typical commercial chocolate has less than half of its flavonoids remaining after processing. According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, in terms of healthy antioxidant content, cocoa powder is followed by:
- Unsweetened baking chocolate
- Dark chocolate
- Semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Milk chocolate
If you’re still tempted to grab milk chocolate, simply because it’s on the list, don’t. Because in addition to being already low in antioxidants, milk chocolate contains milk, which further cancels out chocolate’s antioxidant effects. And it’s typically loaded with sugar, which does will do far more harm than good to your cardiovascular system. Yet another little known concern about processed chocolate is lead content. Researchers have found that commercial chocolate can be contaminated with extremely high quantities of lead. It is currently unknown if this contamination is coming from the shipping or the manufacturing process. Whatever the cause might be, your best bet is to stick with dark, organic, unprocessed chocolate to minimize contamination risk. To maximize your health advantages from dark chocolate, I strongly recommend you stick to USDA Certified Organic chocolate because this is the best guarantee there is that the food has been organically grown and processed, from beginning to end. I searched long and hard to find one, and once I did, I decided to add it to my online store. It’s even Fair Trade Certified, which is a system of exchange that honors the chocolate producers, communities, consumers, and the environment.
How Much Dark Chocolate is a Healthy Amount?
One study published two years ago found that just 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day — a bit less than half a bar a week — represents the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Any more than that started to cancel out the benefits. Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular diseases ranging from myocardial infarction to stroke. The study found that those who ate dark chocolate regularly had an average of 17 percent reduction in C-reactive protein — enough to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by one-third in women and one-fourth in men.
How to Prevent a Stroke From Occurring in the First PlaceAlthough chocolate-derived antioxidants may help protect against brain damage were you to suffer a stroke, PREVENTING a stroke from occurring in the first place should clearly be your ultimate goal. Conventionally speaking, many of the same risk factors that increase your risk of heart disease also increase your risk of stroke, and these include things like:
- High blood pressure
- High triglycerides and elevated homocysteine levels
- Low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol
So will eating unprocessed, natural foods, exercising and keeping your weight at a healthy level help to reduce your risk of stroke? Absolutely. But while these are important factors, they are not the only ones. Very high up on the list of keys to preventing a stroke is to get a handle on your stress levels. For instance, a study in Neurology of over 20,600 people found that psychological distress will greatly increase your risk of suffering from a stroke. And, the more stressed you are, the greater your risk. The researchers actually found that for every notch lower a person scored on their well-being scale, their risk of stroke increased by 11 percent! Not surprisingly, the relationship between psychological distress and stroke was most pronounced when the stroke was fatal. So while you are making efforts to get your diet on the right track, and to stay physically active, please do not overlook the crucial importance of your emotional health.
Dr. Mercola – Organic Cocoa Butter
Cocoa butter is a natural moisturizer derived from the cocoa bean. Yes, it’s the same one that brings us chocolate! In many ways, cocoa butter is the ultimate moisturizer — helping to increase hydration, decrease skin roughness and scaling, and support UV damage control from overexposure to the sun. German scientists believe its benefits stem from cocoa flavanols, compounds prevalent in cocoa that has been shown to improve blood flow and vessel function. What’s more, cocoa butter is somewhat unique because it’s semi-occlusive. That means it forms a micro-thin barrier that seals in moisture while still allowing your skin to easily breathe. What’s more, it melts at body temperature so it is easily absorbed into your skin. Significantly, cocoa butter is believed to promote feelings of relaxation and well-being and is frequently used in aromatherapy massages. Recent research suggests that massaging your skin with cocoa butter can help relieve stress and boost your immune system.