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Cocoa flavanols and their reverse-aging benefits (review)

Scientists have known for decades about the healing properties of cocoa, but recent studies show that the flavonoids in chocolate can be good for your brain as well.

Reversing memory loss, at that.

The study, put out by Columbia University, found reverse-aging and memory decline effects with cocoa flavanols.

Then, Time and Forbes ran stories about the dietary supplement, bringing the substance to all-time stardom:

It blew up. Just like weight-loss or neuro-substances blow up after getting on Oz (see Forskolin), sometimes it takes a few prolific news outlets to let the secret out…

Here’s a thorough overview of how cocoa flavonols can help your body and mind – and why scientists believe it could hold significant promise in the treatment of heart disease and memory loss.

What Are Cocoa Flavonols?

Cocoa powder (also known as cocoa solids) is the main natural source of cocoa flavonoid, a compound that provides a number of health benefits.  While other foods also contain flavonols, the amount present in cocoa makes it a definite winner. In fact, according to the Pennington Biochemical Research Center, “over 10% of the weight of cocoa powder consists of flavonoids.”

The flavonols in cocoa are reduced during cooking and processing, so choosing raw, natural cocoa is best when trying to take advantage of its healing properties.

How Can Cocoa Flavonoids Help You?

Cocoa flavonoids have been extensively studied for their potential benefits in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. In a systematic review published in the journal of Nutrition & Metabolism, researchers looked at 136 publications to determine the effects of chocolate and cacao on cardiovascular health (1).

The results: The analysis concluded that “intake of flavonoids may lower risk of CHD mortality.” This is because cocoa flavonols can help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and decrease LDL oxidation.

Additional research reviewed by the Cochrane Library also found that flavonols can slightly reduce high blood pressure (2).

Although consuming cocoa flavonols did not produce the same results as taking blood-pressure medication, it did lower blood pressure by 2-3 points – the same amount other lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, could also provide. Because high blood pressure is a significant factor in cardiovascular events and strokes, the researchers estimated that regular intake of cocoa flavonols could help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Other studies have also achieved similar results. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that cocoa flavonoids offer significant antioxidant properties, which in turn offer vascular tone protection and are essential for the health of the cardiovascular system (3)

In addition, cocoa flavonols might have additional benefits, including:

  • Preventing the formation of blood clots in a very similar way aspirin does
  • Helping reduce inflammation of blood vessel walls
  • Regulating the constriction of blood vessels. This is known as vascular tone regulation and it has a direct impact on blood pressure
  • Helping increase HDL (good) cholesterol and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
  • Improving resistance to insulin. This is important because insulin helps regulate glucose (blood sugar), helping reduce the risk of diabetes

While commercial chocolate bars can be high in sugar and fat, pure dark chocolate is much healthier. So much, in fact, that WebMD points out that consumption of flavonoid-rich cocoa does not have a negative impact on triglycerides. This is a very important finding, as high levels of triglycerides are directly connected to artery disease and increase the risk of heart disease.

Why Else You Should Consider Using Cocoa Flavanols

A 2013 study by the Department of Neurology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that cocoa flavonols can do more than protect the heart. They can also boost neuronal activity in the brain, improving cognition.

The study  looked at 60 participants with a mean age of 72.9 years (4). During the study, the patients were either giving a flavonol-rich cocoa drink or a drink low in flavonoids. Both groups drank two cups of the assigned drink a day.

The results were clear: those taking the flavonol-rich cocoa showed signs of improvement in cerebral arterial blow food, but they also did better on cognition tests.

This could be an important discovery for scientists trying to address vascular function in people at a risk of developing dementia. In fact, it could potentially become a potential treatment for those losing cognitive performance as they age or as a result of illness or disease.

A more recent study confirms these findings, where scientists pointed out that “flavonols reverse mild memory loss in older adults” (5). So much, in fact, that the scientists behind the study are saying that cocoa flavonols can have a significant impact on the area of the brain that affects memory.

This study could potentially lead to future treatments for age-related memory loss and memory formation. The bad news, so far, is that the amount of flavonoids contained in a commercial chocolate bar are almost microscopic – meaning that those interested should either consumed pure cocoa or wait for a supplement offering the healthy compound in significant quantities.

For example, a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed that alkalizing (a process cocoa goes through during processing) significantly reduces the amount of flavonols present in chocolate (6) This is why picking the right type of chocolate is essential to get the proper health benefits.

Other Health Benefits

Studies have shown cocoa flavonols to contain compounds that can protect the skin from UV damage. For example, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that high flavanol cocoa has an effect on skin hydration and skin density due to a more efficient blood flow in subcutaneous tissues (7) This in turn helps protect the skin against the skin roughness and scaling that result from prolonged sun exposure.

Although more research is needed to confirm this, cocoa flavonols might also be useful in treating chronic fatigue syndrome and as a cough-suppressant. In fact, research conducted by Winchester Hospital in Massachusetts revealed that theobromine, a bitter alkaloid present in cacao, can help suppress coughs caused by irritants, such as capsaicin (8).

Dosage, Side Effects and Where to Buy

Because supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), manufacturers in the US don’t have to meet any specific standards. This means many nutrients, including cocoa flavonols, can be sold in different formulations, dosages and combinations.

There is also no standard dosage for cocoa flavonols, although the amounts used in research vary between 30 and 500 mg per day. These amounts can be considered safe and might need to be adjusted depending on your age, health and what condition you are trying to address.

The best source of cocoa flavonols is dark chocolate. Raw chocolate, organic chocolate and brands that are subjected to low processing (and contain few additives) might contain as much as 2,000 mg of flavonols in a single 100 g serving. Chocolate candy bars, white chocolate and other types of highly processed chocolate products often contain very little to no flavonols.

Cocoa is generally safe to consume. People who are sensitive to caffeine might experience side effects from ingesting large amounts of chocolate. These can include everything from anxiety and insomnia to heartburn, palpitations, and gastritis. The caffeine in chocolate can also interact with a number of prescription medications, including MAO inhibitors, Ritalin and other stimulant medications, and certain sleeping medications.

SOURCES:

http://www.pbrc.edu/training-and-education/pdf/pns/PNS_Cocoa_Polyphenols.pdf

http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/809158

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16390538

http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=144581

http://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20110323/cocoa-rich-in-health-benefits

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