Nibble nibble. It is known by many names - cacao, cacaoyer, chocol, xocolatl, Theobroma cacao and, of course, chocolate. Enjoyed by many over millennia as a luscious delicacy, we sip, crunch, chomp and melt it scrumptiously away on our tongues, enjoying its gratifying and pleasurable comfort. Well, most of us. There are some out there who find chocolate as delectable as licorice or Brussels sprouts or okra. But to each their own.That said, chocolate has recently been recognized as a significant source of many constituents with promising health benefits, such as the antioxidant compounds catechin and procyanidin, or the platelet-inhibiting (blood clot preventive) or lipid-lowering cocoa flavonols and the medicinal possibilities that follow. Most of you will not need any excuses to indulge in another morsel of a favorite sweet, but as in most things, moderation is prudent and can make for a very enjoyable and health-giving ritual.The customary uses of chocolate are varied. According to Natural Standard, a web-based authority on integrative medicine, "Traditionally, cocoa formulations have been used as antiseptics, diuretics, ecbolics, emmenagogues, and parasiticides, as well as to treat alopecia (hair loss), burns, cough, dry lips, eye problems, fever, diarrhea, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, parturition, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds. Cocoa butter has also been used to treat wrinkles on the skin, to prevent stretch marks (particularly during pregnancy), and as a compounding base for various pharmaceutical preparations, including rectal suppositories."The Mayans in particular elevated xocolatl to near-legendary status, imbuing it with cayenne peppers and cinnamon, using it as a hot drink in ceremony. Thus the origins of hot chocolate likely began.The scientific evidence behind its medicinal uses is new, but growing. Some promising new studies have shown skin-protective, wound-healing, and insect-repelling abilities of cocoa constituents applied topically. However, the best confirmation of traditional use is in the realm of heart health. Exaggerated consumption of cocoa butter has been shown to actually lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol. In human trials, dark chocolate lowered serum LDL cholesterol in those with essential hypertension (high blood pressure). In young male athletes, eating bioflavonoid-rich milk chocolate was demonstrated to significantly lower plasma LDL cholesterol levels as well. Cocoa also ironically shows an ability to lower blood pressure, this being odd only because of the known caffeine content, which can easily raise blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) in susceptible people when over-consumed. This won't come as much surprise to someone who has eaten a bar of chocolate and then attempted to go straight to bed. No, this latter habit is probably best left for lovers and those who don't mind staying up a few extra hours.There are some who need to be extra-cautious around over-consumption of chocolate. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers will notice the effects of caffeine strongly and potentially even directly on their babies. Infants had more colic on days in which breastfeeding mothers reported eating chocolate, and breast tenderness has been associated with chocolate use in a human trial. One mother who stated that she drank 4-5 cups of coffee and 2-3.5-liter bottles of cola in addition to occasional tea and cocoa daily, and reported jitteriness in her 6-week-old breastfed infant. This subsided in her child two weeks after she stopped this adrenaline ride (whew!). Chocolate often contains large amounts of sugar, so sensitive individuals like those with diabetes will also need to be careful. Dark chocolate can surprisingly contain dairy, so it's best to read labels.Some people on certain medications, particularly MAO inhibitors for depression, those with anti-coagulant and anti-platelet activity and anti-hypertensives also need to be cautious with their chocolate consumption because of interactions with the caffeine. However, theobromine in chocolate may actually prove beneficial for depression, if not used heavily along with medications. Of course, ask your provider if you have any concerns about medications interfering with your chocolate intake.Interestingly, in lab and human studies alike, theobromine has also been shown to suppress a capsaicin-induced cough (found in cayenne pepper). It also directly reduced pain. Theoretically, a large intake of cocoa products (containing greater than 400mg of caffeine daily) may increase acetaminophen and aspirin effectiveness by up to 40%, due to cocoa's caffeine content.Another curious study indicated that chocolate contained unsaturated N-acylethanolamines, which may activate cannabinoid receptors, the same as those acted upon by cannabis. This may begin to explain why many feel heightened sensitivity and euphoria.In the end, most of us are going to be able to eat sensible amounts of chocolate without any concern, and can instead focus on the pleasures it brings. I like nibbling away when I work at my computer, and I can say that chocolate (70% dark, actually) has helped me successfully bring this article here to print.------------------------Dr. Christopher Lepisto graduated as a naturopathic doctor (ND) from Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. He is a native of Grand Junction and opened his practice here in 2004. Previously, Lepisto lived and worked in New Zealand, where he developed a special interest in indigenous herbal medicines. For more information, visit www.grandjunctionnaturopath.com or call 970-250-4104.
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