Happy Thursday internet-izens. Thursdays are for swimming in the land of Marathonsam. I’m still in recovery-mode from my marathon on Sunday; swimming is a great no-impact cross training activity. I love the way the water soothes my body; the cyclical, repetitive motions inherent to swimming laps facilitate finding flow and turning off my over-analytical brain. Swimming is a treat for me. Today my swimming may have been a treat for any astute observers. When I got out of the pool I discovered that I perpetrated a little “wardrobe malfunction,” courtesy of a torn seam in a VERY inopportune location.
Yes, apparently I treated the lifeguards to a maximal display of my gluteus Maximus for 2100 yards this morning. I think I need to redeem myself and reward myself after a brush with public indecency. When the going gets tough, the tough get going; when the swimsuit gets torn, the swimmer tears right into a giant bar of chocolate. Then the swimmer feels really good about this decision, because chocolate is SUPER-good for him, and some scientists in Louisiana just found out one more reason why!
The health benefits of chocolate are almost old news at this point. Cocoa is high in flavonols, antioxidants, caffeine, and theobromines. It’s good for your body and your brain. Chocolate also tastes delicious, and is a perfectly acceptable accompaniment to any meal.
Theobromines and caffeine each act on the same pathways in your brain to make you more alert and elevate your mood. Caffeine is more stimulatory, but it also raises your blood pressure. A recent study showed that the combination of caffeine and theobromine, analogous to the mixture in chocolate, produces all of the beneficial stimulatory effects without raising blood pressure. Dark chocolate consumption has been shown to lower bloodstream cortisol and epinephrine (stress hormones) levels in response to tense situations. So chocolate perks you up without freaking you out. Maybe if I had eaten dark chocolate before my swim this morning, I would have been more alert to the developing draft near my derriere, and less stressed out about it afterwards.
The antioxidants in cocoa protect your cells from the harmful effects of free radicals and reactive oxygen species. These are molecules that just like to party, they’ll get their chemistry on with any old protein or chunk of DNA.
This can lead to cellular damage, and a whole host of problems down the line including premature aging. Free radical can also cause mutations in the DNA, which can potentially lead to cancer. Flavonoids are molecular wet-blankets: they shut that free radical party DOWN. An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but a piece of chocolate a day deliciously prevents free radicals at play from harming your body.
Finally, chocolate has been shown to alleviate hardening of the arteries, improve blood vessel function, and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease in numerous studies. The dirty little secret is that no one could figure out exactly how chocolate had such beneficial effects. Scientists credited the high flavonoid and flavonol levels in dark chocolate as cardio-protectants; however, this model doesn’t make a huge amount of sense given the chemistry of the intestines. The flavonols in chocolate are big-huge-enormous molecules–they don’t really get taken up all that well by human intestines. How could these charismatic compounds be helping us out if we can’t even absorb them in the first place?
I’ll give you a hint…on this blog the answer is always bacteria.
Yes! Our good old gut microbiome comes to the rescue! John Finley‘s group at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center recently demonstrated that our friends Bifidobacteria and the Lactic-acid producing bacteria living in our small intestine break down polyphenolic compounds into smaller, more easily absorbed nutrients. He reported these findings at the most recent meeting of the American Chemical Society. These specific break-down products have anti-inflammatory properties, they also offer protection from heart-disease and stroke. Bifidobacteria and Lactic acid bacteria are thought of as the “good” bacteria in the human microbiome; by eating chocolate you are feeding them and encouraging them to thrive and outcompete the “bad” bacteria, it just so happens that while they are munching down on those delicious chocolate polyphenols they are producing a cornucopia of compounds to help you out.
So treat yourself this Thursday! Eat some chocolate, enjoy the mood enhancement, and delicious flavor. Be content knowing that you are helping out your heart. Say thank you to the bacteria in your gut for turning this treat into treatment.
Have a GREAT day!