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Published On: Mon, Dec 19th, 2011

Dark Chocolate…

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Cell Protection, Circulatory Enhancement…and…a Healthy Aphrodisiac Too!!!!

 –by Dr. Bob Berger, MS, MVSc, PhD

For years, it has been well-recognized that not only does dark chocolate act on the body as a powerful anti-oxidant with the capabilities of protecting our cells and cellular membranes from free radical attack, but it is also believed to have true aphrodisiac powers…which presently in the world of laboratory-derived sexual enhancers and stimulants, many of which are not only controversial, but also have many innate dangers and/or adverse side-effects…is quite a boon!!!! 

The one thing that we know for sure about dark chocolate is that it contains high levels of powerful antioxidants called flavanols.   Flavanols protect our bodies from free radical attack by acting like “shields” that fend them off by “absorbing the hit“… so to speak.  Our bodies are constantly producing these free radicals due to a continuous cellular attack by both internally-produced biochemical reactions and their by-products, as well as by the many external/environmental chemicals, toxins, poisons, etc., that reap havoc upon our organs, tissues, cells, and cellular membranous  structures.  As we age, we are exposed to more and more of these continuous attacks by these unstable radicals, and thus, as time goes by, our immune systems have a harder time trying to fend them off.  These free-radicals are unstable molecules that try to “stabilize” themselves by attacking and grabbing electron groups from our cells and tissues, thus, damaging them considerably. Although this attack may be quite subtle, the long-term effects are cumulative… and eventually, will, if allowed to do so, break our bodily systems down. 

Have you ever looked at the wrinkled, puckered skin tissue surrounding the mouth of a 20-year chain smoker, or the overly shriveled skin of many [even not so old] folks who have spent far too many hours “baking” in the sun?  The smoke, nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes, and the ultra-violet ray attack over long periods of time, are prime examples of what free-radical attack can do, not only to the appearance of many individuals, but also to their internal physiological function and overall health.  This is what is meant when you hear the old adage about how smoking and sitting the sun “ages” one prematurely.  

The beneficial effects of eating dark chocolate, (although keeping this under control and consuming dark chocolate in moderation, as this is such an “energy-dense” food and high in “good” fat, and, (most importantly), is a great substitute for less healthy desserts or snacks, (i.e., milk chocolate, donuts, cookies, cake, etc…)), reach well  beyond just its antioxidant properties; dark chocolate has been shown to have research-backed benefits in the arena of cardiovascular health and circulatory function. In a recent study, [Langer, S. and Marshall, L.J., et.al., (2011) “Flavanols and Methylxanthines in Commercially Available Dark Chocolate: A Study of the Correlation with Nonfat Cocoa  Solids”. J. Agric. Food Chem., 59, 8435], it was shown that when testing twelve (12) commonly consumed brands of dark chocolate, every one of these brands tested contained significantly higher levels of total flavanols, [using the powerful flavanol, epicatechin via HPLC analysis], than either milk chocolate or white chocolate.  When included in the diet, epicatechin and other similar derivatives are known to not only reduce the risk of coronary disease, but have also been shown to improve endothelial cellular function and health, alleviate aortic stiffness, and increase the “oxidant status” in healthy volunteers, [Vlactiapoulos, C. and Aznaouridis, K., et. al., (2005) “Effects of Dark Chocolate on Arterial Function in Healthy Individuals”. Amer. J. Hypertens., 18, 785].    

Results of human dietary intervention trials provide scientific evidence that cocoa flavanols from dark chocolate have positive vascular effects, and that the regular consumption of these flavanol-containing products may indeed reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), improve endothelial and platelet function, heighten immune modulation, as well as lower   blood pressure, [Heptinstall, S. and May, J., et. al., (2006) “Cocoa Flavanols and Platelet and Leukocyte Function: Recent In Vitro and Ex Vivo Studies in Healthy Adults”.  J. cardiovasc. Pharmacol., 47, Suppl 2: S197]. 

Erdman & Carson, (University of Illinois, Urbana), reported that the consumption of cocoa flavanols from dark chocolate aided in the lowering and/or modulation of blood pressure, an integral factor in cardiovascular (CV) health, [Erdman, J.W. and Carson, L., et.al., (2008) “Effects of Cocoa Flavanols on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease”.  Asia Pac. J. Clin. Nutr., 17, Suppl. 1: 284]Allen & Carson, (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign),  showed that in a double blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over study, evaluating the efficacy of daily consumption of a cocoa flavanol-containing dark chocolate bar (with added plant sterols), presented a lowering of serum lipids, (circulating  fat in the blood serum), a lowering and/or stability of blood pressure, and improvements in other circulating CV health markers in a population with elevated serum cholesterol.  Over a two (2) month period, results indicated that the regular consumption of dark chocolate bars containing plant sterols and cocoa flavanols as part of a low-fat diet, may support CV health by lowering cholesterol and improving, (i.e., lowering), blood pressure, [Allen, R.R. and Carson, L., et al. (2008) “Daily Consumption of a Dark Chocolate  Containing Flavanols and Added Sterol Esters Affects Cardiovascular Risk Factors in a Normotensive Population with Elevated Cholesterol”.  J. Nutr., 138, 725].  

In a most recent, and extremely critical study out of Yale University, [Katz, D.L., Doughty, K, and Ali, A. (2011) “Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease”.  Antioxid. Redox Signal., 15, 2779], the investigators found that the consumption of cocoa in dark chocolate has a profound,  [and significantly positive], impact on vascular (blood vessel) endothelium tissue by up-regulating and/or increasing Nitric Oxide (NO) production.  (NO is produced by the body as a cellular-signaling molecule involved in many physiological processes; most importantly here…for the vasodilation of blood vessels and regulated increase in blood flow and circulation to the heart, tissues, muscles, etc.Other cardiovascular effects are mediated by dark chocolate consumption through the anti-inflammatory actions of the inherent cocoa polyphenols, and modulated through the activity of Nuclear Factor-KappaB (NF-kB).  (NF-kB is a transcription factor protein primarily involved in stress-induced, immune and inflammatory responses; it is one of the factors responsible for regulating and controlling cell fate and programmed-cellular death, (i.e., apoptosis of cancer cells.) Thus, dark chocolate may stimulate the changes observed in redox-sensitive signaling pathways involved with gene expression and immune response.   

           Finally…the aphrodisiac properties and effects of dark chocolate…should never be left out!!!!  Phenylethylamine (PEA) is a compound, inherent in dark chocolate, which when consumed and absorbed by the digestive tract, increases the release of dopamine (D) by the hypothalamus.  In a study out of Japan, [Murata, M. and Katagiri, N., et al., (2009) “Effect of Beta-Phenylethylamine on extracellular concentrations of Dopamine in the Nucleus Accumbens and Prefrontal Cortex”. Brain Res., 1269, 40],  the investigators showed that upon intraperitoneal administration of varying doses of PEA  to rat models, extracellular D in the prefrontal cortex significantly increased. The IP administration of PEA also caused stimulation of D release in the nucleus accumbens, most probably by uptake via an extracellular D transporter.  Yes, it is a rat study, and yes, this sounds like a lot of scientific spin, but here’s the bottom line:

a. PEA is a psychomotor-stimulating trace amine which increases the release of D. 

b. D is a neurotransmitter produced by several parts of the brain including the substantia nigra, the ventral tegmental area, and the nucleus accumbens.  Released by the hypothalamus, D has numerous systemic, autonomic, and behavioral functions.  For our interests here though, the release of D is of vital importance in sexual function and gratification. 

c. Besides the hypothalamic release of D, it appears that PEA consumption/administration increases D concentration in both the nucleus accumbens, (a region of the brain responsible for reward, pleasure, addiction, fear), and the prefrontal cortex, (responsible for behavioral changes, decision making, and social behavior).  These two areas of “Executive Functions” are also responsible for the control of “right” and “wrong” decisions, with many of these decisions concerning “sexual behavior”. {Many psychiatrists,  psychologists, and brain scientists believe that some select sociopaths may have physiological abnormalities in these regions of the brain, which may explain their dysfunctional outlook and actions.}  

d.  When an increased release of D occurs, both sympathetic as well as the parasympathetic actions take place.  Although both autonomic systems are important for increased sexual desire to occur, the parasympathetic nervous system is the one primarily responsible for enhanced desire as well as sexual function.  An increase in blood flow occurs in both male and female genitalia and their sexual-response tissues.  After this takes place, both autonomic systems control the different emotional as well as psychological actions, brought on by increased dopamine release and attachment to D receptors at synaptic terminals…this allows for the perceived heightened euphoric state

There is also the functioning of NO, now released in greater concentration due to the effects of dark chocolate consumption, as discussed earlier in the article.  Because NO is a vasodilator of blood vessels, it does affect many regions of the penis, mainly the cavernous muscle and the corpus cavernosum…by increasing blood flow via the major blood vessel and relaxation of the surrounding muscle.  This increased blood flow causes the obvious, but it also stimulates/mildly irritates the cavernous tissue, which by itself, is a sexual stimulator due to a positive feedback mechanism to the brain and spinal cord.  This is also  very effective for woman and their libido and stimulation. Not only is there increased blood flow, (due to vasodilatation), to the vaginal area, but along with this, woman may also experience a slight irritation in the vagina and surrounding tissue, (due to slight vessel stretching ), which acts as a very positive (and safe) libido inducer and sexual stimulant.  





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