Posted In:Health benefits of cocoa flavanols
Diet and lifestyle choices
Why you need flavanols
If you are reading this you are probably at risk of contracting one or more of the so called “western diet and lifestyle diseases” at some point in your life. This is true no matter where you live. The pervasive spread of western food and lifestyle into developing nations is increasing susceptibility to these diseases across the globe. This is no longer an exclusively “western” phenomenon.
Human beings have fairly specific needs when it comes to physical activity, sleep, sun exposure and diet. All living organisms do. These needs are genetically determined. Our genome is comprised of genes selected during the Paleolithic era which ended 11 000 years ago. It started over 2 million years ago.
Huge changes in diet and lifestyle occurred after the industrial revolution in western societies. These are too recent in evolutionary terms for the human genome to have even begun to adapt. There simply has not been enough time for the genetic adaptation which would allow us to thrive on a western diet and lifestyle.
The most common diseases measured by mortality in western societies are stroke, heart failure, diabetes and cancer. Countries with a western diet and lifestyle have a very high incidence of these diseases. Countries where the inhabitants lead more traditional lifestyles have very low incidence of these diseases. The correlation between western diet and lifestyle and these diseases is indisputable.
Because we are not genetically equipped to deal with these diseases we have had to find alternative solutions. These are treatment rather than prevention oriented. Drugs and surgery are fairly effective but are no guarantee of cure.
The lifestyle changes needed to prevent these diseases are also well known. Here is a short list of the basics:
- Complete change in diet
- 8 hours sleep per day
- An hour a day of reasonably strenuous exercise
- Stress management
- Controlled exposure to sunlight
- Avoid tobacco exposure
- Reduced exposure to pollutants
Most of these steps could be implemented with a certain amount of discipline. Others are more problematical considering busy and high demand work environments. Avoiding pollution could involve moving out of the city. Controlled exposure to sunlight might even involve moving state or country. Sourcing the correct ingredients for your diet could well be difficult.
Nonetheless, if you have the willpower and the desire you can reduce your chances of contracting any of these diseases very significantly. Or you could go with the 99% of us who do nothing and just hope we get away with it. It’s a choice.
But is it? Is there no middle ground here?
The middle ground
For a start, you could look at the list above and pull out some of the requirements that you can achieve without too much disruption in your life.
You could commit to three meals a week that comply with the diet rules.
You could find a running partner and set aside one evening a week for a three mile run.
You could certainly go to bed earlier.
You could set yourself a schedule of achievable goals that you can achieve without too much effort or disruption in your daily routine. Co-opt other members of your family to join you or at least police the commitments you have made.
So what’s next?
So let’s assume you have made some of the lifestyle changes described above (or even if you have not) is there something else can you do?
There is something else you can do to protect yourself against the diseases of our western lifestyle. It is not a catch all or a “vaccination” against these diseases. It is a dietary intervention which has been proven to provide remarkable health benefits.
Cocoa flavanols are an extract from the raw cacao bean. Flavanols are also found in many other plants but in cacao beans they are exceptionally concentrated. Epicatechin, one of the most valuable flavanols, is found in significant quantities in cacao beans.
The strong antioxidant properties of flavanols have been known about for some time. More importantly they have a remarkable ability to significantly improve blood flow.
Cocoa flavanols first came to prominence when Professor Norman Hollenberg of the Harvard Medical School conducted a study on the Kuna Indians living in the San Blas islands off the Pacific coast of Panama. Hollenberg was investigating hypertension (high blood pressure) and had heard the Kuna had a remarkable immunity to rising blood pressure as they aged. He suspected a genetic component. This turned out not to be the case. Overwhelming evidence pointed to the amount of minimally processed cocoa (and hence flavanols) they consumed. They harvested and prepared the cocoa themselves. See Cocoa and the Kuna
Very few of the Kuna die from the big four western diseases. Neither do they suffer from dementia or other mental impairment to any extent in old age.
The mechanism by which this is achieved is thought to be sustained nitric oxide synthesis activation. In layman’s terms this means the relaxation of blood vessel walls which permits improved blood flow. Flavanols also inhibit blood clotting by restricting platelet activity as well as mop up cholesterol. They are powerful antioxidants and target free radicals. They also chelate (combine with redox active metal ions to help expel them).
In short cocoa flavanols are the ultimate overhaul and maintenance agents for your circulatory system. Not only do they perform these functions but they have demonstrated a capacity to improve neuronal connections in an area of the brain (dentate gyrus) responsible for memory. See memory loss and cocoa flavanols
So do you need flavanols?
To be blunt, not many of us have the willpower or the time to materially alter our diet and lifestyle in ways which could protect us from the big diseases of a western diet and lifestyle. So, consider these factors
- Impaired circulation caused by western diet and lifestyle certainly plays a large part in the onset and development of these diseases
- Cocoa flavanols are proven to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow
- Cocoa flavanols have proven heart health benefits. See cocoa flavanols are good for the heart.
- The Kuna Indians who probably are high consumers of cocoa flavanols have very low incidence of the big western lifestyle diseases
- Cocoa flavanols have valuable antioxidant properties
If you are over 35 years old, lead a western lifestyle and eat a western diet then yes, you should be taking cocoa flavanols. Ideally combine this with some diet and lifestyle changes.
Cocoa Flavanols –
Three months ago I had never heard of cocoa flavanols. Then I came across a magazine article describing a study conducted at Columbia University where dietary cocoa flavanols were proved to reverse age-related memory decline in healthy older adults. Cognitive performance was also significantly increased. I was intrigued and started doing some research into cocoa flavanols.
I discovered that the health benefits of cocoa flavanols have been known about for some time (See Cocoa and the Kuna for some early history). However it was only recently that the technology became available to extract concentrated flavanols from the raw cocoa bean. Before this development the only way to ingest cocoa flavanols was to eat dark chocolate or drink high quality cocoa/chocolate. This provides flavanols, but in limited quantities because the processing of raw cocoa into chocolate destroys most of the flavanols. In general, dark chocolate contains more flavanols than milk chocolate which contain almost none, but even high quality dark chocolate cannot provide the quantities of flavanols required to produce the results above. You would need to eat 10 to 15 bars a day to come close.
The new technology produces a measurable flavanol concentrate and has thus enabled effective and accurate dosage. It has also prompted a host of studies. Many of the apparent health properties of dietary flavanols are turning out to be very real. They are also turning out to be extensive. They are mostly based around improved blood circulation. All tissue and every organ in the body benefit from that. Cocoa flavanols also have strong antioxidant properties and a remarkable property called perfusion which enable them to reach parts of the brain previously inaccessible. They are also very effective at controlling cholesterol.
Please do a search of your own to find out more about cocoa flavanols. You will find many articles, reports and studies on the subject. You can then make an informed decision on whether you need cocoa flavanols. Subscribe to get updates and news on new research.
The significance of cocoa flavanols
“The health benefits of epicatechin (flavanols), a compound found in cocoa, are so striking that it may rival penicillin and anesthesia in terms of importance to public health, reports Marina Murphy in Chemistry & Industry, the magazine of the SCI. Norman Hollenberg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told C&I that epicatechin is so important that it should be considered a vitamin.
Hollenberg has spent years studying the benefits of cocoa drinking on the Kuna people in Panama. He found that the risk of 4 of the 5 most common killer diseases: stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes, is reduced to less than 10% in the Kuna. They drink up to 40 cups of very lightly processed cocoa a week. Natural cocoa has high levels of epicatechin.
‘If these observations predict the future, then we can say without blushing that they are among the most important observations in the history of medicine,’ Hollenberg says. ‘We all agree that penicillin and anesthesia are enormously important. But epicatechin could potentially get rid of 4 of the 5 most common diseases in the western world, how important does that make epicatechin? I would say very important”
Find out more about cocoa flavanols and your health at our blog
Have you ever been aware of (or concerned about) memory loss? If you are over 45 and can answer no to these two questions you are in a minority. Memory loss, in some degree, is pretty much a reality for all of us as we enter middle age and beyond. Mostly it’s not much of a problem. It’s those “where did I put my keys?” or “what was that film called?” moments. We are aware of them but they don’t really concern us in the early stages.
Then, for some of us, these moments start becoming more frequent and begin to get a little irritating. For me it’s names. When someone I don’t know well greets me by my first name and I cannot respond in kind, that’s embarrassing. It forces me to actually acknowledge that my memory is no longer the obedient servant it once was.
I am now starting to notice other small things about my memory. I can still remember pretty much what I need to. It’s just that there is a small delay between me calling up something I need from my memory and it being delivered to my brain. It’s not a big deal right now, but it is another sign that my memory is on a downward trajectory. That’s a little depressing. Especially so when it seems to be accepted wisdom that memory loss is normal and we just have to live with it.
Severe and chronic memory loss
And then, of course, there are those who are suffering much more serious loss of memory. These are usually elderly people but not always. These are people for whom loss of memory is debilitating and affects the way they live their lives in many cases. They often end up relying on other people’s assistance in simple daily tasks. They also suffer extreme frustration as they involuntarily withdraw from involvement with friends and family. Memory plays a crucial part in how we interrelate with other human beings. This is often based on shared experience. When memory loss erases shared experience those relationships are gone.
Memory loss is also associated with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and sometimes the association is correct. More often than not memory loss is not associated with those diseases. If you are concerned there are some fairly obvious pointers which can help in making this type of diagnosis. Below this is a small test which will give you an idea.
What type of memory loss do you have?
|This is a very simple list of memory related symptoms which define some differences between old age type memory loss and early Alzheimer’s type memory loss
Courtesy of alz.org
Causes of memory loss
Outside of a specific disease like Alzheimer’s, memory loss can be caused a number of factors including:
- Poor sleep or lack of sleep
- Sleep Apnea and/or snoring
- Alcohol or drug use
- Medication (incl. sleeping pills, anti histamines, anti anxieties, antidepressants, painkillers, anti cholesterol, diabetes medication, statins)
- Nutritional deficiencies (lack of B12 especially)
- Head injury
- Infections (of brain including neurosyphilis)
- Brain tumor
Many of the causes listed above result in the brain (or parts of it) being starved of oxygen due to poor or restricted blood flow. The brain is especially vulnerable to blocked or reduced blood flow depriving it of oxygen and essential nutrients. This is commonly manifested in loss of memory and generally lower cognitive performance.
One conclusion which could be drawn from this is that if blood flow to the brain and specific areas within it can be improved or restored, improvements in memory and cognitive performance might result. A secondary and less obvious conclusion is that areas of the brain ‘damaged’ by oxygen and nutrient deprivation might be “healed” to an extent by a restoration of some blood flow to that area.
The Columbia test
“NEW YORK, NY (October 26, 2014)—Dietary cocoa flavanols—naturally occurring bioactives found in cocoa—reversed age-related memory decline in healthy older adults, according to a study led by Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) scientists.”
Columbia University Medical Centre Newsroom
“The study, published today in the advance online issue of Nature Neuroscience, provides the first direct evidence that one component of age-related memory decline in humans is caused by changes in a specific region of the brain and that this form of memory decline can be improved by a dietary intervention.”
The precursor to this study was work by Scott A. Small, MD which showed that that age related memory decline was associated with changes in a specific part of the brain called the Dentate Gyrus. Cocoa flavanols had earlier been shown to improve neuronal connections in the dentate gyrus of mice. So the CUMC scientists embarked on a study to see whether cocoa flavanols could improve the function of the human dentate gyrus and at the same time improve memory.
The study produced some quite remarkable results with special imaging techniques showing marked improvement in the dentate gyrus and marked improvement in memory and cognitive function. The improvements were very dose dependent with the subjects receiving the highest doses showing the most improvement. (incidentally the subjects also showed marked cardiovascular benefits)
“If a participant had the memory of a typical 60-year-old at the beginning of the study, after three months that person on average had the memory of a typical 30- or 40-year-old” said Dr. Small.
“When we imaged our research subjects’ brains, we found noticeable improvements in the function of the dentate gyrus in those who consumed the high-cocoa-flavanol drink,” said lead author Adam Brickman PhD.
So what does this mean?
Very simply this means that memory loss (when not related to diseases like Alzheimer’s) is treatable with cocoa flavanol concentrates. A lot of work still needs to be done in this area, but you can go ahead and take it. Because cocoa flavanols are a simple extract from raw Cacao beans (and not a manufactured drug) they are quite safe. If you have ever eaten dark chocolate you have already eaten cocoa flavanols. But you have never had the dosages necessary to achieve results like those in the test above.
The Kuna Indians (inadvertently) consume significant quantities of cocoa flavanols every day as part of their diet. They show remarkable health and are almost completely free from the western diseases associated with high blood pressure throughout their lives. You can read about the Kuna at this post. Cocoa and the Kuna Indians
If you would like to buy Cocoa Flavanol concentrate please visit our shop
Ageing and the common denominator
How do you feel about the prospect of getting old, or older? It’s not a great feeling is it? There are a whole bunch of categories into which you can put the various negative aspects of ageing. But by far the biggest of them would be the one called health.
You could fill that category with the diseases and ailments of old age. You also know that you will suffer from at least some of them as you age. But is this necessarily the case? Can preventative action be taken to sidestep at least some of them as we get older. Fortunately that’s not as wild as it seems on the face of it. The thing here that works in our favour is the fact that almost all the health pitfalls of ageing stem from a single root cause. That cause is poor circulation. Deal with poor circulation and you have the key for healthy ageing in your hand.
Circulation and health
As we get older our circulatory system often becomes compromised. There are a number of different mechanisms that affect blood vessel function. They can be genetic, environmental, dietary and/or lifestyle factors. They are also cumulative, so become more severe over time and tend to manifest themselves later in life. They are aggravated by a typically less active lifestyle as we get older which also causes circulatory issues.
It starts with a build-up of cholesterol-containing plaque within artery walls. This causes a progressive narrowing and hardening of the arteries. This restricts the flow of blood through the artery and raises blood pressure.
In the worst cases it can lead to the formation of blood clots, or thrombosis. Blood clots can obstruct the artery where they form, or may break off and lodge elsewhere in the circulatory system. This can be life-threatening if a blood clot blocks an artery that supplies a vital organ such as the heart, causing a heart attack. If the artery supplies the brain, a stroke will result.
Ageing and poor circulation
But, leaving aside this worst case scenario, poor circulation leads to most of ailments and conditions we consider to be a normal part of ageing.
- As less blood reaches the extremities (mainly legs, feet, fingers) this leads to pain and swelling. This in turn compromises mobility.
- Reduced sub cutaneous blood flow leads to thinner, weaker and wrinkled skin.
- Lower blood flow to the eyes compromises eyesight.
- Perhaps most seriously, compromised blood flow to the brain reduces cognitive performance and memory. Dementia is an ever increasing phenomenon as populations age. This has also been linked to reduced blood supply to the brain.
Remarkably, cocoa flavanols have shown a characteristic called “perfusion”. This plays a role in accessing areas of the brain previously inaccessible due to the blood brain barrier. This could prove significant in future treatment or prevention of dementia and diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Flavanols and healthy ageing
Cocoa flavanols have a protective effect on vascular health by stopping or reducing a number of processes which lead to compromised circulation.
- Inhibiting the oxidation of bad cholesterol by free radicals which is an important initial step in the formation of plaque.
- Reducing the tendency for small blood cells, called platelets, to bind together and form blood clots. This is sometimes described as an ‘aspirin’ effect.
- Regulating inflammatory and immune responses in blood vessel walls.
- Regulating vascular tone, or degree of constriction of small blood vessels by relaxing the vessel walls, thus reducing blood pressure. See this article – Cocoa Flavanols in the body for more information.
In producing these beneficial effects, cocoa flavanols appear to act through a range of different mechanisms. Some are well understood, others are being researched. In summary, healthy blood circulation is essential to transport freshly oxygenated blood and nutrients to all organs and tissue in the human body. When that supply line is compromised, health is compromised.
Cocoa flavanols are antioxidants
Apart from the circulatory benefits of cocoa flavanols many health benefits associated with flavanols are linked to their activity as antioxidants. Antioxidants are a powerful defense mechanism against ‘free radicals’, which are small molecules generated during normal metabolic processes. Excessive free radical production causes damage to cells and their components. This is thought to have a key role in the ageing process and causing degenerative and age-related diseases. Flavanols act as antioxidants by ‘mopping up’ free radicals in cells and limiting the damage they cause.
This is hugely important in the context of prevention of atherosclerosis, cancer, inflammatory joint disease, asthma, diabetes, senile dementia, degenerative eye disease and many others.
The process of biological ageing might also have a free radical basis.
“The human species is not genetically adapted to survive past middle age, and it appears that antioxidant supplementation of our diet is needed to ensure a more healthy elderly population.”
Centre for Environmental and Health Science Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW
Let’s face it, lifestyle changes are nearly always painful and difficult to maintain. That does not mean you should not attempt them. Take small steps and make sure you have thoroughly ingrained the new habit before you attempt the next one.
But aside from modifying our lifestyles and habits to help achieve healthy ageing you now have a powerful weapon on your side. Cocoa Flavanols not only help prevent the diseases of old age, they play a very active role in treating them. No matter where you fall on the age scale, if you are worried about or already experiencing old age, you now have access to a supplement which could play a big part in the quality of the rest of your life.
How flavanols affect your skin’s health
There is a growing awareness worldwide that skin appearance is as dependent on a healthy diet as it is on products applied externally. The “beauty from within” philosophy is gaining the following it deserves. There is a burgeoning industry built around dietary supplements which target skin health and by definition, appearance. The logic is good. The extent to which skin products applied externally can penetrate the skin is limited. It’s a little like putting an aspirin on top of your head when you have a headache…..
Skin health, like the health of every other organ in the body is dependent on healthy blood flow. Increase in sub cutaneous blood flow improves skin texture by increasing skin density and thickness. Skin hydration is also improved. Cocoa flavanols increase your subcutaneous blood flow.
Flavanols and UV
A test at the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf revealed that female participants taking a flavanol supplement at moderate levels (326mg per day) over 12 weeks showed a 25% reduction in skin response to the effects of UV light as compared to a control group taking a lower level of flavanols.
Cocoa flavanols are reported to absorb UV light which may have contributed to this reduction in sensitivity. Their capacity to scavenge reactive oxygen species might also play a part. These free radicals are formed in response to UV light exposure.
During the same test the participants taking the higher dosage of flavanols showed a marked increase in subcutaneous blood flow with the attendant benefits mentioned earlier.
“This study demonstrates that the regular consumption of a beverage rich in flavanols can confer substantial photoprotection as well as help maintain skin health by improving skin structure and function.” wrote the researchers in the Journal of Nutrition. (326mg per day) over 12 weeks showed a 25% reduction in skin response to the effects of UV light as compared to a control group taking a lower level of flavanols.
Skin health in Summary…..
Flavanols can protect skin against UV induced damage at the molecular and cellular level and may well improve overall skin quality. Regular intake can help maintain skin health by improving skin structure and function. The photoprotective effects are moderate, but contribute to permanent, overall protection.
Sub cutaneous blood flow can be increased significantly by up to 1.8 times base level by consumption of cocoa flavanols at moderate dosages. The maintenance of skin integrity requires an optimal supply of nutrients and improved blood flow will provide this.
Chocolate and flavanols
Healthy chocolate sounds too good to be true and chocolate hasn’t quite gained the status of health food yet. Chocolate’s reputation is certainly on the rise, as a growing number of studies suggest that it can be a healthy choice.
The questions here are:
– Are the health benefits of chocolate that some tests have shown entirely due to the flavanol content of the chocolate?
– Are there other ingredients in chocolate which have beneficial health effects?
– What chocolate should I be eating?
Let’s look at what chocolate is:
Firstly, all commercial chocolate has ingredients that add fat, sugar and calories to your diet. Eating these things in excess is never going to be a good idea. It can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. Secondly, these ingredients are sometimes of low quality. This is usually (but not always) the case with cheaper brands of chocolate. Sometimes the ingredients are so bad they can lead to other serious diseases including cancer.
Here are some of the dangerous ingredients in some chocolates you should look out for by reading the packaging on your chocolate bar –
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) – this is a chemically refined sugar which can lead to obesity
Partially Hydrogenated Oils- (aka. Trans fat) significant risk of heart disease
Artificial Colours – often contain carcinogens and linked to hyperactivity in children
Artificial Flavours – usually used to hide or disguise the flavour of low quality chocolate
If you see any of these ingredients on a chocolate bar wrapper, don’t buy it.
How do I find quality chocolate?
There are many brands of chocolate out there which are high quality and pose no health risk unless consumed in excess. They all contain cocoa and thus contain flavanols. So in theory at least, you can get some flavanols by eating quality chocolate and especially quality dark chocolate.
A typical 100g bar of dark chocolate contains 55mg of flavanols. A milk chocolate bar of the same size contains 14mg of flavanols. A higher percentage of cacao (cocoa) means a higher amount of flavanols, so look at that information on the wrapper. Look for cacao percentages in excess of 70%.
However, not all cocoas are processed the same way and if you see the words ‘processed with alkali’ on the nutrition label the cocoa will contain very few flavanols. This process is sometimes called ‘Dutching’.
Look for the ‘100% organic’ and ‘Fair Trade’ information on the packaging. This is a great indication of quality.
When it comes to cocoa/chocolate drinks use the same quality criteria to choose your brand. There is also a possibility that heat can negatively affect the flavanols so rather take these drinks cold. You will get some flavanols from these drinks
In summary, quality dark chocolate bars and drinks have become acceptable snacks for health conscious people. They also taste great and will give you some flavanols. Some reports also indicate that eating quality dark chocolate is an effective appetite suppressant, helps in dealing with stress and combats diarrhoea. These effects might also be due to flavanols, but if they are real, who cares? Go ahead and indulge in moderation.
So what is the bad news?
The bad news is that to get any real benefits from cocoa flavanols you need to take them at larger dosages than are readily available from chocolate bars. Studies where real measurable benefits like memory and cognitive function improvements have been observed, have used daily dosages of 500 – 900mg flavanols to achieve these results. You would need to eat at least 10 bars of quality dark chocolate a day to begin to achieve these levels.
To achieve the real benefits that flavanols can offer you need to take a concentrated supplement. This is available now because the technology exists to extract flavanols from raw cacao beans where they are found in the greatest concentrations. Cocoallegro is a cocoa flavanol concentrate.
The Kuna Indian tribe live on the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama. They are a very interesting example of the effects of a high flavanol diet. They drink up to 40 cups a week of a drink made from very slightly processed cocoa beans. They ingest huge quantities of flavanols in this way and exhibit health characteristics which are quite extraordinary.
When Kuna leave the islands and go to mainland Panama where they are deprived of their cocoa drink, they soon fall victim to the diseases and disorders the islanders seem to be immune from. These are same diseases that afflict most westerners as they get older.
The good news is that you can now access cocoa flavanols in high concentrations. Cocoallegro is a very affordable source of concentrated flavanols. (You can also eat a bar of high quality dark chocolate occasionally to celebrate) 🙂
If you would like to buy Cocoa Flavanol concentrate please visit our shop