The Pros and Cons of Chocolate
Chocolate has long been a controversial treat in our culture. Over-indulgence has been demonized, said to cause everything from acne to obesity to diabeties. On the other hand, some more recent studies seem to suggest that chocolate - especially dark chocolate - has some health benefits as well. Additionally, some effects formerly attributed to chocolate may be incorrect.
Here, we'll explore both sides of the issue, the "light and dark" of chocolate. Each individual will have to examine his or her own scenario to decide whether chocolate is something that should be in their diet and in what quantity, but we'll at least separate the scientific speculation from the wives' tales.
The Dark Side of Chocolate
The majority of chocolate's harmful effects on the body are actually caused by added ingredients like artificial sugars and other chemicals. Unarguably, the healthiest form of chocolate is organic dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or greater. However, the cocoa bean itself still has some down sides. There are several chemicals contained in chocolate that have proven controversial in the medical and scientific communities.
Come to the dark side...
In studies, people who were given high doses of caffeine "experienced the release of higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in response to physical and mental stress. Elevated cortisol levels are known to decrease the ability of your immune system to fight infections" (Smith).
The amounts of caffeine are negligible for most people. "[A] 1.55 ounce HERSHEY'S milk chocolate bar contains about 12 mg of caffeine -- the amount of caffeine in about 3 cups of decaffeinated coffee. A serving of HERSHEY'S chocolate syrup contains about 5 mg of caffeine" ("Caffeine..."). However, bodies of Lyme-afflicted individuals are often hypersensitive to chemicals. Many find that even these minute levels of caffeine can easily disturb their already fragile sleep cycles and other usual functions.
Caffeine is not the only stimulant in chocolate, either. "The cocoa bean is nature's most concentrated source of theobromine, a compound closely related to caffeine. But unlike caffeine, theobromine has only a mild stimulatory effect on the central nervous system, but it has a slight diuretic action similar to caffeine" ("Caffeine...").
Theobromine can produce the same effects caffeine does, it's just not as strong. Even so, it's probably in your best interest to avoid this chemical if you suffer from sleep or stress disorders, tremors, and so forth.
Also known as L-Arginine, this is another chemical found in cocoa that is controversial in the scientific community. While it does have some proposed benefits that we'll discuss later in the article, its "[g]astrointestinal side effects can include abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea. Gout, [is] another possible side effect... Most alarming is that the supplement can cause blood abnormalities, airway inflammation and hypotension, or low blood pressure" (Marks).
There can also be cardiovascular complications. Though doctors once considered arginine a promising candidate for asthma treatment, recent studies are showing that it may actually increase inflammation in the lungs, rather than decrease. It "could be harmful to recovering heart attack patients," (Marks). In one study conducted in 2006, L-arginine actually proved fatal in several patients.
There is also good reason to avoid arginine if you suffer from certain viruses, such as the herpes virus. This is because there is "some evidence that taking the supplement can cause the virus to multiply" (Marks).
The cravings that chocolate can induce are well-known. It isn't all that surprising when you take into account that it's very closely related to cocaine. "Salsolinol is a metabolic product of fermentation" that is found in small amounts in several foods, most notably chocolate and alcohol ("Isopathic..."). It is believed to be the addictive component of both of these, leading to chocoholism or alcoholism in predisposed individuals.
It can also exacerbate many symptoms of Lyme. It can cause mental fog, headaches, sore throats and is "also associated with general weakness" ("Isopathic...").
Evil temptations! But they look so sweet...
The Sweet Side of Chocolate
On the other hand, cocoa also has a number of reported health benefits as well. However, many of the nutrients that cocoa contains are removed when it undergoes heavy processing. Milk chocolate and white chocolate not only have quite a few additives that aren't terribly healthy, a lot of the good parts have also been sacrificed. To reiterate, for opitmal effects, the best chocolate is dark and organic with a cocoa content of 70% or more.
Some of these benefits are especially valuable for Lyme-afflicted individuals. For example, Borrelia is also notorious for depriving the body of certain nutrients. Magnesium is one of these. It needs to be replaced, or it can lead to serious complications including everything from extreme fatigue to tremors, difficulty breathing, and heart palpitations. Luckily for our taste buds, "[t]here is no better source of magnesium than cacao" ("Cacao...").
Possibly the best advantage that chocolate provides in the battle against Lyme is that it is a natural analgesic (Schmidt). It is considered a gentle and natural way to relieve pain, mimicking the effects of aspirin or ibuprofin without the mild corrosion of the digestive tract.
One of the benefits of chocolate most frequently advertised is it's high antioxidant content. These are especially good for Lyme patients. Because of the large amounts of toxins dying bacteria release the system, it is essential for patients to detox. Pure chocolate is a delicious and effective option because "cacao has almost twice the antioxidants of red wine and three times that of green tea" ("Cacao...") The type of antioxidants contained in chocolate, which are called flavonols, are also believed to help prevent heart disease (Robbins).
These flavenols "act similarly to low-dose aspirin in promoting healthy blood flow" (Schmidt) and the presence of the chemical epicatechin only increases these effects. Essentially, it acts as a blood thinner, which reduces the blood's ability to clot. This can in many cases reduce the risk for heart attacks or strokes. Researchers caution that it is not suggested as a replacement for a doctor-recommended aspirin regimen, but the effects are similar.
It's not just the delicious taste and addictive properties of chocolate that all too often leave us craving more, it also contains chemicals that will induce pleasure by stimulating the reward center of the brain. Anandamide, for instance "binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as cannabinoids -- the psychoactive constituents in marijuana -- and produces feelings of elation and exhilaration" (Robbins).
It causes these pleasant feelings by working similarly to amphetamines. It lessens the symptoms of depression and elevates overall mood by boosting seratonin, "but it is not addictive like caffeine or illegal with undesirable side-effects like amphetamines" ("Cacao...")."
However, chocolate will not replicate the high that comes along with consumption of marijuana or other drugs. A person weighing 130lbs. would have to eat roughly 25lbs of chocolate to come close to the feeling of a marijuana high (Schmidt). By that point, nausea would be absolutely overwhelming, and the experience would not be enjoyable.
In addition to anandamide, chocolate also contains other pleasure-enducing endorphins such as phenethylamine. "Phenethylamine is released in the brain when people become infatuated or fall in love" (Robbins). It's what gives you those butterflies in your stomach. If you want a date to go well with someone new, give them chocolate.
Caffeine & Theobromine
Caffeine is well known to cause anxiety and jitters, but a lot of recent research shows that it can do good things as well. Studies show that it can decrease odds of developing certain conditions. Chances of Parkinson's and cirrhosis drop 80% while the likelihood of colon cancer declines 20%. The risk of developing gallstones is cut in half (Brain et al).
Other recent studies have "suggested that caffeine is beneficial in treating asthma, stopping headaches, boosting mood and even preventing cavities" (Brain et al). One study conducted by the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute demonstrated that mice injected with caffeine were protected against Alzheimer's (Brain et al).
As stated previously, theobromine is very similar to caffeine in both structure and behavior. There is some reason to believe that it may also act as a cough suppressant, but the amounts tested were much higher than the amount found in chocolate ("Caffeine...").
Much like anandamide and phenethylamine, theobromine also helps to elevate mood. In fact, many scientists believe that "[t]he mood enhancement produced by chocolate may be primarily due to theobromine" (Robbins).
Though some studies suggest that arginine increases inflammation in the airways, others indicate that it acts as an anti-inflammatory effect elsewhere in the body. Specifically, during a study conducted in 2007, "scientists noted that the lower the blood levels of arginine, the greater the severity of inflammation" (Traister).
Even in asthmatic patients, there is still disagreement in the medical community about whether arginine is helpful or harmful. Though it may increase airway inflammation, a study in 2010 "found that L-arginine administration can relieve asthma symptoms by improving nitric oxide metabolism" (Traister).
Additionally, arginine can help to lower blood pressure (Traister). For many suffering from hypertension, this is great news. However, this is most likely also the reason it can, in a rare instance, prove fatal to someone recovering from a heart attack. It's also bad news for anyone suffering from Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), where blood pressure can drop significantly when standing after sitting or reclining for extended periods of time.
So What's the Verdict?
When it comes to chocolate, there is still a lot of argument about whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. Therefore, the choice is left to each individual to make for themselves. When it comes to deciding whether or not cocoa should be part of your diet, the most important factors are your personal medical circumstances.
Even if you decide that chocolate is safe for you, and even if it improves your health, it is still best in moderation. Overconsumption will turn benefits into side effects like loss of calcium retention. For example, "consuming 100 grams of raw cacao is too much in one day," but 40 grams can be quite beneficial ("Cacao...").
In summary, while many researchers recommend "consuming a small bar of dark chocolate daily" (Robbins) to prevent certain illnesses and improve bodily functions, too much can cause serious problems. The key is to consume in moderation, as difficult as that may be with something so delicious!
Brain, Marshall, Charles W. Bryant and Matt Cunningham. "How Caffeine Works." How Stuff Works. How Stuff Works, Inc., n.d. Web. 20 April. 2012.
"Cacao-RAW Chocolate." Superfood Information and News. SuperFood University, n.d. Web 9 April. 2012.
"Caffeine & Theobromine." From Nature to Nutrition. Hershey Center for Health & Nutrition, n.d. Web. 8 April. 2012.
"Isopathic Phenolic Remedies to Desensitize Against Allergic Responses." Energique Phenolics. Essential-Vitamins.com, 28 November 2011. Web. 19 April. 2012.
Marks, Shannon. "L-Arginine Dangers." Livestrong.com, 13 June 2011. Web. 14 April. 2012.
Robbins, John. "Chocolate's Startling Health Benefits." The Huffington Post. HPMG News, 22 February 2011. Web. 19 April. 2012.
Schmidt, Patti. "Chocolate's Potential Health Benefits - and its Effect on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Patients." ProHealth. ProHealth, Inc., 29 March 2002. Web. 19 April. 2012.
Smith, Daniel. "How Caffeine Affects the Immune System." Livestrong.com, 2 August 2011. Web. 8 April. 2012.
Does Arginine Increase Inflammation?" Livestrong.com, 29 June 2011. Web. 14 April. 2012.