Can dark chocolate improve your immunity? | Daily News

Can dark chocolate improve your immunity?

Studies suggest antioxidant-rich dark chocolate with at least 50 to 70 percent cacao enhances blood flow, improves gut health, and eases stress — all effects that may indirectly strengthen your immune system

Dark chocolate is one of the anomalies of nutrition. Researchers have been intrigued by the bittersweet superfood for years, not only because it is incredibly delicious and satisfies your sweet tooth, but also because there are dozens of scientific studies suggesting there are an overwhelming number of health benefits in this nutrient- and antioxidant-rich treat.

“Chocolate would be delicious no matter its health properties. So, the idea that something so good can also be good for us is both appealing and compelling,” David L. Katz, MD, MPH, the president of True Health Initiative and the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University Griffin Hospital, who has spent much of his career studying the health benefits of chocolate. “Chocolate is the decisive rebuttal to the ‘If it’s good for me, it can’t taste good’ mentality.”

As for the science, dark chocolate is derived from Theobroma cacao, aka, the cacao tree. Dr. Katz says it’s a uniquely concentrated source of bioflavonoid antioxidants, ranking high on the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) scale relative even to many fruits and vegetables.

In 2011, Katz coauthored a study published in Antioxidants & Redox Signaling focusing on the many benefits of the superfood. In it, he and his colleagues explained that cocoa powder contains up to 50 milligrams of polyphenols per gram, with a single serving containing more phenolic antioxidants than most foods and drinks, including apples, cranberry juice, red wine, and black tea. The main flavonols found in cocoa are epicatechin and catechin, as well as procyanidins, which provide the most antioxidants.

“In addition, cocoa is a concentrated source of fiber, magnesium, potassium, and arginine — an amino acid that helps blood vessels dilate,” Katz says. And then there are psychoactive compounds like theobromine, which may help explain chocolate’s unique allure as an aphrodisiac (the perfect Valentine’s Day treat), but that area remains under study, he points out.

So how do flavonoids work such magic? Deanna Minich, PhD, the vice president of scientific affairs at Clean Program, whose study areas are human nutrition and medical sciences with a focus on the application of science in nutrition and lifestyle, explains that those phytonutrients or polyphenols called flavonoids (aka antioxidants derived from plants) essentially help blood vessels expand and relax. “You might imagine that when your brain and heart have enough oxygen and blood flow, they work better,” she points out.

An article published in December 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science linked the brain-boosting amino acids and plant-based compounds to a possible role in the prevention of cancer, improved heart health, and even weight loss. Previous research also suggests that dark chocolate may help stabilize blood pressure and positively influence gut microbiota, improving digestion and metabolism.

In addition to all the physical benefits, dark chocolate may be a boon to the mind. A study slated for publication in May 2021 in Food Chemistry focuses on the bioactive amino acids tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine, all of which may help shift our neurochemistry, resulting in that “feel good” effect that a piece of chocolate usually provides. Research published in November 2019 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that dark chocolate may also improve memory and cognitive function.

Scientists have become increasingly interested in the relationship between dark chocolate and immunity. And, during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing our bodies with the tools to fight infection has never been more crucial.

Generally speaking, inflammation is the immune system’s response to an irritant. When inflammation is severe, it can trigger reactions in the body leading to more serious health issues. An article published in August 2016 in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevityexplains how oxidative stress, an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and their elimination by protective mechanisms, can encourage chronic inflammation.

As an October 2016 article in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity notes, the resulting inflammation has been established as a major factor for the progression of various chronic diseases and disorders — diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, eye disorders, arthritis, obesity, autoimmune diseases, and inflammatory bowel disease included.

The idea that dark chocolate could bolster immunity is founded in the science that antioxidants offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Specifically, polyphenols can inhibit molecular signaling pathways that are activated by oxidative stress, combating the effects. “Research has suggested that dark chocolate improves immune function because it is packed with flavonols,” explains Keri Gans, RDN, a nutrition consultant and the author of The Small Change Diet. “Flavonols specifically are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”

Katz brings it back to blood flow. “Immunity is critically dependent on blood flow, and dark chocolate is known to improve flood flow by enhancing endothelial function, and perhaps by other mechanisms as well,” he says. “Antioxidants help with immunity because they protect our own cells while the immune system fights the ‘enemy.’”

While Dr. Minich agrees that “more antioxidants are needed to keep oxidative stress and inflammatory processes at bay, both of which are connected to immune function,” she maintains that “no specific direct effect of dark chocolate on immune health in humans has been demonstrated.” For example, there is no direct evidence that dark chocolate can protect you against the common cold, flu, or novel coronavirus. But she does believe there could be an indirect relationship between dark chocolate and this type of immunity.