When you walk, your muscles need a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to keep your muscles working properly. There is a disease called “peripheral arterial disease” (PAD) which is a blockage in the arteries that carry blood to your arms, legs, head, and abdomen. The blockage is typically caused by a buildup of atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries; slowly narrowing them and restricting blood flow.
If the blockage gets severe enough, the person with PAD gets pain in their legs when they walk (“intermittent claudication”), which goes away when they stop walking. This can be a significant cause of disability, and people who get this pain tend to stop walking, which only increases the buildup of fatty atherosclerotic plaque in the blood vessels.
Pure cacao, or chocolate, is full of the healthy polyphenol antioxidants, known to be especially beneficial for the function of our peripheral arteries, the same ones affected in PAD. Researchers from Rome’s Sapienza University designed a study to see if eating chocolate would help the symptoms of PAD. They tested both dark (85% or higher cacao) and milk chocolate (35% or less cacao). They found that dark chocolate helped, but milk chocolate did not help at all.
The study involved 20 individuals with PAD, 14 men and 6 women, who normally had symptoms of leg pain after walking less than 200 meters. One half the participants ate 40 gm of dark chocolate two hours before a treadmill test, and the other half ate 40 gm of milk chocolate. The test was repeated one week later, but the ones who ate dark chocolate, now ate milk chocolate, and vice versa.
The researchers not only evaluated how far the subjects were able to walk, but they also measured a number of blood chemistries to evaluate the biochemical state of their arteries. They were most interested in their blood levels of nitric oxide since nitric oxide is known to be an important substance that dilates arteries, improving their performance.
When the subjects ate dark chocolate, even as quickly as two hours later, their arteries had opened up enough to allow them to walk 11% farther than normal. After eating milk chocolate, there was no improvement.
PAD is known to be much more common in smokers, diabetics, and people with uncontrolled hypertension or high cholesterol, so it is important to quit smoking, control your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol to help you avoid getting PAD, and to minimize the disease if you already have it.
This study suggests that eating dark chocolate could help sufferers of PAD, and the study also emphasizes how dark chocolate, full of polyphenols, is superior to milk chocolate. This is not only true for people with PAD, but for all of us. It takes more effort, but try to buy chocolates with at least 70% cacao.
Finally, dark chocolate can help somewhat, but what is much more helpful for people with PAD is to do something that might sound harmful, but is what will probably most help—walk. Exercise is a much more potent medicine than chocolate, and those with PAD should talk to their doctor about starting an exercise program if they are mostly sedentary. Moving more is the best therapy.
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