A Chocolate Curiosity
It is certainly satisfying to see scientific evidence that your favorite foods are really good for you. And I’m not just talking about chocolate. That’s next, I promise. But check out all of these delicious things that can improve your cardiovascular health and as a result, cognitive function! Miracle blackberries, anyone?
All of these wonderful things contain flavanols (a group of plant-derived flavanoids that exist as either one of the monomers catechin or epicatechin that go on to form polymers). This class of molecules appears to improve circulation by increasing nitric oxide (NO) -induced vasodilation (NO is released in response to stress, and works within cells to trigger an intracellular increase in cGMP which in turn relaxes smooth muscle) in both healthy patients and patients at risk for cardiovascular disease.
The flavanols seem to work by increasing the activity of the enzyme (endothelial nitric oxide synthase) that produces NO in response to stress, making more of it available to the endothelial tissues that line blood vessels. Blood vessels, of course, which run through our whole bodies – brains included. In fact, fMRI studies have shown increased cerebral blood flow to gray matter after up to three hours after subjects ingested a cocoa beverage enriched with flavonoids, and ultrasound studies in elderly patients have demonstrated a resulting increase in blood flow velocity in the middle cerebral artery. Epidemiologically, chocolate consumption has also been correlated with lower blood pressure. In addition, flavanols have shown antioxidant effects and antiplatelet action that could help reduce the oxidative stress and platelet aggregation often associated with vascular disease. These are some pretty fantastic molecules, wouldn’t you say?
It’s no surprise then that cardiologists are keen on studying them. Dr. Franz H. Messerli, a cardiologist from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, was reviewing an article on the subject when he began to wonder how far the cognitive benefits of chocolate consumption could go…and he took it right to the level of Nobel Prize-winning. Gathering data online (admittedly from sources including Wikipedia), Messerli ended up looking at chocolate consumption in 23 countries as it related to the number of Nobel laureates per 100 million people and got impressive results. The statistics? In a humorous but certainly curious article in The New England Journal of Medicine last month, Messerli reported a correlation coefficient of a startling 0.791, which jumped to 0.862 with the exclusion of Sweden. Why exclude Sweden? They seem to be getting more Nobel laureates for less chocolate: about twice as many as their chocolate consumption predicts. Messerli posits that either there is some inherent bias because the Nobel Committee resides in Stockholm, Sweden, or that perhaps the Swedes are merely more sensitive to the brain-boosting effects of chocolate. (Although, when you check out the chart, keep in mind that its author is Swiss.)
Even so, perhaps this is an adequate dose-response curve that shows the efficacy of chocolate as a part of a recipe for Nobel laureates, or maybe it is evidence that chocolate intake is a sign of cognitive power, as more intelligent people are more aware of its health benefits. Further investigation is certainly…needed? Well, it certainly could be delicious.
References (I highly recommend reading Dr. Messerli’s NEJM article…it’s hilarious.)
Cocoa and Cardiovascular Health – Circulation
Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates – The New England Journal of Medicine