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One Major Effect Drinking Cocoa Has on Your Heart, New Study Says

Here's how a hot chocolate may stave off heart attack.

What if someone told you that drinking hot cocoa could protect your heart, especially during stressful times?

New research published in the journal Nutrients by a team of experts at the University of Birmingham reveals that increased consumption of flavanols (which are naturally found in cocoa, as well as in many fruits and vegetables) may prevent people from experiencing mental-stressed induced cardiovascular events. This includes heart disease, stroke, and thrombosis.

In the study, the researchers found that blood vessels were able to function better during moments of mental stress when people sipped on a cocoa drink that was rich in flavanols. Cocoa appears to have a positive effect on the thin membrane of cells known as the endothelium that line the heart and blood vessels.

When the endothelium is at optimal performance, it can help reduce the risk of peripheral vascular disease, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, tumor growth, thrombosis, and even severe viral infectious diseases (such as COVID-19). (Related: 15 Underrated Weight Loss Tips That Actually Work)

However, mental stress can also have a negative effect on how well our blood vessels operate.

"We found that drinking flavanol-rich cocoa can be an effective dietary strategy to reduce temporary impairments in endothelial function following mental stress and also improve blood flow during stressful episodes," lead study author, Dr. Catarna Rendeiro, Msc, PhD, said in a statement.

"Flavanols are extremely common in a wide range of fruit and vegetables. By utilizing the known cardiovascular benefits of these compounds during periods of acute vascular vulnerability (such as stress), we can offer improved guidance to people about how to make the most of their dietary choices during stressful periods." 

In the study, a group of healthy men were instructed to drink a high-flavanol cocoa drink 90 minutes before completing an eight-minute mental stress task. Researchers measured their forearm blood flow and cardiovascular activity at rest and during stress. Then, they assessed how well participants' blood vessels were functioning up to 90 minutes after undergoing the stressful task.

They found that blood vessel function was less impaired in those who drank the cocoa drink, and the flavanols even appeared to help to improve participants' blood flow. Seeing as single episodes of stress can increase the risk of cardiovascular events, the more you can protect your blood vessels through diet, the better—since managing stress levels can be a bit more challenging.

"Our findings are significant for everyday diet, given that the daily dosage administered could be achieved by consuming a variety of foods rich in flavanols—particularly apples, black grapes, blackberries, cherries, raspberries, pears, pulses, green tea, and unprocessed cocoa," Dr. Rendeiro said.

"This has important implications for measures to protect the blood vessels of those individuals who are more vulnerable to the effects of mental stress."

For more, be sure to check out the 32 Foods That Turn Off the Stress Hormone That's Making You Fat.

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne