Dark Chocolate Put to the Test for Peripheral Artery Disease

One of the problems with publishing research on chocolate is that the press jumps on it, oversimplifying and sensationalizing the message, and then the money starts rolling in from candy companies and the message is muddied even more. As a result, an important idea is lost in all the frenzy: The flavanol phytonutrients in cocoa appear to be beneficial, as I discuss in my video Chocolate and Stroke Risk. Though the sugar, fat, and excess calories in chocolate aren’t good for us, “natural cocoa powder can be a health food.” So, adding cocoa to a smoothie or oatmeal, for example, would be health-promoting. Try to use unprocessed, undutched cocoa, though. The beneficial flavanols are what give cocoa its bitterness, so manufacturers try to process cocoa with alkali to destroy them on purpose. Thus, when it comes to cocoa, bitter appears to be better.

In my previous video Dark Chocolate and Artery Function, you can see how high-tech angiography showed that dark chocolate could improve the function of coronary arteries in the heart within two hours of consumption, but there are some blood vessels you can visualize with your own eyes: the blood vessels in your eyes. Two hours after eating dark chocolate, as I show at 1:18 in my Chocolate and Stroke Risk video, you can observe a significant improvement in the ability of the little veins in your eyes to dilate.

What about the blood vessels in our legs? Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is atherosclerosis in the arteries feeding our limbs, which leads to claudication, a crampy pain in our calf muscles when we try to exercise, due to impaired blood flow. So, maximal walking distance and time were studied in 20 PAD patients two hours after subjects ate either dark chocolate with at least 85 percent cocoa or milk chocolate with no more than 35 percent cocoa. After eating the dark chocolate, the subjects could walk about a dozen more yards and about 17 seconds longer than before they had the dark chocolate. In comparison, after the milk chocolate, they weren’t even able to walk as far as baseline and not for a single second longer. So, there does seem to be something in cocoa that’s helping, but a few seconds here and there isn’t much to write home about. How about reversing the atherosclerosis, which we didn’t even think was even possible until 1977.

1977? Dean Ornish didn’t start publishing on heart disease reversal until 1979. In actuality, the first demonstration of atherosclerosis reversal with a cholesterol-lowering diet and drugs wasn’t on the coronary arteries going to the heart, but on the femoral arteries going to the legs.

What have researchers observed regarding the arteries going to the brain? There is a noninvasive way to measure arterial function within the brain using transcranial ultrasound. At 2:49 in my video, you can see a chart of what happens when we hold our breath. Once we start, our brain starts opening up the arteries to increase blood flow to compensate. If the arteries in our brain are stiffened and crippled by atherosclerosis, however, they’re unable to open as much and as fast as they should, and so are said to have a smaller “breath holding index,” which can be a risk factor for stroke. So, researchers designed an experiment in which they compared the results of a target food to something neutral, like oatmeal. What target food did they choose? A spoonful of cocoa powder or something? No. They chose a randomized crossover trial of oatmeal versus a deep-fried Mars bar.

Why a deep-fried Mars bar? The study was published in the Scottish Medical Journal, and, evidently, the “deep-fried Mars bar (DFMB) is a snack…strongly associate[d] with Scotland.” Really? Yes, really. Researchers phoned a total of 627 fish and chips shops in Scotland “to ascertain the delicacy’s availability.” More than one in five shops said they did carry deep-fried Mars bars and sold up to 200 a week. (Batter-dipped and deep-dried Snickers was evidently less popular.) The researchers “conclude[d] that Scotland’s deep-fried Mars bars is not just an urban myth. Encouragingly, [they] did also find some evidence of the penetrance of the Mediterranean diet into Scotland, albeit in the form of deep-fried pizza.”

Could this be contributing to Scotland having among the highest stroke rates in Europe?  Interestingly, there was a significant drop in men compared to women, which you can see at 4:29 in my video. Maybe men are from Mars and women are from Snickers? Regardless, what about chocolate that’s not deep-fried? There have been a few population studies that have followed people over time that found that those who ate chocolate appeared to have lower stroke rates, which has since been confirmed by another study. Is it possible, though, that chocolate consumption just happens to be related to other behaviors that are heart- and brain-healthy? Maybe people who exercise a lot have to eat more food, so maybe they eat more chocolate? Researchers didn’t see any evidence of that, but you can’t account for everything. To prove cause and effect, people would need to be randomized into two groups, with half eating chocolate and the other half not, and then followed for a decade or two. To this, one researcher replied that “it would be hard to gain consent from most people to the possibility of being randomized to a ‘no chocolate’ arm. How many people would agree to forego chocolate for a ‘sufficiently long follow-up period’?” Ten to twenty years without chocolate is a pretty long time.


Want more chocolate? See:

For more on stroke prevention, check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

 

How to Get the Benefits of Aspirin Without the Risks

For people without a personal history of cardiovascular disease, aspirin’s risks may outweigh its benefits, but aspirin may have additional benefits. “We have long recognized the preventative role of daily aspirin for patients with atherosclerotic [heart] disease; however, it now appears that we can hatch 2 birds from 1 egg. Daily low-dose aspirin may help prevent certain forms of cancer, as well, as I discuss in my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Cancer? In an analysis of eight different studies involving more than 25,000 people, “the authors found a 20 percent decrease in risk of death from cancer among those randomized to daily aspirin…” The researchers wrote, “[T]he search for the most efficacious and safe treatments for malignant disease remains an enormous and burdensome challenge. If only we could just stop cancer in its tracks—prevent it before it strikes. Perhaps we can.” Indeed, perhaps we can with salicylic acid, the plant phytonutrient that’s marketed as aspirin.

How does aspirin affect cancer? The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to the team who discovered how aspirin works. Enzymes named COX (cyclooxygenase) take the pro-inflammatory, omega-6, fatty-acid arachidonic acid our body makes or we get directly in our diet (primarily from eating chicken and eggs), and turns it into inflammatory mediators, such as thromboxane, which produces thrombosis (clots), and prostaglandins, which cause inflammation. Aspirin suppresses these COX enzymes. Less thromboxane means fewer clots, and less prostaglandin means less pain, swelling, and fever. However, prostaglandins can also dilate the lymphatic vessels inside tumors, allowing cancer cells to spread. So, one way cancer tries to kill us is by boosting COX activity.

We think one way aspirin can prevent cancer is by counteracting the tumor’s attempts to pry open the lymphatic bars on its cage and spread throughout the body. Indeed, reduction in mortality due to some cancers occurred within two to three years after aspirin was started. That seems too quick to be accounted for by an effect only on tumor formation . Cancer can take decades to develop, so the only way aspirin could work that fast is by suppressing the growth and spread of tumors that already exist. Aspirin appeared to cut the risk of metastases in half, particularly for adenocarcinomas, like colon cancer.

Given this, should we all take a daily baby aspirin? Previous risk-benefit analyses did not consider the effects of aspirin on cancer, instead just balancing cardiovascular benefits with bleeding risks, but these new cancer findings may change things.

If daily aspirin use were only associated with a reduction of colon cancer risk, then the benefits might not outweigh the harms for the general population, but we now have evidence that it works against other cancers, too. “[E]ven a 10% reduction in overall cancer incidence…could tip the balance” in favor of benefits over risks.

How does the cancer benefit compare? We know that using aspirin in healthy people just for cardiovascular protection is kind of a wash, but, by contrast, the cancer prevention rates might save twice as many lives, so the benefits may outweigh the risks. If we put it all together—heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and bleeding—aspirin comes out as protective overall, potentially extending our lifespan. There is a higher risk of major bleeding even on low-dose aspirin, but there are fewer heart attacks, clotting strokes, and cancers. So, overall, aspirin may be beneficial.

It’s important to note that the age categories in that study only went up to 74 years, though. Why? Because the “risk of bleeding on aspirin increases steeply with age,” so the balance may be tipped the other way at 75 years and older. But, in younger folks, these data certainly have the research community buzzing. “The emerging evidence on aspirin’s cancer protection highlights an exciting time for cancer prevention…”

“In light of low-dose aspirin’s ability to reduce mortality from both vascular events and cancer to a very notable degree, it is tempting to recommend this measure…for most healthy adults…However, oral aspirin, even in low doses, has a propensity to damage the gastroduodenal mucosa [linings of our stomachs] and increase risk for gastrointestinal bleeding; this fact may constrain health authorities from recommending aspirin use for subjects deemed to be at low cardiovascular risk”—that is, for the general population. “Recent meta-analyses estimate that a year of low-dose aspirin therapy will induce major gastrointestinal bleeding (requiring hospitalization) in one subject out of 833…”

If only there were a way to get the benefits without the risks.

Those who remember my video Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods already know there is. The aspirin phytonutrient salicylic acid isn’t just found in willow trees, but throughout the plant kingdom, from blackberries and white onions to green apples, green beans, and beyond. This explains why the active ingredient in aspirin is found normally in the bloodstream even in people not taking aspirin. The levels of aspirin in people who eat fruits and vegetables are significantly higher than the levels of those who don’t. If we drink just one fruit smoothie, our levels rise within only 90 minutes. But, one smoothie isn’t going to do it, of course. We need to have regular fruit and vegetable consumption every day. Are these kinds of aspirin levels sufficient to suppress the expression of the inflammatory enzyme implicated in cancer growth and spread, though? Using umbilical cord and foreskin cells—where else would researchers get human tissue?—they found that even those low levels caused by smoothie consumption significantly suppressed the expression of this inflammatory enzyme on a genetic level.

Since this aspirin phytonutrient is made by plants, we might expect plant-eaters to have higher levels. Indeed, not only did researchers find higher blood levels in vegetarians, but there was an overlap between people taking aspirin pills. Some vegetarians had the same level in their blood as people actually taking aspirin. Vegetarians may pee out as much of the active metabolite of aspirin as those who take aspirin do, simply because vegetarians eat so many fruits and vegetables. “Because the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin is probably the result of SA [salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin], and the concentrations of SA seen in vegetarians have been shown to inhibit [that inflammatory enzyme] COX-2 in vitro, it is plausible that dietary salicylates may contribute to the beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet, although it seems unlikely that most [omnivores] will achieve sufficient dietary intake of salicylates to have a therapeutic effect.”

Aspirin can chew away at our gut. With all that salicylic acid flowing through their systems, plant-eaters must have higher ulcer rates, right? No. Both vegetarian women and men appear to have a significantly lower risk of ulcers. So, for the general population, by eating plants instead of taking aspirin, we may not only get the benefits without the risks, we can get the benefits with even more benefits. How is this possible? In plants, the salicylic acid can come naturally pre-packaged with gut-protective nutrients.

For example, nitric oxide from dietary nitrates exerts stomach-protective effects by boosting blood flow and protective mucus production in the lining of the stomach—“effects which demonstrably oppose the pro-ulcerative impact of aspirin and other NSAIDs.”

The researcher notes that while “[d]ark green leafy vegetables…are among the richest dietary sources of nitrate…it may be unrealistic to expect people to eat ample servings of these every day,” so we should just give people pills with their pills, but I say we should just eat our greens. People who’ve had a heart attack should follow their physician’s advice, which probably includes taking aspirin every day, but what about everyone else? I think everyone should take aspirin—but in the form of produce, not a pill.


To see the pros versus cons for people trying to prevent or treat heart attacks and stroke, see my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Heart Disease?.

Does the COX enzyme sound familiar? I talked about it in my Anti-Inflammatory Life Is a Bowl of Cherries video.

Where does one get “dietary nitrates”? See Vegetables Rate by Nitrate and Veg-Table Dietary Nitrate Scoring Method. I also discuss nitrates in Slowing Our Metabolism with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables and Oxygenating Blood with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables.

Do some plant foods have more aspirin than others? Definitely. In fact, some foods have the same amount as a “baby” aspirin. Check out Plants with Aspirin Aspirations.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Where to Buy Tea Low in Lead

China burns about half of the world’s coal, spewing heavy metals such as mercury and lead into the atmosphere that affect the development of neighboring children. What if you don’t live in China or eat anything produced there? You could still be exposed to the mercury that settles in the oceans if you eat fish and other seafood. What if you drink something from China? Tea. China is one of the world’s biggest tea exporters, but their rapid industrialization has raised concerns about contamination with lead, a toxin that can affect almost every organ in the body. The more lead there is in the soil, the more lead there is that ends up in the tea leaves. And, the closer to the highway the tea is grown, the higher the lead levels. This suggests that leaded gas, which wasn’t banned in China until the year 2000, may be playing a role in the contamination of tea grown there.

Just like larger and longer-living fish accumulate more mercury, longer-living tea leaves accumulate more lead. Young tea leaves appear to have two to six times less lead than mature leaves, so the young leaves that are used to make green and white tea have significantly less lead than the older leaves used to make black and oolong tea. As well, the lead in black and oolong tea appears to be released much more readily into the tea water when brewed. This means the health risk from lead may be 100 times lower for green tea compared to oolong and black.

Because certain fungicides may have heavy metal impurities, one might assume organic teas would be less contaminated. However, a study of 30 common teas taken from North American store shelves showed no less toxic element contamination in organic teas than regular teas, though, organic teas would presumably have much less pesticide contamination. In terms of lead, the source of the tea—that is, the country of origin—appears to be the most important factor.

So, how much tea is safe to drink? Based on the most stringent safety limits in the world, such as California’s Prop 65 parameters, and the largest studies of tea lead contamination from around the world, I was able to come up with guidelines I outline in my video Lead Contamination of Tea.

If you’re not pregnant and drinking only green tea, it doesn’t matter where you get your tea. You can drink as much as you want, as long as you’re drinking the green tea and throwing away the leaves or bags. Given the average levels of lead in Chinese black tea samples, however, more than three cups a day would exceed the daily safety limit for lead. What if you’re eating tea leaves—for example, drinking matcha tea, which is powdered green tea—or throwing tea leaves into your smoothie like I do? In that case, two or three heaping teaspoons is the limit. The exception is Japanese green tea, which is so low in lead that you can safely eat 15 spoonfuls per day, but I caution consuming more than 8 teaspoons given the risk of exceeding the daily recommended limit for caffeine intake for adults.

What about children? For a 70-pound 10-year-old, lead isn’t a problem if they’re drinking green tea. But the safe caffeine intake for children is probably around three milligrams per kilogram, which would limit a child to about four cups of green tea per day. For caffeine reasons, I recommend adding no more than two spoonfuls of Japanese green tea to a child’s smoothie. And for lead reasons, children should have no more than one teaspoon of Chinese green tea leaves. When it comes to black tea, children shouldn’t drink more than one cup per day and should not eat the tea leaves at all.

Pregnant women should be able to drink one cup of green tea per day throughout pregnancy, regardless of source. The limit for Japanese green tea is really just the caffeine limit of about four cups per day. I do not recommend drinking black tea during pregnancy or eating any kind of tea leaves, unless you know you’re getting tea from a low lead source.


I’ve long been an advocate of teas, but the information I’ve shared with you here has led me to change my daily diet. If you look at my smoothie recipe in A Better Breakfast, for example, you’ll see I’ve recommended throwing in tea leaves, and Is Matcha Good for You? doesn’t hide the fact that I’ve been a big fan of matcha. I still enjoy both, but am now more careful about where my tea is sourced. As soon as I learned of this, I made announcements on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ to inform everyone. So, if you closely follow my recommendations (which I elaborate on extensively in my book, How Not to Die), please make sure to keep an eye on our social media where I can post updates within minutes of learning about the latest news.

I’ve got a whole slew of tea videos, including:

Where else might you find heavy metal risk (besides my music collection :)?

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

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