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Improve Your Overall Health With Chocolate

03/24/2014 12:23 EDT | Updated 05/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Ah, chocolate. For most people, this ancient staple is regarded as a delectable treat either by itself or as a part of almost any meal. The main ingredient, cacao, is derived from the seeds of the plant, Theobroma cacao, which appropriately means "food of the gods," and research has proven it has a divine effect on the body. When darker versions are eaten, a plethora of good happens not only on the palate, but also on the inside.

Studies have revealed numerous benefits including anti-oxidant activity, regulation of blood pressure and the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. In the latter case, the evidence is so strong that dark chocolate of over 65 per cent cacao is recommended to help prevent heart conditions.

While the goodness of chocolate may appear to be solely based on cacao, recent research has revealed another player -- actually trillions of them -- in the contribution to better health. The collection of bacteria in the gut, known as the microbiota, plays a distinct role in ensuring the chocolate you eat will leave you happy and healthy.

The requirement of bacteria for benefit was first identified in 2007. A Japanese team believed the benefits of chocolate were secondary in nature; their first role was as food for gut bacteria. Using a lab-developed model of the gut, the authors made an offering to the microbes and observed what happened next. As the bacteria fed on the cacao, they changed the way they metabolized. Soon, they were pumping out a number of chemicals known for helping keep the gut stable. The hypothesis was proven and opened the door to other studies investigating the tango between cacao and gut microbes.

By 2011, researchers learned that the link was not universal; only a certain number of bacterial types enjoyed chocolate and shared their delight with the body. In particular, the same bacteria known as probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, thrived in the presence of chocolate and produced those incredibly good antioxidants, vitamins and anti-inflammatory chemicals. On the flip side, bacteria known to cause trouble, including Clostridium, the same genus that includes the infectious C. difficile, decreased in the presence of cacao. Although no mechanism was shown, there was little doubt chocolate was good only for probiotic bacteria and quite possibly bad for detrimental ones.

These studies highlighted chocolate as a great way to treat your good bacteria. They also indicated regular consumption might help to improve your overall gut microbiota. To prove this, a Spanish team of researchers tested the theory last year and came back with nothing but good results. They found eating more good chocolate -- over 65 per cent cacao, preferably raw -- changed the gut microbiota over the course of many weeks. The beneficial bugs would thrive while troublemakers would find themselves without a home.

While the process of turning an unhealthy gut into a happy one through chocolate appears to be possible, some researchers have focused on making it a definite reality. Their goal is to improve the chances by including already known beneficial foods into the mix. First and foremost are prebiotics, which are known to help promote the good germs and keep away the bad. Another option is the inclusion of probiotic bacteria. These good germs would not only go straight to work but also form associations with their gut counterparts. Just last week, a team from Louisiana State University added to the good germs combinations by revealing fruits such as pomegranates and acai were also excellent additions.

The varied benefits of chocolate not only illustrate the incredible potential of natural foods in improving our health but also highlight an anthropologically-relevant point regarding our history. Records suggest that cultivation of the plant is almost as old as human farming yet it has taken thousands of years to get to the point of understanding exactly how chocolate is good for us.

We certainly live in an evidence-based world; yet sometimes we may choose to reflect not on science, but traditions. Although we cannot rely solely on our ancestors, there are times when we can improve our health by listening to the echoes of their voices. As in the case of Theobroma cacao, we may have been much healthier in the past heeding their words instead of waiting millennia for the science.

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