When Hippocrates wrote, “Let food be thy medicine,” he may have been referring to dark chocolate and cinnamon. Both have such powerful cardiovascular benefits that the BaleDoneen Method actually prescribes them (in small amounts) as part of our evidence-based approach to the prevention of heart attacks, strokes and type 2 diabetes. As we tell our patients, “Not all medicines are hard to take!”
Two new studies add to the wealth of scientific literature documenting the healing properties of these two delicious foods. One of these studies links frequent consumption of chocolate to lower risk for heart attacks. The other reports that cinnamon helps lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity in people with prediabetes, which in turn, may reduce their risk for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). Here is a closer look at some intriguing discoveries about how dark chocolate and cinnamon can literally do your heart good.
Dark Chocolate: A Delightful Prescription for Better Heart Health
Derived from the pods of the cacao tree, whose botanical name, Theobroma, means “food of the gods,” dark chocolate is rich in flavanols and polyphenols, antioxidant compounds also found in tea, wine, fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals before they can attack cells in your body. Damage from these unstable molecules is a major contributor to aging and many chronic diseases, such as CVD, type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
For more than a decade, the BaleDoneen Method has prescribed a daily dose of 7 grams (one small square) of dark chocolate (which has a much higher cacao content than milk chocolate) to our patients for heart attack and stroke prevention. New and recent findings about its benefits include the following:
- Lower risk for coronary artery disease (CAD). In the latest study of chocolate’s effects on heart health, researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and other centers analyzed findings from six studies that included 336,289 people. Published in European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in July, the analysis linked eating chocolate more than once a week to an 8 percent reduction in risk for developing CAD (plaque in the arteries that can lead to a heart attack). A limitation of the study was that the researchers didn’t analyze what type of chocolate the study participants ate, nor did they take lifestyle factors into account.
- Chocolate may help prevent irregular heartbeats. In a recent Harvard study that included more than 55,000 people, eating moderate amounts of chocolate lowered risk for atrial fibrillation (AF), a common and dangerous type of heart arrhythmia that elevates risk for stroke, heart failure, cognitive decline, dementia and early death. The researchers tracked participants for 13 years and found that those who consumed two to six 1-ounce servings of chocolate a week had a 20 percent lower rate of AF, compared to people who ate chocolate less than once a month, even when other risk factors were taken into account. Results were similar for both men and women, report the researchers, who caution that eating large amounts of the high-calorie treat is not recommended because that could lead to weight gain and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of heart attack and diabetes risk factors).
- Reduced risk for heart attacks and strokes. In a study of nearly 20,000 people ages 35 to 65, those who ate the most chocolate had a 39 percent lower risk for heart attack and stroke. Participants were tracked for 8 years. The researchers also linked chocolate consumption to lower blood pressure, a factor that may explain its protective properties, since high blood pressure is the leading risk for stroke and a major contributor to heart attacks. While these findings may sound like license to pig out on the sweet treat, the study also reported that the people who ate the most chocolate consumed an average of 7 grams daily, which is the amount the BaleDoneen Method recommends.
- Protection against high blood pressure during pregnancy. A Yale study of 2,291 pregnant women found that those who ate more than five servings of chocolate a week reduced their risk of developing pre-eclampsia, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, by up to 40 percent, compared to women who ate less than one serving a week. Pre-eclampsia is a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication that affects about 5% of American moms-to-be. Women who develop it are at increased risk for heart disease later in life. The researchers attribute the protective qualities of chocolate to one of the compounds it contains: theobromine.
- Cardiovascular disease prevention. Researchers first discovered that chocolate can enhance heart health from studies of the Kuna Indians of Panama’s San Blas islands, who rarely develop cardiovascular disease (CVD) or high blood pressure. Yet if they moved to Panama City and gave up their indigenous diet, both disorders struck at typical Western rates, showing that it’s not their genes that were protecting them. Kuna who remained on the islands drank up to four cups a day of a home brew of flavanol-rich dried and ground cocoa beans daily, the NIH reports.
- Healthier levels of cholesterol and other markers of heart health. Products rich in cacao flavanols (such as dark chocolate or cocoa) may reduce inflammation, triglycerides and insulin resistance (the root cause of almost all cases of type 2 diabetes, as well as 70 percent of heart attacks), according to an analysis of clinical trials that included more than 1,100 people. The researchers also linked eating these foods to healthier levels of HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol, and several other studies have similar findings.
Cinnamon: A Prescription for Lower Blood Sugar and Cholesterol
Derived from the inner bark of several tree species, cinnamon has been used as a food and medicine since 2000 BC. In the most recent study of cinnamon’s effects on blood sugar, researchers from the Joslin Diabetes Center and other centers conducted a double-blind, randomized clinical trial in which people with prediabetes were randomly assigned to either receive a capsule containing cinnamon or a placebo three times a day. The volunteers’ blood sugar levels were tested at the start of the study and again 12 weeks later.
Published in July in Journal of the Endocrine Society, the study reported that as compared to the participants’ baseline test results, blood sugar levels rose in people who received the placebo, but dropped significantly in people who received cinnamon. The researchers recommend that longer and larger studies be done to explore the possibility that the tasty spice might be a safe, inexpensive and effective way to slow the progression from prediabetes to full-blown type 2 diabetes.
A recent analysis that pooled the results of 10 randomized studies of 543 patients with type 2 diabetes has shown that daily consumption of this delicious spice significantly reduced triglycerides, blood sugar and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while improving good (HDL) cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes. Two earlier studies found that cinnamon improved insulin sensitivity in people without diabetes. These are important benefits, given that insulin resistance (IR) is the root cause of about 70 percent of heart attacks, most strokes and almost all cases of type 2 diabetes.
IR occurs when cells become insensitive to insulin, a hormone that normally helps the body use glucose for energy. The pancreas is forced to pump out more and more insulin, trying to keep up with demand, until its beta cells become exhausted and blood sugar rises. Not only does this damage the arterial lining, making it easier for cholesterol to penetrate and form plaque, but IR triggers other biochemical changes, including chronic inflammation, raising risk that plaque, once formed, will rupture, leading to a heart attack or stroke.
Based on these findings, the BaleDoneen Method recommends that people with diabetes, prediabetes or insulin resistance take 2 grams of cinnamon daily, which is available in capsule form. Before taking any dietary supplement, check with your medical provider to make sure it’s appropriate for you.