Chocolate: A Boon for the Libido and the Heart

Research suggests it packs some surprising health benefits

SUNDAY, Dec. 26, 2004 (HealthDay News) -- Chocolate. It's on everyone's wish list. And for good reason.

There's something about chocolate, something beyond tactile taste that is indefinable, ineffable and inexpressible.

And as the medical reviews keep coming in, there's evidence that chocolate may meet a variety of needs, from the libido to the heart.

The most recent finding has an Italian researcher saying he has found an association between eating chocolate and sexual fulfillment. Women who love chocolate, he says, seem to have better love lives. And that comes on top of earlier research that chocolate -- at least dark chocolate -- may be good for your heart.

Chocolate seems to straddle the line between a food and a beneficial medicine. Even the conventional wisdom that chocolate is related to acne has been challenged. Its chemical properties are complicated. Chocolate contains more than 300 substances, including caffeine in small quantities, and theobromine, a weaker stimulant. Some contend that these two chemicals form the basis of the much-touted chocolate high, postulating that they increase activity of key neurotransmitters. The stimulant phenylethylamine, which is related chemically to amphetamines, is also in chocolate.

Chocolate seems to make the mood more fulfilling, said Dr. Andrea Salonia, an Italian researcher, who was to report on the link he found between satisfying sex and chocolate at the annual meeting of the European Society for Sexual Medicine in December in London.

Salonia's group at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan had 153 women fill out standard female sexual function questionnaires, among other lifestyle and psychological indices. The women were between 26 and 44 years old, with a median age of 35. It turned out that 120 women, average age 35, reported they ate chocolate frequently, compared with 33 women whose average age was 40.4.

Both overall sexual function and sexual desire were significantly greater among the chocolate-eaters than among those in the older group who were more likely to spurn chocolate, said Salonia.

Calling it "an intriguing correlation," Salonia indicated nevertheless that dalliance between chocolate and sex was far from a sure thing. "It seems alluring to hypothesize that chocolate can have a physiological positive impact over women's sexuality." But he added that the age difference, an important factor in sexuality, was also significant between the groups.

The Italian study merely adds a new chapter to the history of chocolate. It's loaded with myths and legends and unsubstantiated claims. One of those myths is that chocolate can contribute to acne, according to two seminal studies. The National Institutes of Health now states that "despite the popular belief that chocolate, nuts and other foods cause acne, this does not seem to be true."

In one of the studies, at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of acne patients was given a bar of "chocolate" liquor (the substance that's the base for all chocolate products) resembling a chocolate bar and had 28 percent vegetable fat to imitate the fat content of chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. Another group got real chocolate in a test bar with almost 10 times as much chocolate liquor as a normal 1.4 ounce bar. The acne neither improved nor worsened with chocolate or placebo.

In the other study, 80 midshipmen with acne at the U.S. Naval Academy were divided into chocolate abstainers and chocolate-eaters. After a month, careful observation showed no changes in their acne.

Finally, a recent small clinical study of the effects of the substance in rich dark chocolate known as flavonoids has been shown to improve indicators of a healthy heart, seen both by ultrasound measurements and blood levels. Other researchers have pointed to high levels of chemicals in chocolate known as phenolics, also found in red wine, as antioxidants that might help prevent coronary heart disease.

More information

For more on chocolate and its history, visit Exploratorium Magazine.

SOURCES: Mary Engler, Ph.D, professor, physiological nursing, University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing; Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D, chief, Antioxidant Research Laboratory; Jean Mayer, USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston; June 2004 Journal of the American College of Nutrition; Dec. 5-8, 2004, presentation, European Society for Sexual Medicine annual meeting, London;
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