Yummy! Weekly Chocolate Snack Protects Against Atrial Fibrillation

If your significant other hands you a box of chocolates, your heart might skip a beat; but that’s pretty much the only time you want to feel your heart flutter. Even sweeter, eating what’s in that box may protect you from a dangerous form of heart palpitations called atrial fibrillation, a study shows.

Published in May of 2017 in the journal Heartthe study found that adults who ate chocolate 1-3 times per month were 10-20% less likely to suffer from atrial fibrillation, or AFib, than those who snacked on chocolate once a month or less. [1]

Discovering the Heart-Healthy Properties of Chocolate

Researchers looked at long-term data regarding the diets of more than 55,500 men and women aged 50-64 years old in Denmark. The participants submitted information relating to their eating habits upon entering the study, between 1993 and 1997.

The researchers then used data from Denmark’s national health registry to determine which participants had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation since the start of the study. The data revealed that 3,350 people had been diagnosed with AFib over an average of 13.5 years.

They found that:

  • People who ate approximately 1 oz. of chocolate per week had a 17% lower risk of developing atrial fibrillation by the end of the study compared to those who ate less than an ounce of chocolate a month.
  • Participants who consumed 2-6 oz. of chocolate a week were 20% less likely to develop AFib by the end of the study.
  • Women who ate just one serving of chocolate a week were found to be the least likely to be diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. The biggest risk reduction for men was associated with eating 2-6 servings of chocolate per week. [1]

Many of the health benefits associated with chocolate are found in dark chocolate, but most people in Denmark consume milk chocolate. The researchers said they weren’t sure they’d find such a large reduction in AFib risk among the population. [2]

Elizabeth Mostofsky, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the leaders of the study, said:

“We were pleasantly surprised that — despite the fact that most of the chocolate may have [had] relatively low cocoa concentrations — we were still able to see robust findings.” [2]

However, the amount of cocoa in chocolate varies significantly between the U.S. and Denmark. In the United States, milk chocolate must contain 10% cocoa solids – the suspected beneficial ingredient, compared to Denmark, where the sweet treat is required to contain 30%. [3]

The study’s authors note in an editorial published alongside the research that chocolate lovers had fewer cases of hypertension and diabetes, and had overall lower blood pressure – all factors that could help explain why those same individuals were less likely to develop atrial fibrillation. [2]

Read: 10+ Healthful Reasons to Consume Chocolate

Atrial fibrillation is believed to be caused by the release of certain molecules that damage heart tissue. Chocolate contains flavanols that can ward off the type of inflammation that can lead to tissue damage. Furthermore, flavanols may counteract the clots that could form when an irregular heartbeat allows blood to pool in the heart. [3]

Past studies have shown that eating chocolate can reduce the risk of suffering a heart attack, as well as lower blood pressure and even prevent obesity.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a quivering or irregular heartbeat, according to the American Heart Association. The condition can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications.

Read: Know the Causes and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

A healthy heart normally contracts and relaxes to a regular beat. However, in people with AFib, the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly (quiver) instead of maintaining a regular beat to effectively move blood into the ventricles. [4]

Many people with atrial fibrillation are unaware that they have it; yet it affects more than 33 million people worldwide, and an estimated 25% of adults will develop the heart condition sometime in their lifetime, the accompanying editorial states.

Sources:

[1] Newsweek

[2] NPR

[3] Los Angeles Times

[4] American Heart Association


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How Eating Animal Products Could Make Blood More Likely to Clot

Researchers announced in April that they may have figured out how eating meat causes heart disease. The nutrient choline, an essential nutrient found in meat and eggs, may feed a certain gut bacteria which produce a compound that makes blood sticky and prone to form blood clots. These blood clots can lead to heart attacks and strokes. [1]

The study, led by Dr. Stanley Hazen of the Cleveland Clinic, was a small but intense one involving 18 participants – 8 who were either vegans or vegetarians and 10 who routinely ate meat, dairy, and eggs. Each volunteer was given a supplement of 500 mg of choline per day. The recommended daily choline intake for women is 425 mg, and for men it’s 550 mg.

After a month, the participants’ blood levels of a compound called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) rose 10-fold. Tests showed that their blood became much more likely to form clots, leading the team to surmise that “TMAO supercharges platelet function.” Hazen added:

“What is clear from this study is if you increase the choline in your diet, the TMAO level goes up and that changes your platelet function.” [1]

Source: Scripps

Both the vegans and the vegetarians had significantly lower choline levels at the beginning of the study than the meat-eaters did. Their levels were still much lower than the meat-eaters’ after taking choline supplements.

Read: 5 Benefits of Reducing Meat Consumption

The researchers did not find, however, that the volunteers who took the choline supplements had an actual higher risk of heart disease. The study did not last long enough or include enough participants to demonstrate such a conclusion.

But they did discover that other compounds found in animal products had a similar effect on gut bacteria. The team wrote:

“We previously showed gut microbial production of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) from dietary nutrients like choline, lecithin, and L-carnitine is linked to the development of cardiovascular diseases.” [1]

Source: VitaCholine

The scientists also found that taking low-dose aspirin seemed to reduce the stickiness of platelets and also reduced the choline-associated increases in TMAO and platelet clotting, although it didn’t completely eliminate them. The finding is of particular concern for people who are at an elevated risk for cardiovascular problems, whose increased risk of blood clots may not be overcome by low-dose aspirin. [2]

It also got the researchers to thinking that it might be worthwhile to study whether low-dose aspirin might help otherwise healthy people who have high levels of TMAO in their blood. First things first, though – they need to figure out why aspirin seems to lower TMAO before they can proceed. Besides, aspirin can cause its own slate of health problems.

So, what is the best way to avoid excess, clot-promoting choline? Well, the team isn’t recommending that people stop eating animal products, but they are urging people to avoid choline supplements. Hazen says:

“Foods that raise TMAO may increase your risk for clotting and thrombotic events. Unless prescribed by your doctor, avoid supplements with choline. A Mediterranean or vegetarian diet is reported to help reduce TMAO.” [1]

Mediterranean diets have a long history of being heart-healthy. There is no specific guide to follow when it comes to the eating pattern, but Mediterranean diets are rich in fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes, lean cuts of poultry and fish, and olive oil. Little to no red meat is included in the diet.

Previous studies have shown that olive oil consumption lowers the risk of heart disease. One study even showed that a Mediterranean diet may be more beneficial to people with high cholesterol than statin drugs.

Sources:

[1] NBC News

[2] Business Journal

Scripps

VitaCholine


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