When the healthy “bugs” (bacteria) that naturally live in our intestines are out of balance, we are at increased risk for illness and chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Types of bacteria that support health include bifidobacteria and lactobacilli strains, which may help with immune system support and prevent the growth of bad bugs in the gut, and help synthesize certain vitamins that support the body’s functions.
In this study, 22 healthy participants were randomly assigned to consume a high-cocoa flavanol (494 mg cocoa flavanols per day) or a low-cocoa flavanol (23 mg cocoa flavanols per day) drink, daily for four weeks. Researchers measured the number of certain types of bacteria from the participants’ intestines before and after the intervention and measured blood markers associated with chronic disease.
People who drank the high-cocoa flavanol drink had increased numbers of bifidobacteria and lactobacilli in their intestines compared with the people who drank the low-cocoa flavanol drink.
Compared with people who drank the low-cocoa flavanol drink, people who drank the high-cocoa flavanol drink also had decreased numbers of a bacterial strain (clostridia) associated with chronic diseases such as colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
Markers of health in the body (biomarkers), such as plasma triglyceride and C-reactive protein levels, also decreased significantly in the high-flavanol group compared with the low-flavanol group. This is an important finding because lower levels of both of these markers are important for preventing chronic disease.
The authors of the study comment, “Epidemiologic data has long supported that plant-based diets are strongly associated with improved gastrointestinal health. Although further research is required, the results of the current study suggest that the phytonutrient components of plants [such as cocoa] may be important contributors to these benefits.”
(Am J Clin Nutr 2011;93:62–72.)
Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.