Dr's Casebook: How cocoa and grapes can reduce your risk from stress

The pandemic has been stressful for everyone.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 4:45 pm

The curtailment of freedom, the risk of infection and the almost complete focus of attention on Covid in the media are all powerful causes of stress.

So too is the isolation many have felt because they have had to live alone, along with the angst of not seeing loved ones.

We all have coping mechanisms for dealing with stress.

Some things like smoking, drinking more alcohol, or binge eating on junk food may seem to take the edge off the stress level, but they are not healthy coping mechanisms.

Yet other dietary things can really help.

Research from the University of Birmingham has looked at flavanol intake and suggests that things like cocoa and fruit are the best things to reach for when stressed, since they are rich in these natural chemicals.

They do more than reduce the feeling of stress, but they reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease and death by an action on the endothelium.

The endothelium is a thin membrane of cells that lines the heart and the blood vessels.

When it is smooth and healthy, and functioning correctly it reduces the risk of stroke, heart disease, diabetes, tumour growth, thrombosis, and severe viral infectious diseases. It is well documented that mental stress can have a negative effect on the function of the endothelium.

In a study of 30 males aged between 18 years and 45, the researchers showed that drinking cocoa, which is rich in flavanols, in the hours before a stressful situation can improve blood flow during the experience.

In this study the group of healthy men drank either a high-flavanol cocoa beverage or a non-flavanol drink 90 minutes before completing an eight-minute exacting mental stress task. Blood pressure, blood flow and cardiovascular activity were all measured at rest, during the stress test and again afterwards.

They found that blood vessel function was markedly less impaired when the participants drank high-flavanol cocoa. They also found that the cocoa improved blood flow during stress.

They suggest that consuming a variety of foods rich in flavanols, especially apples, black grapes, blackberries, cherries, raspberries, pears, pulses, green tea and unprocessed cocoa, could significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke from stress.