Cocoa—The Newest Skin Saver?

Healthnotes Newswire (June 22, 2006)—Chocoholics, take heart: A new study suggests that a chemical from cocoa protects skin from the damaging effects of sun exposure and prevents the skin from aging.

Sun exposure is both necessary and potentially harmful: The body requires sunlight to produce enough vitamin D, which is needed to properly absorb and use calcium. And people deprived of sunlight in the winter months are susceptible to seasonal depression. Too much sun, however, damages the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer. The cumulative effect of years of excessive sun exposure can cause severe skin damage and skin cancer.

Skin is the largest organ of the body, and its quality is determined by its elasticity, color, texture, thickness, and hydration. These change with aging, along with the skin’s ability to withstand damaging levels of sun exposure.

Nutrition can alter the effects of time and sun exposure on skin health. Antioxidants, known to prevent cellular damage associated with the aging process, protect the skin as well. Vitamin C, beta-carotene and other carotenoids, vitamin E, and vitamin A have all been shown in previous studies to prevent sun damage and to improve skin quality. Flavonoids, a group of antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables, as well as in cocoa, tea, and red wine, might be especially potent skin protectors. Previous research has found that green tea leaves can prevent skin damage when applied to the skin either before or after sun exposure. Animal studies suggest that drinking green tea might also be helpful.

The Journal of Nutrition recently published a study of the effects of cocoa flavonoids on skin health. The 24 women in the study drank 100 ml (about 3 ounces) of cocoa every day for 12 weeks. One group of them drank cocoa fortified with 326 mg of cocoa flavanols (a type of flavonoid) per serving; the other group drank cocoa with 27 mg of cocoa flavonols per serving.

The skin of the women drinking high-flavanol cocoa was more tolerant to ultraviolet light exposure after 6 weeks and 12 weeks, but the skin tolerance of women drinking the low-flavanol cocoa did not change. What’s more, skin quality improved in the women drinking high-flavanol cocoa: roughness and scaling diminished, and their skin was thicker, denser, and better hydrated by the end of the study.

Some of the flavonoids in cocoa are also found in green tea and have been the subject of much anticancer research. This was the first study to suggest that cocoa flavanols might protect the skin and thereby prevent skin cancer. The amount of cocoa flavanol in the high-flavanol drink was approximately the amount found in 100 grams of dark chocolate, a portion that might seem daunting even to chocolate lovers.

Study author Wilhelm Stahl, however, warns against relying on eating chocolate to protect skin. “There is a broad variation in the [chemical] content of chocolate, even in dark ones,” he said. “Our study provides scientific evidence that cocoa polyphenols [flavonoids] have beneficial effects on skin,” he added, pointing out that this is not enough evidence to promote eating chocolate every day.

Eating a diet that contains chocolate and other flavonoid-rich foods might be good for keeping skin healthy, but whether a protective amount of these antioxidants can be obtained from a reasonable diet remains a topic for future research.

(J Nutr 2006;136:1565–9)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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