Chocoholics, take heart: A new study suggests that a chemical from cocoa protects skin from the damaging effects of the sun 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 are susceptible to seasonal depression. Too much sun, however, damages the skin and increases the risk of skin cancer.
Nutrition can alter the effects of time and sun exposure on skin health. 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.
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 of cocoa every day for 12 weeks. One group 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. "Our study provides scientific evidence that cocoa polyphenols [flavonoids] have beneficial effects on skin," he said, pointing out that this is not enough evidence to promote eating chocolate every day.
Stay active, keep happy
Staying physically active may be the key to warding off depression. People who exercise regularly are generally healthier and suffer from depression less often than sedentary people do. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine now shows that depression can set in once regular exercise stops.
While heredity, stress, abnormalities in brain chemistry, hormonal fluctuations and low self-esteem may contribute to depression, physical activity seems to protect against it.
People who exercise regularly have less inflammation in their bodies, lowering their risk of diabetes and heart disease. Less inflammation and better cardiovascular fitness may also help explain the beneficial effects that exercise has on mood. Studies have shown that people who exercise as little as 30 minutes per day tend not to suffer from depression.
Knowing how exercise can improve mood, a research team from Bethesda, Md., aimed to find out what would happen when regular exercisers discontinued their normal workouts. Forty people who engaged in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes or longer, three or more times per week, took part in the study. One-half of the people were instructed to stop their usual exercise for two weeks, while the others continued exercising as before.
Following two weeks of exercise withdrawal, the people were significantly more tired and depressed than the still-exercising group. It is interesting that bodily complaints associated with depression, such as fatigue, started before emotional symptoms like sadness. As fitness levels decreased in response to discontinuing exercise, the people became less energetic. On the other hand, the people who continued exercising had a decrease in depression.
Maureen Williams, N.D., has a private practice in Quechee, Vt., and works with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Kimberly Beauchamp, N.D., cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, R.I., and is a doula.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 9/p. 46