Who Loves Chocolate More – You or the Beneficial Bacteria Living in Your Gut?

You may have always loved chocolate for its decadent, creamy flavor and celebrated the news that chocolate may be good for you. You may not know, thought, that the bacteria living in your gut also enjoy chocolate and actually help you reap all the health benefits some of the chemicals in chocolate have to offer.

Cocoa beans contain about 380 chemicals, ten of which are those psychoactive compounds that make you feel so good when you eat chocolate. Cocoa beans also contain polyphenols, which are healthy micronutrients in certain plant-based foods.

Cocoa beans are chock full of polyphenols – and we mean PACKED. In fact, you cannot eat cocoa beans straight off the plant because the abundance of polyphenols makes the beans too bitter. You may not be getting all the health benefits available in chocolate, though, unless you have a healthy population of beneficial bacteria living in your gut. We’ll talk more about that later.

The Power of Polyphenols

Polyphenols help improve the health of plants. They defend plants from ultraviolet radiation from the sun, for example, and protect against cellular damage inflicted by predators. Humans can gain some of polyphenols simply by eating the right plants.

In humans, polyphenols act as antioxidants to protect body cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, which are the toxic byproduct of the body’s exposure to fried foods, alcohol, pollutants, pesticides, tobacco smoke, and other unhealthy substances.

Research suggests a diet rich in polyphenols can help protect against the development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases. These polyphenols work as vasodilators, which means they relax and widen blood vessels to allow for greater blood flow. This vasodilation can lower your blood pressure and reduce heart rate, easing the burden on your heart. The polyphenols in cocoa and dark chocolate also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

Limiting the Power of Polyphenols

The health benefits of polyphenols depend on the amount you eat, and the bioavailability of the polyphenols. Bioavailability is the proportion of a drug – polyphenols in this case – that enters the circulation once introduced into the body. Certain factors can influence bioavailability, including medications, foods, and diseases.

The route of administration can affect how much of the compound the body absorbs into the bloodstream. Drugs administered intravenously through an IV have 100 percent bioavailability because the drug is already in the bloodstream. Substances taken orally, like the polyphenols in chocolate, have less bioavailability because they must pass through the caustic environment of the digestive tract before absorption into the bloodstream.

About the Flavonoids in Chocolate and the Probiotics that Love Them

There are several types of polyphenols, including flavonoids. Along with other substances, known as carotenoids, flavonoids give plants their color. Flavonoids also provide health benefits to people who eat those plants.

The bioavailability of those flavonoids is rather limited, though, for a number of reasons. Flavonoids have a short half-life, which means they do not survive very long. These polyphenols are hydrophobic, so they don’t mix well with water; this makes flavonoids hard to absorb. Foods, beverages, medications, alcohol and all the other substances you may eat or drink can affect the absorption of cocoa flavonoids. Flavonoids are also susceptible to oxidation, the process that creates free radicals.

Certain parts of the digestive tract are better at absorbing specific flavonoids than are other parts of the gut. The small intestine can easily absorb the flavonoids theobromine and epicatechin, for example, but does a poor job of absorbing the flavonoids proanthocyanidins and oligomeric procyanidins. Those flavonoids become bioavailable in the colon only if the bacteria living in your gut are willing to gobble up the polyphenols and change them into a form you can absorb.

Fortunately, many of the bacteria living in your gut love chocolate as much as you do, so they are quite willing to transform your flavonoids for you. Previous studies show gut bacteria love to feast on all sorts of flavonoids, including those from blackberries and tea. A new study shows that those beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, also love the polyphenols in dark chocolate.

The polyphenols most common in the human diet are not necessarily very active, so they do not provide a whole lot of beneficial health effects. The common polyphenols may be poorly absorbed from the intestine, easily metabolized and broken down, or rapidly eliminated from the body. It is important to remember that you can only gain the health benefits of cocoa’s polyphenols by consuming dark chocolate – milk chocolate and white chocolate do not provide any health benefits.

Eating a plant-based diet can help support the beneficial bacteria that help you digest flavonoids. Taking a probiotic supplement can help beneficial bacteria thrive and function well so that you can get the most health benefits from the chocolate you enjoy.