Cirrhosis of the liver – simply called cirrhosis by medical professionals – causes 10,000-15,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. It recently ranked as the 12th leading cause of disease-related deaths in the country.
Anything that helps a cirrhosis sufferer live longer definitely comes as good news. But one recent study found some extremely interesting results about eating dark chocolate: it appears dark chocolate can actually help prolong the lives of cirrhosis patients.
The announcement was made at the Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of the Liver in Vienna, Austria, in April 2010. The report described data revealing that dark chocolate reduced portal hypertension in patients with cirrhosis.
It’s easier to understand the research if you know what portal hypertension is, and the causes of cirrhosis.
When normal liver tissue is sufficiently damaged, it is replaced by fibrous scar tissue. When a sufficient amount of scar tissue replaces healthy tissue in the liver, the condition is called cirrhosis. Under normal circumstances, your liver can regenerate new cells and replace those that have been damaged. Unfortunately, scarring that has built up to the cirrhosis stage is irreversible. Blood cannot flow through scar tissue, so as the scarring progresses, liver function degrades. Eventually, the liver will fail, which is a medical emergency and a life-threatening situation.
Cirrhosis results most often from two causes: drinking an excessive amount of alcohol, and hepatitis. No matter how you get it, cirrhosis can lead to some very dangerous liver trouble and complications.
One of these complications is a problem known as portal hypertension. Portal hypertension is a form of high blood pressure that occurs in the portal vein, which brings blood to the liver from the digestive organs. Portal hypertension can cause blockages in the blood flow around the esophagus and stomach. So the body develops veins (varices) in these areas to bypass the blockages. These veins are fragile and they’re already under substantial pressure. Ruptures become more likely. Known as bleeding varices, such cirrhosis-related blood vessel ruptures can be extremely dangerous.
But data released by a group of researchers in Spain reveals that eating dark chocolate may lower the risk of portal hypertension causing bleeding varices in cirrhosis patients.
It’s typical for blood pressure in your abdominal area to bump upward shortly after you’ve eaten. This is due to increased blood flow to the liver. This can be a dangerous time for people with cirrhosis, because they already have high blood pressure in the portal vein. Adding more pressure greatly increases the chance of a rupture.
Dark chocolate contains a lot of flavenoids, which are chemicals that have been proven to be beneficial for the body – especially the heart. Flavenoids also help reduce blood pressure because they relax veins and arteries, allowing blood to flow more easily. Many kinds of chocolate do not contain flavenoids, but they are certainly present in dark chocolate. In fact, the darker the chocolate, the more flavenoid content is present.
The participants in this study were given either 85 percent dark chocolate to eat, or a meal of white chocolate which contained no flavenoids. The researchers found that those given the dark chocolate had a statistically significant smaller rise in portal hypertension than those given white chocolate. These results seemed to indicate that cirrhosis patients who eat dark chocolate lower their risk of blood vessel ruptures.
Dark chocolate is no longer placed in the same category as other chocolate as “just candy.” The flavenoids it contains actually make it a nutritious health food when eaten moderately. Flavenoids, in fact, offer many of the same healthy food benefits as darkly colored vegetables and fruits. There are eight times as many flavenoids in dark chocolate as can be found in strawberries.
Anyone with cirrhosis should actively search for strategies to prevent portal hypertension and bleeding varices. Based on the work done by the Spanish researchers, it appears eating dark chocolate would benefit cirrhosis sufferers by helping them reduce portal hypertension.