You’ve probably heard that taking a baby aspirin or drinking a glass of wine can be good for your cardiovascular health - and it’s true! For most people chocolate, wine, and aspirin can offer protective benefits for the heart.
Aspirin comes from the bark of the willow tree. Its use dates back to 3000 B.C., and it has been used regularly throughout history for a variety of ailments. In recent years, it has been used primarily as an anti-pain and anti-fever medication. Bayer, a German Company, named the drug aspirin in the late 1800’s. Eventually, they were forced to give up the trademark as a part of the treaty of Versailles in 1919. Shortly after, aspirin became available without a prescription. Aspirin interferes with production of prostaglandin which reduces pain and inflammation and essentially makes your platelets less “sticky.” Studies have shown that aspirin may reduce the risk of heart attack by 44%, but in women a greater reduction was shown in the risk of stroke. Physicians recommend taking aspirin if you’ve had a previous heart attack or stroke, but if you have not had a cardiac event but have several risk factors for heart disease, your doctor may recommend you begin an aspirin regimen as a preventative measure.
Wine is the oldest documented man-made medicine. Greek and Roman physicians used it regularly to treat a variety of ailments, including dementia and even sinus problems! In the late 19th and 20th century, however, the dangers of alcohol were brought to light. Alcoholism and fetal alcohol syndrome were recognized, and public opinion turned against alcohol consumption in general which lead to prohibition. We since have learned that alcohol in moderation can actually be quite good for your health. Similar to aspirin, alcohol decreases clot formation and makes platelets less sticky. Polyphenols such as reveratrol and flavonoids help prevent LDL or “bad” cholesterol from becoming oxidized so it’s less likely to become glued to arteries. Alcohol in moderation can increase HDL or “good” cholesterol about 12 percent - similar to exercise! Studies have shown that while any alcohol is beneficial, red wine is probably more so. Likely because red wine is fermented with grape skin, which leads to higher levels of polyphenols. Alcohol intake must be moderate, as excessive intake has been found to be harmful.
Like wine, chocolate contains flavanoids and antioxidants that scavenge free radicals and keep hearts healthy. It comes from the Cacao tree and the Maya Indians were the first known people to have consumed it in 250-900 A.D. For years, cacao seeds were ground into a bitter spicy drink that was used as a health elixir. Later the drink was sweetened and became more of a treat for elite society. The first chocolate bar was produced in the 1800s and quickly spread to the mass production we know today. So how can chocolate be a health food? It helps inhibit platelet clumping, and reduces inflammation. Half of a square of chocolate inhibits platelets as much as an 81 mg aspirin! Dark chocolate is best due to the higher cocoa content. Studies have shown that light chocolate consumption resulted in a drop in blood pressure, a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, and a lower risk of heart failure. The recommended amount is unclear due to the varying studies and brands of chocolate, but about 6-7 grams a day (or a square of a chocolate bar) is about right.
So what do these three things have in common? Chocolate, wine and aspirin all decrease blood clot formation, and have antioxidant properties that protect your heart health. Again, moderation is the key to keeping the benefit of incorporating these into your lifestyle outweigh the harm.
Mindy Gentry, M.D.
Mindy Gentry, M.D., is a cardiologist with WellStar Medical Group, Cardiovascular Medicine. She is board certified in Cardiovascular Disease, internal medicine, nuclear cardiology and echocardiography. Dr. Gentry earned her medical degree in 2000 from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, where she remained to complete her residency and was selected to serve as both chief medical resident and chief cardiology fellow.
Dr. Gentry’s special interests include cardiac imaging, women and heart disease, and heart disease during pregnancy. She is a member of the American College of Cardiology, the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology and the American Society of Echocardiography.