The stuff of Valentine's Day may be good for the heart, in more ways than one. Chocolate, red wine, and expressions of love could not only make thumpers go pitter-patter in romantic fashion, they could also lead to better heart health.
According to a growing amount of research, chocolate, red wine, and love can play a role in keeping the blood flowing throughout the body. Experts do not always agree on how these elements boost cardiovascular fitness, nor do they always recommend them as tools for disease prevention. But it's clear that a little of each isn't too bad -- in moderation.
The Sweet Stuff
Many people see chocolate as a guilty pleasure. How many dieters have felt they've committed a sin upon indulging in the cocoa delight? How many mothers have warned their children against eating too much, lest they get cavities?
There's no doubt chocolate can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay, but now researchers are finding it can do good things for the body as well.
"It seems a component in cocoa -- flavonoids -- can be heart healthful," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). She says flavonoids are antioxidants, known to protect against free radicals in the body. Free radicals are suspected of damaging arteries and triggering buildup of plaque (fatty substances) in the wall of blood vessels, which can lead to atherosclerosis.
Antioxidants can also help lower the level of "bad" cholesterol (LDL), and increase the amount of "good" cholesterol (HDL). This antioxidant effect is apparently greater in dark chocolate, because it has more cocoa beans, a natural source of flavonoids.
The flavonoids in dark chocolate may also improve the health of the endothelium (the lining in arteries and veins), says Joe Vinson, professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
In one study, he says people with one risk factor for heart disease (i.e. high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides) drank a single 6-ounce glass of cocoa, rich in flavonoids. From that one drink, researchers reportedly found a significant improvement in the flexibility of the arteries.
Studies can be misleading, though, says Vinson, as researchers typically give subjects high doses of cocoa. "We don't know if lower doses work," he says.
In the same vein, health experts warn against eating too much chocolate as it is usually packed with calories and saturated fat.
If you indulge yourself or a loved one in the cocoa treat, eat a small amount. Cynthia Sass, RD, spokeswoman for the ADA, recommends buying more expensive chocolate, but less of it. "With rich chocolate, it doesn't take much to be satisfied," she says, noting that people who take time to savor, and let the candy melt in their mouth, tend to be more content with smaller servings.
Wining and dining has long been a Valentine's Day tradition for sweethearts, and now there may be more reason to clink glasses.
For people who drink a moderate amount of red wine, there's a heart health benefit. Research has shown that the flavonoids in red wine -- originally from grape skins -- have an antioxidant effect, may raise good cholesterol levels and may help prevent blood clotting in vessels.
Other, more controversial findings reveal that not just red wine, but moderate amounts of alcohol in general, wards against cardiovascular disease.
"Alcohol has a blood-thinning effect, and that was what was found to be effective against stroke and heart disease," says Sass.
Yet the studies on different types of alcohol have been small, and don't show as much effect on increasing good cholesterol, says Holly Novak, MD, director of prevention and women's health at Prairie Cardiovascular in Springfield, Ill.
Additionally, Vinson says alcohol can also produce free radicals, which are bad for the liver, counteracting any antioxidant benefits. The only exception, he says, is red wine in moderation.
All the health professionals interviewed by WebMD warn against excessive drinking, or encouraging nondrinkers to start drinking. Alcohol consumption can raise the risk of liver problems, high blood pressure, obesity, breast cancer, suicide, and accidents.
Women of childbearing age are also encouraged not to drink, as alcohol can harm the growth and development of an unborn child. By the time women who drink heavily find out they're pregnant "the damage could already be done," says Sass, who recommends sparkling grape juice, or dark-red grape juice with sparkling water as alternatives to red wine.
For people that choose to drink alcohol, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink for women. A drink is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, or 1 ounce of 100-proof spirits.
Overall, experts don't recommend red wine or any other alcohol as a first line of defense against heart disease.
The word "love" has stumped people for ages. It has made people feel like they're floating, or become crybabies upon hearing a certain song. It has also made otherwise sensible people do crazy things.
Yet, as mysterious a force love is, there seems to be no surprise that it is capable of many, many things.
How about improving heart health? As ludicrous as it may sound -- yes -- there is proof that it can do that, too, and more.
"The evidence is very strong that good relationships have health benefits," says Blair Justice, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
According to Justice, various investigators have looked into different types of relationships (i.e. marriage, family, and friendship), and have shown that love can:
- Help prevent plaque buildup in the arteries.
- Protect against heart disease.
- Boost levels of antibodies in the body.
- Reduce levels of stress chemicals, which can damage the immune system.
- Lower risk of disease in general.
- Decrease risk of early death.
- Lengthen life.
Love's protective effect against heart disease has been tested in several settings.
Researchers who kept track of Italian American immigrants in Roseto, Penn., found that people who maintained close family ties as in their homeland tended to have less incidence of heart disease compared with other American communities, even though they ate a high-fat diet.
"Gradually, over time, a certain percentage of these (Italian American) families started to adopt more American ways -- getting more interested in the fast life, fancy cars, and country club memberships -- and they started getting the same incidence of heart disease as people who had been in this country," says Justice.
A long-term study was also done on Japanese Americans who moved to Hawaii and California, and the results were similar. Immigrants who adopted more American ways tended to have more incidence of heart disease compared with those who kept their traditional close family ties.
One theory explaining love's effect on physical health involves human nature. "It's instinctual to have this need for touching and talking," says Justice. He says the personal contact turns on a part of the nervous system, which has a calming effect, and allows for a smaller amount stress chemicals in the body.
In addition, the human touch can lower blood pressure, and illicit a sense of safety, connection, and comfort, says Carol Rinkleib Ellison, PhD, author of Women's Sexualities, and a psychologist in private practice.
"People who do affirm their love for each other before going to sleep tend to sleep more deeply, in a more relaxed way, and they'll wake in the morning more refreshed, in a better mood, and, therefore, they'll get along better," says Ellison.
Real life may not always be as simple, but experts do agree that having less stress is good for the health of the overall body, including the heart.
Gifts From and for the Heart
Offering your sweetie love, red wine, and chocolate for Valentine's Day may, indeed, help you score big in the heart department. But romantic and healthy gift giving need not be boring.
Below are some ideas from the health experts interviewed by WebMD to help get hearts pumping.
- Give a fruit basket, or sign up your loved one for a fruit-of-the-month club that delivers fresh produce to doorsteps. Red fruits such a strawberries, cherries, and ruby red grapefruits are rich in antioxidants, says Sass.
- Give your loved one a pedometer. It's a fun tool that can help your honey see his or her fitness progress. After all, exercise is good for the heart. Moores suggests setting up a date to walk together.
- Take a field trip to do something with one another, rather than buying a material object. It's a chance to create a new experience or re-live an old one together, says Ellison.
- Give a funny book, as humor is good for the heart, says Sass.
If you're still at a loss at what to give for Valentine's Day, fret not (stress is bad for your heart health).
"Whether it's a small box of chocolates, red roses, or it's time spent together, the point is to give a gift on Valentine's Day to somebody you care about," says Novak, reminding that the effort is what usually touches a person's heart.