The Teacup Chronicles

Month: February, 2010

Valentine’s Special Part 2: Chocolate as Medicine

I must admit that while I do love Valentine’s day for an excuse to celebrate the love in my life, I am also just a little bit motivated by the day’s heavy involvement with chocolate! Let’s face it – love, though perhaps the most sought after and transformative friend to the spirit, can be too great a companion with excruciating heartbreak and pain. And while we all would gladly trade a lifetime of heartbreak for but a moment’s glimpse at love – it’s nice to have a friend like chocolate in the meantime. Chocolate is just chocolate – reliable and always pleasant, not one to often let you down.

Chocolate, in fact, has an awful lot in common with love. Like love, chocolate is bittersweet (I’m sorry – I just couldn’t resist!). It creates a cascade of pleasurable emotions that for some can cause one’s desire for it to even border on obsession. It seems to spark the senses in the way that love also has a particular habit of doing. And, like love, chocolate is wonderful for your health – especially the health of your mind and your heart.

This might come as great news, but also great surprise, to many of my readers. I cannot even count the number of times I have listened to guilty admissions of chocolate addiction. Women, especially, harbor a terrible amount of self-blame for craving chocolate during certain hormonally trying times, or reaching for the chocolate when life is especially full of stress.

But in fact, there is nothing to feel guilty or shameful about when it comes to indulging in chocolate! Chocolate is an incredibly healthful food, and we crave it with good reason! Eating chocolate around menstruation, for instance, provides the magnesium needed for muscle relaxation (ie to quell our poor cramping uterus), and iron, which we lose a great deal of with our menses. And stress induced cravings might be fueled by chocolate’s rich supply of stress fighting antioxidants and its ability to boost mood elevating endorphin levels.

Here’s what else chocolate can do for you:

  • reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol ratios, and reduce overall risk of cardiovascular disease (eating one dark chocolate bar each day (50-100g) as part of an antioxidant rich diet can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 76%!)
  • improve brain function and mood
  • protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer
  • improve stress response
  • improve immunity
  • reduce inflammation
  • support healthy blood sugar levels
  • provide a concentrated source of antioxidants (8 times more than red wine, 3 times that in green tea) in your diet
  • provide minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium

And, if you still might harbor secret fears that chocolate leads to weight gain, cavities, migraines, or acne, you can let them all go. There is no conclusive data to support any of these myths – and in fact, chocolate has been found to prevent cavities and actually boost metabolism ! The one caveat is that chocolate does contain caffeine (about 20 mg per oz – equivalent to 8 oz of green tea), and other stimulating alkaloids such as theobromine that can effect sensitive individuals. If you find yourself particularly reactive to the stimulating effects of chocolate, be sure to consume it earlier in the day and do something active afterwords.

So, with that said, don’t feel like you have my permission to eat that whole box of truffles just yet. There are few things to understand about chocolate. First, if you’re looking for health benefits, the darker the chocolate the better. The less cocoa content the chocolate bar contains (demonstrated in the % marked on the label), the less of the antioxidant polyphenols, minerals and fiber it will contain. Secondly, the less processed the product is, the more antioxidant power it will have. Thus, cocoa nibs or unprocessed cocoa powder ( I like this brand) are far better then processed cocoa or chocolate bars.

All in all, research seems to support that a 100g serving of 70% or higher dark chocolate, or 3 tbl (about 25g) cocoa powder are what you want when it comes to optimum health benefits and disease prevention. And, don’t forget that the best health benefits are accrued when this is consumed within the context of an already antioxidant rich (ie plant rich) diet, filled with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. Thus, if you started to think that you might live on chocolate alone, I’ll have to dash your dreams. There is no superfood that will ever equal the benefits of daily consumption of good ol’ fruits and vegetables.

Secondly, don’t forget that chocolate comes from places where workers often have little rights and are exploited in the name of producing a cheep product. The land is often ravaged for similar reasons – destroying natural ecology to grow monocultures of profitable crops. Energy stays with a food, and you do not want to eat human suffering and environmental degradation in the name of your health! Buy fair trade and organically grown and support the greater manifestation of health.

So, to get to the best part, this is my most favorite of all ways to eat chocolate. This is real hot chocolate – thick, creamy and delicious – you might even need a spoon to scoop out the last delicious bits. I highly recommend you make this up as a special Valentine’s ritual to be shared with a sweetheart, or even as a toast to an intimate group of friends. I even more highly recommend you make it a daily or weekly ritual for yourself.

Hot Chocolate for Sweethearts and Good Friends

Ingredients:

4-6 squares dark chocolate (70% or higher)

4 tbl uncprocessed, raw cocoa powder

2 egg yolks from pasture raised hens

2 cups whole cow’s milk, nutmilk etc.

1-2 tsp of honey

2 tbl Damiana infused brandy (if desired for added love potion power)

pinch cinnamon, cayenne, cardamom and rose

Instructions:

  1. Place chocolate to melt in a double broiler (or a stainless steel bowl set over a pan of boiling water). Stir occasionally until melted completely.
  2. Drop the egg yolks into the melted chocolate, add the cocoa powder, and whisk until thick and smooth
  3. Add milk to a saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the milk begins to steam. Pour the hot milk very slowly into the egg and chocolate mixture, whisking all the time. Continue to whisk vigorously until the chocolate is very foamy.
  4. Add honey to taste, and sprinkle a dash of cinnamon, cayenne, cardamom and rose powder onto the top.
  5. Share a mug with whom you will over candle light, and gaze into each other’s eyes as you sip slowly and savor.

Other ideas to enjoy your chocolate:

  • 3 tbl raw cocoa powder blended with a banana, 1-2 tbl nut butter, and a cup of milk for a delicious and wholesome milkshake!
  • Cocoa nibs sprinkled on salads, into yogurt, or eaten as a snack
  • 1-2 oz of a delicious organic and fairtrade dark chocolate bar, savored slowly

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Valentine’s Special Part 1: Love as Medicine

There is something quite nice about the fact that right in the middle of one of the dreariest months of the year comes a day all about celebrating love. It might be easy to dismiss Valentine’s day as yet another of those consumer driven “greeting card” type holidays  – or worse yet, the kind of day when loneliness seems to be cruelly emphasized and expectations hopelessly dashed. But somehow, I can’t help but look forward to it.  It seems to me that anything which encourages us to express our love for those around us has a good deal of worth. After all,  how easy it is to forget that something as simple as love is even worth celebrating! How easy it is to forget what a miracle it is to love.

That I should even think it necessary to write an article about the benefits of love might seem a little ridiculous. But I think its far too easy to overlook the obvious when thinking about our health. You can eat vegetables until you’re blue in the face, after all,  but if you have no love in your life, what does it matter?  As Oscar Wilde said, “A life without love is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.”We need love, it is the sun that lights and warms our spirit. Without it, our lives are devoid of purpose or joy.

While no one can deny that love is good for the soul, that it shapes our lives, and provides purpose to our days, can we really call love medicinal? Can it enhance our health in the same way as eating broccoli or getting exercise? Research shows that it really depends on the type of love. We all know that passionate love –  that addictive roller coaster of euphoria and infatuation that releases an explosion of butterflies in your belly when you see your object of attraction – is stressful on the body. Research shows that romantic love is associated with elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increases levels of  neurotransmitters involved in addiction, and mimics brain activity similar to that seen in obsessive compulsive disorder. Evolutionarily speaking, this sets us up perfectly to drown out the competition and focus our attention and sense of happiness completely on one mate ( at least long enough to potentially pass on the genes before you start to notice each other’s lesser qualities.) But passionate love, while pleasurable and fun, isn’t necessarily good for you – in the same way that cocaine or frequent binge drinking tend to take a toll on your health.

Fortunately for us, such love is usually short lived, and eventually ( if we are lucky)  gives way to the more “companion” based love  associated with stability, commitment, and partnership. This type of love is associated with numerous health benefits, including longer life and decreased rates of chronic disease. Married people who report satisfaction in their relationships have shown lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer, produce less of the stress hormone cortisol in response to stress, demonstrate slowed aging, and have better functioning immune systems than those who are single or report their relationships as stressful.  But don’t despair just yet if you haven’t found your soul-mate – these findings have also been shown to apply to those who have strong social networks and satisfying platonic relationships – meaning that friends count too!  In fact, having a strong social network has been shown to offer significant protection against age-related dementia later in life, and tends to prolong life in comparison to those with poor social networks.  Loneliness and social isolation seem to impact health comparably to obesity, lack of exercise and smoking – increasing the process of aging and susceptibility to disease.

It seems that just about any kind of loving relationship to another (whether a parent, friend, child or pet) confers numerous health benefits and enhances quality of life.  Love, as it turns out, is medicinal. But when it comes to love as medicine, there are a few things to consider. The first is that touch seems to be a particularly important part of expressing and experiencing love. Simply being hugged or having your hand held by your partner, or even a stranger, has been found to lower blood pressure, reduce perception of pain, and decrease the body’s reaction to stress. Hugs really are the best medicine! But you can’t experience that type of connection through social networking sites like Facebook, which is a good thing to remember.

Secondly, the act of loving seems to be a far better medicine than simply being loved, as any religion might tell you. In Celtic Ireland, for example, anything given from a place of love and goodness within yourself is said to come back to you multiplied ten thousand times! The more love you give, the more love you have. It makes sense then, that the act of giving love seems to be particularly important when it comes to levels of happiness and satisfaction in life.  Simply showing care or concern for others by engaging in a giving task like volunteer work , for instance, has been found to reduce chronic pain and alleviate symptoms of depression.  And, believe it or not, just thinking of a loved one and reflecting on feelings for them each day over a 5 week period was found in a 2007 study to significantly lower cholesterol levels! (It’s no coincidence that the heart is so intimately connected with the idea of love). Try thinking of those that you deeply love for a few moments and see how it makes you feel!

So, because its February and because love is such a great medicine, why not take a moment or two out of your day to really celebrate it? Give a good friend a hug, or hold your sweetheart’s hand and tell them how much you love them. Find the wellspring of love that exists in your own spirit and feel it flowing through you  -know that it is more than enough to heal all the places of neglect and hurt that lie within your heart . And if you really want to get into the spirit, send a Valentine to those you care about and let them know how much they mean to you – It’s good for your health!