Has your conscience been bothering you because you’ve been spending time having fun with friends, eating chocolate, and drinking red wine? Cheer up! Turns out, all of it is good for your health. This is not selfish pleasure-seeking. It’s a way to stay sane and keep your heart healthy. It may be one of the reasons women live longer than men. We deal with our stress by reaching out to our friends, talking and socializing. Men are prone to internalizing their stress rather than letting go as we do. And while we crave chocolate, men seem to crave a good steak.
My last few columns have focused on stress reduction through positive social contact. I previously stated that laughter and positive social contact changes brain chemistry in a positive way. The science is there—it is a proven fact. Social interaction is the Prozac of human contact and laughter is truly the best medicine. And now a new study from the British Medical Journal is suggesting that we should add dark chocolate to the list of things that can reduce the bad effects of stress. Something that we love, loves us back!
We already know from studies that chocolate contains many of the health benefits of dark green vegetables. These benefits derive from flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. Dark chocolate contains a large number of antioxidants (nearly eight times the number found in strawberries). Flavonoids also help relax blood pressure through the production of nitric oxide and balance certain hormones in the body. Sound familiar? According to the British Medical Journal study, people who frequently consume dark chocolate have a 29 percent reduction in stroke risk and a 31 percent reduction in diabetes risk. Like laughter and friendship, there is now evidence a little chocolate is good for your heart as well as your soul. But, like friendship, it’s the quality of the chocolate that matters! Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, chocolate cookies, not so much.
It’s not just any sort of friendship and any sort of chocolate that will have healthful benefits. It’s the right kind of chocolate and the right kind of friendship. When it comes to friendship, it’s the feeling of our connection that is so soothing and calming. Surrounding ourselves with supportive, caring, positive friends is the all-so-powerful anxiety reducer. It’s so much more than just okay, it’s crucial.
It’s hard to resist the notion that spending time laughing with friends and eating the universe’s most delicious food could be the key to better health. I do wish to be perfectly clear: I am certainly not suggesting that people start eating chocolate and drinking wine to prevent illness—it’s just that you shouldn’t feel guilty for doing it (in moderation). Even more powerful is the strong psychological effect in rewarding ourselves for dealing with our stressed out, busy world. After all, we all do things we would rather not do—attend a meeting that we know will be unpleasant, or begin a morning of errands that stretches far ahead of us.
There may be nothing we can do to avoid unpleasant tasks, but we can reduce our stress by rewarding ourselves with the things we love: friends and loved ones, wine, and chocolate.