How dark chocolate may benefit your eye health

Discovered by the Aztecs and loved by chocoholics ever since, dark chocolate is also thought to benefit those with long-term eye conditions. Here’s how.

As part of a balanced diet, dark chocolate contains a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which scientists believe may support eye health. From reducing symptoms to increasing cardiovascular health and boosting mood, there are a variety of ways dark chocolate is thought to benefit those with long-term eye conditions.

So, as February 1st is National Dark Chocolate Day and the start of Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) awareness month, it seemed appropriate to investigate exactly how this tasty treat may benefit people with AMD and glaucoma.

Why dark chocolate?

Although the bitter taste of dark chocolate is what makes it less popular compared to milk and white options, it’s exactly this flavour that gives it superior health benefits. This is because dark bars or treats contain a higher percentage of chocolate’s base ingredient, cocoa, meaning it retains the natural properties which are thought to be beneficial to eye health.

The type of cocoa used to make chocolate comes from the seed (or bean) of the cocoa plant. Mainly grown in West Africa, this seed is harvested, dried, roasted and processed into powder (which is used in hot drinks), butter or liquor which is used to create chocolate-based treats.

What eye conditions may dark chocolate help with?

While the scientific evidence of dark chocolate’s is mixed, there are some studies which suggest eating this treat regularly may support general eye health and protect against worsening symptoms of glaucoma and AMD.

As two of the biggest causes of sight loss in the UK, both glaucoma and AMD are a result of damage to parts of the back of the eye. Specifically, glaucoma is caused by problems with the optic nerve that connect the eyes to the brain and AMD by issues with the macula. This is a part of the retina which detects light and helps the brain to form images in the centre of our vision.

Though age is a major factor in both of these conditions, the impact of a balanced diet on those with glaucoma and AMD continues to be a subject of discussion for many scientific studies. It’s thought that improving how people eat can help protect against developing or worsening AMD and glaucoma.

How dark chocolate may improve eye health

As well as being delicious, scientific studies suggest that dark chocolate may benefit the millions living with AMD and glaucoma - but how?

Increasing retinal blood flow with flavanols

Flavanols are natural plant-based compounds found in food and drinks such as red wine, tea and apples. A sub-group of flavonoids, the flavanols found in cocoa are unique to the plant and, when consumed regularly in dark chocolate or drinking cocoa, have been shown to improve blood flow to the brain and, potentially, the retina.

This is because cocoa flavanols are thought to maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, meaning a healthy level of circulation around the retina, the back of the eye and the brain is supported. As such, enjoying small amounts of dark chocolate regularly could help protect those at risk of long-term eye conditions or improve the symptoms of people with AMD and glaucoma.

Protecting the optic nerve with polyphenols

Present in many plants, polyphenols are also a group of naturally-occurring compounds present in the base of dark chocolate, cacao. In cacao and other foods where they’re found, they help to protect the plants from insects, diseases and weather elements.

When eaten by humans, they play the same protective role in our bodies. This includes the head of the optic nerve in the retina where, according to one study, they help to maintain blood flow and prevent cell damage. This means eating these antioxidants can help improve the symptoms of people living with glaucoma.

Giving essential eye-health nutrients

As well as being packed full of antioxidants, dark chocolate also contains minerals such as magnesium and copper, plus vitamins A and B. All of these, a study found, play an important role in helping to slow the progression of AMD symptoms.

Specifically, this research found that taking around nine nutrients (including those contained in dark chocolate) helped to significantly reduce the likelihood of older people developing AMD.

Improving heart and brain health

Eating dark chocolate regularly doesn’t just directly help reduce the symptoms of long-term eye conditions, but reduces the likelihood of other risk factors too. While one study found that the nutrients in cocoa can bring down blood pressure, another discovered they can increase blood flow to the brain and maintain nerve health.

This means enjoying small amounts of dark chocolate could have benefits for those looking to prevent AMD or glaucoma as well as those who want to relieve their symptoms.

How much dark chocolate will boost eye health?

At the moment, the scientific evidence of the link between eating dark chocolate and improved eye health isn’t definitive. As such, there are no specific recommendations as to how many grams of dark chocolate should be eaten each day for improvements to be seen.

However, integrating small amounts of dark chocolate with a cocoa percentage of 50% or more into a balanced diet may help to reduce eye condition symptoms and boost mood. Eating dark chocolate with as high cocoa content as possible is key to benefiting from the plant’s natural health-giving properties. So switching from milk and white to more bitter alternatives is recommended for anyone looking to improve their eye health.

Plus, if you want to find out more about how vitamins, minerals and antioxidants can make a difference, then OcuPlan’s new free service is available to anyone, including glaucoma and AMD patients. With tailored advice from a consultant ophthalmologist, it’s ideal for anyone (chocoholic or not) looking to improve their eye health by making changes to their diet.

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