Ida Strickland has lived an active life for more than a decade, thanks to three stents placed in her heart. They're correcting vascular problems she blames on genetics.
"My mother and all the women in my family have history of heart disease," says Strickland.
But recently, UCSF heart researcher Yarem Yeghiazarians, M.D., asked her to add another medication to her treatment -- cocoa -- or more precisely, something extracted from it called flavanols.
"We wanted to see at higher concentration, what the effects of these compounds would be on a patients' blood pressure, the health of their blood vessels," says Yeghiazarians.
Flavanols are nutrient compounds found in foods such as chocolate, apples, tea, and grapes. They're believed to produce the anti-oxidant effect in red wine, which some researchers say is beneficial to the vascular system.
But by giving patients high-doses of the flavanols themselves, Yeghiazarian's team noted significant improvements in patients already suffering from heart disease.
"They had a decrease in their blood pressures, which was very significant compared to the low flavanol group. We found that the health of their blood vessels, [measured] by a special ultrasound test, was significantly improved," says Yeghiazarians.
In fact there have been many studies over the years looking at the beneficial effects of certain foods on heart health. But in this case, the UCSF team also wanted to look at why flavanols produce the effect they do and that search ultimately zeroed in on stem cells.
In examining the patients' vascular systems, the UCSF team was able to document the increased presence of circulating stem cells, believed to help blood vessels repair themselves.
"So we're very excited because this therapy not only improved the blood pressure, not only improved the health of the blood vessel, but it may be that it improves all these things by increasing the number of these very beneficial stem cells that run around in a circulation," says Yeghiazarians.
While the findings are encouraging, they're unlikely to trigger a cocoa or red wine craze. Researchers say you'd have to consume bottles of wine, or pounds of chocolate a day to come close to the high concentration of flavanols found in the thick milky drink given to patients like Strickland.
"I wish the study took place in a chocolate bar or something like that. It would have been good," says Strickland.
Yeghiazarians believes the results are encouraging enough to warrant a large scale study, to determine if flavanols could extend life spans in heart disease patients.