In your body, free radicals are as much terrorists as their human counterparts can be in the world at large. Your body has some natural defenses that can scavenge and neutralize free radicals, but that may not be enough.

What are free radicals?

Free radicals are a natural byproduct of your body’s turning the food you eat into the energy you need to move, breathe and do everything else. They come primarily from your main energy producers, the mitochondria that inhabit every cell in your body. Free radicals come in different sizes and shapes, but they have one thing in common: They are missing one electron.

Stable chemicals have a balance between the protons in their nucleus and the electrons that form a cloud around the nucleus. Because of the missing electron, free radicals feel incomplete and are constantly seeking to steal an electron from other stable chemicals.

Why is this a problem?

The problem is that if a free radical steals an electron from some part of your genetic DNA, for example, then the nature and function of those genes is likely to change in unpredictable ways. It’s not just DNA that may be affected, but any of your cell membranes, proteins, brain cells and more. And the bigger problem is that once an electron is stolen, it may start a chain reaction of further destruction as the victim of the theft then seeks completion.

Such damage may be minor, but it may lead also to crippling or life-threatening conditions. There is now evidence, for example, that the death of the neurons that result in Parkinson’s disease may be related to free radical damage.

Is there no help?

There is help, and plenty of it.

Your body naturally makes chemical enzymes called antioxidants, whose job is to gobble up free radicals and render them harmless. In order to do this, your body needs a large source of nutrients as raw material, and those come from the food you eat.

You are probably well aware of many of the foods that are high in antioxidants. These are mainly foods carrying vitamins E and C, as well as beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which itself has no antioxidant properties. And for the proper function of your body’s enzyme system, a trace amount of the metal selenium is needed.

The list of foods supplying these nutrients is long and possibly familiar: nuts and seeds; fish oils; vegetable oil; whole grains; and assorted fruits such as apricots, citrus, peaches, strawberries, cantaloupe and kiwi, in addition to green bell peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kale, liver, egg, butter, carrots, squash, yams, tomatoes and more.

There is one outstanding nutrient-rich food that is hardly ever mentioned.

Enter chocolate!

This column is not long enough to fully extol the virtues of chocolate, but a look at some of its main benefits may send you off to your favorite store to get some.

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but chocolate does, and its name is Theobromo cacao, the cacao tree. This is a fairly small (15-25 feet tall) evergreen that is native to Central and South America. If you like chocolate, you’ll appreciate its name, which comes from the Greek words Theos, meaning God, and bromo, meaning food. I have a friend who states unequivocally that eating his favorite chocolate truffles is a religious experience.

The tree produces cacao pods, each containing a few dozen beans that are the main ingredient in chocolate. In addition, however, the pulp is used to produce a juice or jelly in some countries, and I understand that in Central America, the pulp was fermented to produce an alcoholic drink as early as 4,000 years ago.

So, what’s it good for?

One of the primary benefits of chocolate is its abundance of antioxidants, and that benefit comes from a class of compounds called flavonoids. In chocolate, more specifically, it’s flavinol. In addition, research suggests that flavonoids help lower blood pressure, facilitate blood flow to the brain and reduce the likelihood of blood clots forming. They may also help protect against ultraviolet damage to the skin.

And incidentally, Harvard researchers discovered that men who consumed foods high in flavonoids at least three times a week experienced significantly lower occurrence of erectile dysfunction as they aged. This gives some credibility to the folklore that suggests chocolate to be an aphrodisiac.

Eating chocolate makes you feel good. This is likely the effect of another wonder compound in chocolate, a neurotransmitter called anandamide. Anandamide is involved also in producing the protein BDNF, which helps preserve existing brain cells, or neurons, and converts other cells into neurons.

Beyond that, chocolate is nutritious to a fault. It contains fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorous and the all-important selenium. It has been shown to increase levels of HDL and to reduce LDL cholesterol.

By now, it is common knowledge that probiotics are good for maintaining your gastrointestinal health. Probiotics are live bacteria found in some foods, as well as in pill form. Just as important, however, are prebiotics, which are a form of dietary fiber that nourish the good bacteria already in your gut. The good news: Chocolate is a prebiotic.

Is any chocolate OK?

Not all chocolate is created equal. The benefits of chocolate are found in the cacao beans. Alas, in order to reduce the bitterness of those beans, an assortment of processes including roasting, grinding, refining, fermenting and more, is used. Beyond that, additives like refined sugar contribute to the flavor you’re used to. But many of those processes and additives actually detract from the benefits of the original cacao beans.

The chocolate I recommend is not the sugary-sweet milk or other chocolate that is popular. In fact, mixing milk with chocolate neutralizes its antioxidant properties. The chocolate that’s good for you is dark chocolate that contains as much of the original cacao as possible. Some say that 70% is high enough, but we prefer the delicious 80% dark chocolate that comes from Equal Exchange and contains cacao, raw cane sugar and vanilla beans.

And finally.

Valentinus, known to us as St. Valentine, was a saint from the third century in Rome. Little is known about him factually, but he has long been associated with courtly love. In addition to lovers, he is patron saint of epileptics and beekeepers, as well. It seems relatively certain that he was martyred by Emperor Claudius II on Feb. 14, 269, and some say it was for trying to convert Claudius to Christianity. Other stories include his being killed for helping Christian couples marry.

Whatever the truth may be, this Valentine’s Day, and every day, treat your sweetheart to some healthy meds disguised as dark chocolate bars.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Bob Keller maintains a holistic practice in Newburyport. He offers medical massage therapy for pain relief, as well as psychological counseling, dream work and spiritual direction. Many patients call him Dr. Bob and accuse him of doing miracles, but he is not a medical doctor nor a divinity. His expertise is medical massage therapy, understanding this miracle we call the human being. He can be reached at 978-465-5111 or rk2name@gmail.com.

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