6 Ways to Feel Calmer

 

6 Ways to Feel Calmer

When you’re stressed, it can be very hard to move away from this feeling and get yourself into a more relaxed place.

There are a few things you can do to boost your mood and reduce your stress levels so that you feel calmer and less overwhelmed.

Here are 6 tips to destress and get yourself into a calmer frame of mind!

Exercise

Exercise releases “feel good” endorphins, which are strongly linked to mood.

Even just getting out and about for a gentle walk can help you to feel calmer. This is also a great opportunity to engage in a spot of mindful thinking – another way to deal with stress.

Listen to Music

When one of your favourite songs comes on the radio, chances are it makes you smile and perhaps you even feel compelled to sing along to it?

Music can have a big effect on how we feel and you probably already know that certain songs make you feel happier, for example.

Studies have shown that listening to music encourages your brain to release feel good dopamine so no wonder it lifts your mood when you hear music that you enjoy listening to!

Having a playlist that is full of songs that are guaranteed to make you feel happier can be a great option to turn to when you’re feeling stressed.

Breathing Exercises

When you feel stressed, it will often have an effect on how you breathe. For example, it’s common to find yourself hyperventilating (taking shallow breaths) rather than deeper breaths. This can become second nature and feel totally normal if you’re stressed a lot of the time, and you may not even be aware that this is the pattern you’ve fallen into.

Focusing on your breathing can be a quick and easy way to feel calmer. Taking a few deep breaths can retrain your breathing as it helps you to become aware of hyperventilation.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive Muscle Relaxation can be a very effective way to de-stress and relieve tension in the muscles. It involves tensing different muscle groups and then relaxing them, which helps to release any stress that is being held in them.

Going Into Your “Happy Place”

Visualising a calming, relaxing place that makes you feel happy and less stressed can be instantly calming. Plus it helps to focus your mind and thoughts away from the source of your stress.

You may choose to think about a sun kissed beach and imagine the sound of the waves and the feel of the sand under your feet, for example. The images you conjure up can be literally anything as long as they have the effect of calming you and refocusing your mind.

Head to a Green Space

If you live in an urban area that has at least a few green spaces, you might want to head to one of these when you next need to de-stress.

Studies have shown that this is great for improving your mental health and well being, and that it can have a longer lasting effect than you might think.

 

What is Resilience?

What is Resilience_

You probably know at least one person that always seems to bounce back no matter what life throws at them and you may wonder what their secret is. How do they cope so well with stress and setbacks? Chances are, it’s probably to do with their inner resilience.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficulties. Some people have strong reserves of inner strength that they can call on in stressful times, which helps them to deal with the situation more positively than people who don’t have this.

This isn’t because they see things in a more positive light than people who aren’t very resilient. Even if you have resilience in abundance, it doesn’t shield you from being affected by emotions such as stress, pain and grief.

Resilient people are better equipped to use skills such as positive and healthy coping mechanisms to deal with problems and challenges and to move on from them. This doesn’t mean that they experience negative emotions any less strongly than people who are less resilient; they just have more of the inner strength that helps them to stay calm and not fall apart. Sometimes, this helps them to come out of the situation even stronger than they were before.

If you’re not resilient, it’s likely that stress and problems will get on top of you and perhaps even overwhelm you. This can mean that you spend a lot of time dwelling on them.

Why Are Some People More Resilient Than Others?

If you’re not one of life’s resilient people, you’re probably what it is that gives some people this strength while others have little or none of it.

Some of it is genetic and personality also plays a big part. This makes some people naturally resilient but it is something that can be worked on too.

Some of the things that experts believe can improve resilience include:

  • Having an optimistic outlook and being able to see setbacks and difficulties as hurdles that you can negotiate rather than insurmountable obstacles, for example
  • Having positive self esteem and having a positive view of yourself and your skills and abilities
  • Finding a sense of purpose in the face of stress, adversity and difficulties e.g. getting more involved in your community, finding strength in faith/spirituality and engaging in activities that are important to you
  • Having a strong support network around you
  • Being flexible in your attitude and feeling able to embrace change as an opportunity to go in a new direction, for example
  • Looking after and nurturing yourself, especially when problems occur
  • Being able to come up with solutions to issues and problems (people who aren’t resilient can often have “tunnel vision” and feel overwhelmed by things that happen to them, rather than being naturally inclined to find ways to move through the situation)
  • Believing that for the most part, we have the power to shape our lives through the decisions we make (also known as an “internal locus of control”)

Can Hypnotherapy Really Help You to Stop Smoking?

Can Hypnotherapy Really Help You to Stop Smoking_

Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health. Being a smoker can make you more likely to be affected by ill health and can even cut your life expectancy. Not to mention that it’s a habit that takes its toll on your wallet!

There are lots of good reasons to quit but unfortunately it can be extremely difficult and many people find that willpower isn’t enough. This isn’t surprising given that smoking is an addiction and like most addictions, it’s not easy to break its hold on you.

If you have already tried giving up smoking and haven’t been successful, you may be wondering if hypnotherapy can be the answer.

How Hypnotherapy Works

During hypnosis, you’re in a trance but contrary to popular opinion, you’re not asleep or unconscious. Think of it as a very relaxed state of mind and it doesn’t seem half as scary.

You’re still very aware of your surroundings and most importantly, you’re also still in control of yourself. A lot of people are worried that they can be made to do things they don’t want during hypnotherapy but this is definitely a myth.

It’s true that you’re usually much more receptive to taking on board suggestions made by your hypnotherapist when you’re in this relaxed mode but these are used as a way to treat the issues(s) that you’ve come to hypnotherapy for, rather than as any form of control or manipulation.

Can It Help to Quit Smoking?

A lot of people have used hypnotherapy to successfully stop smoking for good – sometimes in combination with Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) and medication.

Hypnotherapy can help you to quit smoking in a couple of ways:

The suggestions that are offered to you by your hypnotherapist generally include forming a negative association with smoking as a way of breaking the hold that the habit has over you. For example, it could plant the seed that cigarette smoke smells like something you find really unpleasant and unappealing.

This approach can be very helpful for quitting smoking as it’s often difficult to change how you think about something when it requires a conscious effort to alter your perceptions, whereas hypnotherapy taps into your unconscious mind and makes this far easier.

Another option is to use a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and hypnotherapy for techniques that are specifically designed to help you to stop smoking.

In both cases, the focus is on breaking down the negative beliefs and behaviours that are fuelling your desire to smoke so that you can find it easier to quit for good. These thought patterns and behaviours are usually the reason why you can’t successfully give up smoking.

The key thing is that you are truly committed to quitting. For example, if you’ve promised to stop smoking for someone else rather than wanting to do it for yourself, there is a good chance that hypnotherapy won’t be successful for you. If you’re desperate to quit though, you’re much more likely to take suggestions on board and break the habit for good.

 

What Really Happens During Hypnosis?

What Really Happens During Hypnosis_

A lot of people are reluctant to try hypnotherapy, often due to the myths that surround it.

Stage hypnosis tends to give the impression that hypnotherapy is all abound control but in a therapeutic setting, this is definitely not the case.

Here are some of the key things to know about hypnotherapy and how it could help you to overcome a range of issues.

Your Hypnotherapist is Not Controlling You

One of the biggest myths about hypnosis is that you are completely at the mercy of your hypnotherapist and that they can convince you to do anything they choose.

In reality, this is actually impossible. A hypnotherapist doesn’t have the power to tap into your mind like this and tell you what to do or act in a way that isn’t in your character.

They can make suggestions for you to use in the future but ultimately, your mind will decide whether to actually take them on board.

Stage hypnosis is a different animal to therapeutic hypnosis, and this is what fuels a lot of the misconceptions about hypnotherapy. During a stage show, the participants are carefully selected to make sure that they are the type of person who is likely to be receptive to the messages that they’re given by the hypnotist. Throw in the fact that the suggestions aren’t actually out of character for them and it’s easy to see why they seem as though they’re being controlled.

You Go Into Deep Concentration Mode

Another myth about hypnosis is that you’re “out of it” during a trance. A trance is simply a form of very deep focus and concentration, and it’s nothing to be afraid of. A qualified and well trained hypnotherapist can bring you out of a trance quickly and easily so there’s no chance that you’ll get stuck in a trance (as some people fear!).

You probably enter into some kind of trance everyday without even realising it, just by watching television or concentrating hard on the road ahead while driving. It’s also similar to the feeling of being half awake and half asleep as you’re nodding off.

It’s Not a Quick Fix

Some issues can be treated in just one session but for the most part, it’s likely that you’ll need quite a few sessions for hypnotherapy to be an effective therapy. It’s common too for hypnotherapy to work alongside counselling as a treatment option, rather than being a standalone solution, especially for issues that are long standing or have quite complicated factors that are causing them or exaggerating them.

 

 

Are High Heels Bad for Your Health?

Are High Heels Bad for Your Health_

You might love your heels but do you love what they do to your feet?

If you wear heels on a regular basis, you’ve probably found that they don’t feel half as good as they look.

They’re not the most comfortable footwear item to have on for any great length of time, and this can lead to pain, swelling and bunions. The problems don’t necessarily end there though as there can be more serious effects too.

Why Are High Heels Often a Bad Idea?

If you wear high heels a lot, there’s a chance that you could be storing up long term damage to your knees, according to research.

Wearing high heels forces your feet into an unnatural position, in which your body weight transfers to the balls of your feet and affects the balance of your lower body.  This is more pronounced with a thinner heel so stilettos will unbalance you more than wedge heels, for example.

It can lead to bunions (a painful swelling that can develop in the area where your big toe meets your foot) and swellings on the nerves between your toes.

It can even change your walking style, and studies have found that this carries on even when you’re not wearing heels. This means that the effects of wearing high heels can go far beyond the length of time that they’re actually on your feet.

In this study, researchers in Australia recruited two groups of women – some of whom had typically been wearing heels for at least 40 hours in the average week in the last two years and a control group who didn’t wear high heels very much at all.

Both groups were asked to move repeatedly up and down a walkway that measured the forces that they generated as they walked. The control group went barefoot, while the “heels” group went both barefoot and in their preferred heels. Even when walking barefoot, the “heels” group moved differently to the control group – with “shorter, more purposeful strides” and with their feet in a flexed position. This meant that their calf muscles were shorter and took much more of the strain as they walked, compared to the control group.

The women were in their 20s and 30s, which indicates that wearing high heels can start to have an effect earlier on in the life and that it doesn’t take decades to feel the negative repercussions.

Shorter, tighter calf muscles are common for women who regularly wear high heels as they adjust to the height of your heels and in some cases, it can cause the Achilles tendon to shorten to the extent that wearing flat shoes is almost impossible. It also pulls other muscles out of their natural alignment and this makes you more likely to suffer from pain in your knees, lower back, neck and shoulders.

Do You Need to Ditch Your Heels?

You don’t necessarily need to go cold turkey on your heels altogether but it’s a good idea to at least cut back on how often you wear them, especially if they’re your favourite choice of footwear.

The effects of high heels on your muscles and tendons can be exaggerated if the ones you wear are always round about the same height. This makes it more likely that your muscles will shorten to accommodate this particular height but if you switch things up, this is a bit less likely.

Stretching out your calf muscles regularly can also help to counteract the extent that they are likely to shorten.

How to Include Mindfulness in Your Day

How to Get Started with Mindfulness

When life gets busy or stressful, it can be easy to get caught up in your thoughts and feelings.

This is where mindfulness can really come into its own. It’s all about being “in the moment” and taking stock of how this makes you feel so that you can take greater control over your mental health and well-being.

How Can Mindfulness Help You?

From a mental health perspective, mindfulness can help you to step back from your thoughts as you become more aware of them. You might be able to see patterns in your thought processes that you weren’t in a position to recognise before ,which you can then work on retraining into more helpful thought patterns.

Another benefit of mindfulness is the opportunity to take back some control over your thought processes. By acknowledging your thoughts but not dwelling on them, you’re taking away most of their power over you. Instead of being  overwhelming, they become easier to deal with.

Tips for Practicing Mindfulness

You don’t need to find a big window in your diary to start including mindfulness in your day-to-day life. It’s something that you can focus on whenever you have some free time, even if this is just for a few minutes at a time.

It can be hard to get to grips with mindfulness at first and you may find yourself feeling discouraged by the thoughts and worries that are likely to come into your mind when you start to focus on the world around you.

The trick is to let them flow over you, rather than trying to make them go out of your mind. Bring yourself “back” when your mind starts to wander.

Examples of Mindfulness in Action

Practicing mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated and it’s surprisingly easy to find opportunities to do so. Here are a few easy ways to introduce it into your day:

Be aware of your breathing: When you’re feeling stressed, focusing on your breathing can help to calm you down. It’s also a way to practice mindfulness and can be done pretty much anywhere. For the next few breaths, concentrate on how you feel as you breathe in and out deeply. You may find that you need to alter your breathing pattern as you pay close attention to it and this gives you more opportunity to note the sensations.

Relax your facial muscles: Stress and tension can lead to the muscles in your face becoming tight. Taking a few minutes to relax your forehead and jaw can help to ward off stress induced pain (especially headaches) and can even encourage you to feel calmer as you release the tension.

Listening to music: Mindfulness can also be as simple as listening to music and immersing yourself in the tempo. Music with a slow beat is generally recommended as it is more relaxing. As you listen, think about the sound of the music and how it makes you feel.

Want to learn more about mindfulness? There are various courses you can take (both online and in person) that will teach a broad range of mindfulness skills in more depth.

 

What to Know About …. Flaxseed

What's the Deal With Flaxseed_You’ve probably noticed that flaxseed has become a really trendy health food lately. These seeds are now often added to things like bread, crackers and cakes but how does they benefit your health? Here’s what you need to know about flaxseed for good health!

A Great Source of Vitamins and Minerals

Flaxseed contains a number of nutrients that are important for health, including vitamin B1, copper, magnesium and phosphorous.

An Alternative to Gluten

If you’re coeliac or can’t tolerate gluten, flaxseed is an ideal substitute as it’s gluten free.

Heart Healthy

Flaxseed is a great source of heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, especially alpha linolenic acid (ALA). In fact, it’s second only to chia seeds for this.

Our bodies don’t create this essential fatty acid so we need to get it from our food instead.

Flaxseed oil is the best source of ALA but you can get a good amount from ground flax too.

Flax also contains plant compounds known as lignans. These are linked to cardiovascular health and can lower your blood pressure and improve the condition of your arteries.

Flax is high in fibre too, which may go a long way in explaining its positive effects on cholesterol.

Good for Digestive Health

The fibre content in flaxseed also helps to improve digestive health. You’re unlikely to be constipated if you’re eat flax on a regular basis!

Healthy Skin and Hair

Essential fatty acids are also good for helping your skin and hair to stay in tip-top condition.

If your skin and hair is currently dry and dull, upping your intake of fatty acids can be a game changer. Flax is a great source of these and the B vitamins.

Fighting Cancer

Studies on animals have shown that flaxseed could have a big role to play in the fight against cancer.

A 2010 study found that hens who were fed a diet containing flaxseed had big decreases in the size of late stage ovarian tumours.

The results were so impressive that the study’s researchers believe flaxseed could be used as a treatment for ovarian cancer in the future. There’s still a long way to go before that could become a reality but it shows the potential power that flax can have on our health.

As you can see, these seeds may be small in size but they pack a real punch from both a nutrition and a health perspective!

How a Plant Based Diet Can Ease Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms

plant-based-diet-arthritis

Many people with rheumatoid arthritis rely on medications to ease stiff and painful joints but these can often have unwanted side effects. What if there was a way to get some relief from arthritis symptoms by changing what you eat?

Arthritis is much less common outside of the Western world, and this is now thought to be due to the differences in diet.

Some of the foods we eat a lot of in the West increase inflammation in the body. In relatively small doses, inflammation isn’t a bad thing as it‘s part of the body’s immune response. Problems start when inflammation becomes chronic and this can contribute to a number of different health issues, including rheumatoid arthritis.

Studies have suggested that a plant based eating plan can reduce inflammation and make rheumatoid arthritis less painful and debilitating.

It’s not going to miraculously make your arthritis symptoms disappear but there seems to be some definite potential for making life easier.

Here’s what you need to know about plant based diets and their connection to rheumatoid arthritis.

The Science Behind It

Plant based diets started to gain ground back in 1999, when a key study found that participants who had followed a vegan diet for several months, followed by an “egg free lacto vegetarian” diet for 9 further months saw a big improvement in their arthritis symptoms compared to the control group – who made no changes at all to their diet during the study.

Following a plant based diet enabled study participants to have less pain and stiffness (including in the morning, when joint stiffness is often at its worst), less swelling and tenderness, and better grip control.

There was physical evidence of change too as their blood showed lower levels of C-reactive proteins (CRPs), which is closely linked to inflammation.

How was this able to happen? Experts believe that diet has a strong link to levels of inflammation in the diet, and that a plant based diet packed with fruits and vegetables can have an anti inflammatory effect. This can be beneficial for a range of conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, and is also thought to be able to reduce the risk factor for developing cancer and cardiovascular disease.

What to Eat for Arthritis

A healthy, balanced diet is always a good bet but some foods are believed to have benefits for reducing inflammation and helping to improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

These include:

Fish: Eating oily fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring and trout several times per week gives you a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids. This can reduce inflammation, and help to ease arthritis symptoms such as swollen joints and stiffness, especially in the morning. To get the most out of fatty fish, it’s best to eat it boiled or baked.

Fruit and vegetables: The fibre from fruit and vegetables can reduce levels of inflammation. Dark green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and spinach contain vitamin E and this has been shown in studies to have a role in protecting against inflammatory cytokine molecules. Colourful fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants.

Soy: Studies have indicated that the isoflavones in soy can help to lower C-reactive proteins in the blood. 2007 research on mice found that these also had an impact on bone inflammation.

Extra virgin olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil includes a compound called oleocanthal, which reduces inflammation in a similar way to Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). However, you’re very unlikely toeat enough to have quite the same effects so unfortunately you won’t be able to ditch your treatments off the back of eating this.

Whole grains: Whole grains have a good amount of fibre, which reduce levels of C-reactive proteins in the blood. If you’re intolerant to wheat or gluten, eating whole grains can trigger an inflammatory reaction and potentially make your symptoms worse.

What Not to Eat for Arthritis

Now you know that there is obvious potential for easing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms with a plant based diet, you’re probably wondering which foods are your best bets and which are believed to increase inflammation levels.

Some of the foods that are likely to trigger inflammation in the body include:

Fatty foods: Foods that contain a lot of fat can trigger inflammation. Fried or grilled meats that are cooked at high temperatures can increase the level of Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs) in the blood. Experts don’t know if there is a direct connection to arthritis but people with inflammation often have high AGEs so it’s not advisable for people with arthritis to eat many foods that promote them.

Sugar and salt: Foods that are high in sugar and salt encourage the immune system to go into overdrive and this can cause problems such as joint pain and tiredness.

Corn, safflower and soybean oils: These oils contain omega-6 fatty acids, which can trigger inflammation, especially if your diet contains more of these compared to omega-3 fatty acids.

Adding lots of anti-inflammatory foods to your diet and making sure you avoid the big triggers for inflammation has great potential for reducing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and there’s promising evidence that following a plant-based diet can relieve joint stiffness, improve mobility and decrease inflammation markers in the blood.

7 Ways Ginger Can Improve Your Health

7-ways-ginger-can-improve-your-healthGinger is often used in recipes as an ingredient to add flavour and has long been a staple in Asian cuisine. This isn’t the only reason to use it; this spice also has some pretty powerful health benefits too!

Here are some of the roles it can play:

#1 It’s Anti Inflammatory and Antibiotic

Ginger has been used for many years as a herbal medicine, largely due to the fact that gingerol (the main bioactive compound) has been found to have anti inflammatory properties.

Studies have also shown that ginger can have antibiotic properties and fight against infections. In particular, it can protect against bacteria that can lead to gum disease.

#2 It Can Lower Cholesterol

Studies have indicated that ginger has the potential for lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, even in people with high cholesterol.

Research on rats has shown that ginger extract can lower LDL cholesterol and can even achieve the same effects as cholesterol medications.

Another study on individuals with high cholesterol found that taking 3g of ginger powder for 45 days led to impressive decreases in a range of cholesterol markers, including LDL cholesterol.

More research still needs to be done to confirm whether ginger has the potential to protect against heart disease.

#3 It Can Reduce Osteoarthritis Symptoms

Research has suggested that ginger can help to reduce the discomfort of osteoarthritis, a painful condition affecting the joints.

In one study, those who took ginger extract twice daily for 6 weeks experienced less pain in their knees on standing and felt comfortable taking lesser amounts of pain medication compared to the control group.

In another study by the University of Miami, osteoarthritis sufferers were weaned off anti inflammatory and painkilling medications and split into 2 groups. Over the 6 week study period, the group taking 255g of ginger two times per day noted more significant improvements in pain relief than the placebo group and found it easier to walk 50 feet.

#4 It May Improve Blood Sugar Levels in Diabetics

One small scale study conducted in type 2 diabetics in 2015 found that taking 2g of ginger powder per day led to a reduced fasting blood sugar of 12 per cent and HbA1c (a blood sugar marker) by 10 per cent over a period of 12 weeks. There were decreased risk factors for heart disease too.

The study group contained less than 50 people so the results are by no means conclusive but researchers have strong hopes it could signify that ginger has impressive health benefits for type 2 diabetics.

#5 It Can Help the Stomach to Empty More Quickly

Studies have shown that ginger can encourage the stomach to empty itself more quickly than it would otherwise, which can benefit people suffering from chronic indigestion.

In one study, eating ginger after having a bowl of soup led to the stomach emptying after 12 minutes, compared to the previous time of 16 minutes.

Another study showed similar results, with the stomach also demonstrating on a “half emptying” time.

#6 It Can Reduce Menstrual Discomfort

Studies have showed that ginger can be successfully used to relieve menstrual pain for women.

In  one study, the ginger group  took 250mg capsules four times per day for the first 3 days of their period while the other group took 400mg ibuprofen or 250mg mefenamic acid capsules for the same time period. Ginger was found to be just as effective as both other pain relief options.

#7 It Could Treat Some Forms of Cancer

Research has suggested that ginger could have a big role to play in treating certain types of cancer, including ovarian cancer.

A study carried out by the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Centre found that ginger powder had the ability to kill ovarian cancer cells. Their research involved applying a paste of ginger and water to ovarian cancer cells, all of which died as a result of the contact.

This was just an initial study and there’s still a lot more research to be done to see if ginger could be used as an effective cancer treatment in the future.

Research has also shown great potential for ginger to fight the growth of colorectal cancer cells. A study by the University of Minnesota carried out on mice found that taking gingerol three times per week slowed down the growth of these type of cancer cells so that tumours grew less quickly.

How to Use Ginger

Ginger is a pretty versatile spice and can be used in a variety of ways. Some ideas include:

  • Adding small amounts of fresh ginger to smoothies and juices/shakes
  • Adding a pinch or two of powdered ginger to soups, sauces and even salad dressings
  • Adding 3/4 teaspoon of chopped fresh ginger to hot water to make fresh ginger tea

When you’re buying it, fresh organic ginger is your best bet. If you prefer the dried organic versions, these are generally thought to have the same benefits as fresh organic ginger.

 

 

 

 

What’s the Deal With Raw Chocolate?

whats-the-deal-with-raw-chocolate_

Chocolate is a guilty treat for most of us but what if there was a way to eat it and not feel bad about it?

You’re in luck -there is a type of chocolate that actually seems to be pretty good for you!

Raw chocolate is getting more popular these days and for good reason. Studies have shown that raw chocolate has a whole heap of health benefits, which means you can indulge with none of the guilt you might feel about tucking into its processed counterpart.

Here’s what you need to know about raw chocolate and what it can do for your health!

What is Raw Chocolate?

Cacao beans come from the cacao tree, which is native to Central America. The Aztecs considered cacao to be the food of the gods!

Cacao is the main ingredient in chocolate but in most cases, it is roasted and this can change its molecular structure. Most of the goodness then disappears and what you’re left with isn’t nearly as healthy … especially when sugar and fat are added into the equation.

This doesn’t happen with “raw” cacao. It’s called “raw” chocolate because the cacao beans aren’t roasted at the same kind of temperatures. Instead, they’re dried at much lower temperature, which helps to maintain their original molecular structure and keep a lot more of the nutrients intact. They can then be consumed whole as cacao nibs or ground to produce cocoa powder.

The cacao beans in processed chocolate are usually roasted at high temperature, which can destroy most of the goodness in them. You won’t get the same impressive health benefits from eating the kind of chocolate you’ll readily find on the supermarket shelves for this reason.

Pure cacao has a pretty bitter taste, which also means it contains more of the good stuff that I’m going to highlight in the next section. Most processed chocolate contains very little cacao and even worse, the phytonutrients are compromised during the processing procedure.

Cacao Versus Cocoa

There is a bit of confusion about the differences between cacao and cocoa. They’re quite similar but cocoa is more processed than cacao and doesn’t have the same health benefits.

It’s usually heated at much higher temperatures than cacao and loses a lot of nutrients in the process. It does tend to contain a lot of the antioxidants though. You’ll often find that cocoa has some added sugar whereas cacao is unprocessed. This means that cocoa is usually less expensive to buy than cacao.

The Health Benefits of Raw Cacao

So, what’s so good about raw cacao? Here are some of the things to know about it:

#1 It’s Very Nutritious

Raw cacao contains vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and fibre.It’s particularly rich in magnesium and also contains some iron and even a little bit of calcium.

Cacao beans are also a great source of antioxidants, which fight against free radicals that can damage the body.

#2 It Improves Cardiovascular Health

Studies have suggested that cacao can have a very positive impact as far as cardiovascular health is concerned.

Research from Australia indicated that eating dark chocolate on a daily basis could help to protect against developing cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, even in people who are considered to be high risk.

The effects of cholesterol were also shown in another study, in which 15g of dark chocolate per day led to a reduction in systolic blood pressure after just over a fortnight.

Another study found that drinking cocoa that had been roasted, cracked and ground by the researchers themselves and tested to ensure it hadn’t lost a significant amount of antixoxidants during this process (as is often the case) for 12 weeks led to a 24 per cent increase in “good” HDL cholesterol levels. There wasn’t any significant change in levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol but tests showed that the mens’ LDL  cholesterol was a lot more resistant to oxidisation (which can encourage a build up of LDL cholesterol within arteries if it happens in the body) than the men who drank no cocoa at all.

This study’s results were backed up by the findings from a similar study, which found that a diet rich in flavanoids from cocoa and chocolate slowed down the rate of oxidisation for LDL cholesterol by up to 8 per cent and also encouraged a slight increase in HDL cholesterol.

Other studies have found that the polyphenols in dark chocolate offer more protection against coronary artery disease than green tea.

Studies have looked at the Kuna islanders, the indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. Two groups were examined: those living on the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, and those living on the mainland in Panama City.

The former have been shown to have lower blood pressure than their counterparts on the mainland, along with fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer.

In particular, they had a tendency to drink an average of 5 cups of cocoa per day, with the cocoa being freshly picked and left to dry in the sun before being ground and used in their diet. Over on the mainland, they drank fewer cups of cocoa and were much more likely to drink the processed type.

Urine samples confirmed that the Kuna islanders had a lot more flavanols in their urine and this led to a tentative theory that this is strongly linked to their lesser rates of heart disease and cancer.

#3 It’s Good for The Brain

Raw cacao can boost your mood. It contains phenylethylamine, the chemical that our brains’ release when we fall in love. It also encourages your brain to produce feel good endorphins.

However, it’s not all good news when it comes to boosting your mood. Research from the Journal of Affective Disorders found that when it’s eaten as “self medication” for low mood and depressive symptoms, chocolate can actually prolong these feelings and have the opposite effect to what was intended.

Research from Harvard University found that drinking 2 cups of cacao per day led to more blood flow to the brain and better memory in middle aged people over the 30 day study period. There is potential for using cacao to improve cognitive function.

Another study published in Hypertension journal in 2012 found that older adults who were experiencing relatively mild problems with memory and thinking (which put them at higher risk of developing dementia further down the line) and drank flavanoid-rich cocoa did better on tests measuring their mental function compared to those who only drank cocoa with far fewer flavanoids.

Both of these studies have given researchers hope that cocoa can potentially have a role to play in protecting the brain. It’s even suggested that the flavanoids in cocoa could help to protect against the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.

#4 It Improves Skin Health

Studies have shown that cocoa that is high in flavanoids can help to improve skin health, particularly with regards to hydration and texture.

#5 It’s Full of Antioxidants

Research from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that polyphenols (a plant chemical that is linked to good health) are particularly rich in cocoa. It actually contains more polyphenols than black tea, coffee, red wine and green tea.

Cacao is known to have 4 times more antioxidants than processed dark chocolate (which many people believe to be healthy) and a whopping 20 times more antioxidants than blueberries.

#6 It Could Fight Periodontal Disease

Studies on rats have suggested that cocoa can reduce oxidation stress relating to periodontitis and that this could actually help to slow down the progression of the condition.

How to Use Raw Cacao

Raw cacao can have a very bitter taste and this can be off putting to many people.

If you’re not a fan of this but still want to incorporate it into your diet, one of the easiest ways to do this is to add a teaspoon or two to things like smoothies, salads and shakes. Any more than this can be lead to side effects.

Cacao nibs (the beans that are roasted and separated from the husks and then broken up into smaller pieces) are a popular way to consume raw cacao. You only need 4-5 cacao nibs in the average day; any more than this and you risk getting side effects.

Dairy Counteracts the Positive Effects of Raw Cacao

Here’s a quick word of warning if you’re planning to use raw cacao in smoothies or shakes – dairy has been shown to have a big effect on the ability to absorb antioxidants. Nut or soya milk is therefore a better alternative for smoothies and shakes that contain cacao.

A Word of Caution

Because raw cacao is a lot more potent than your average processed chocolate bar, this can lead to some health issues that you should be aware of when deciding whether it’s for you or not. This is why you shouldn’t go overboard with eating raw cacao – studies have suggested it can have a lot of benefits for health but a lot more research needs to be done on the side effects before we really know how much we should be eating.

For now, it’s best to only eat it in moderation. A handful of cacao nibs is usually more than enough; 4 or 5 is generally considered to be the maximum you should have per day. If you’re using cacao powder, 2-3 teaspoons per day is plenty.

The central nervous system can be particularly affected by cacao as it contains fairly high amounts of theobromine and caffeine compared to processed chocolate. These act as stimulants and can lead to problems such as increased anxiety, feeling “on edge”, insomnia and faster heart rate. If you already suffer from anxiety, you may therefore want to give raw cacao a miss as it’s likely to make your symptoms worse.

Studies on mice have suggested that high doses of phenylethylamine could result in depression but more research needs to be done on this and on humans to confirm.

As you can see, raw cacao can be great for your health – just be careful to enjoy it in moderation! Ready to start reaping the rewards? Try adding a teaspoon or two of cacao powder to smoothies or snack on a handful of cacao nibs. That should be enough to get the benefits without also getting any potential side effects.