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Can You Use Dark Cocoa to Overcome Constipation?

One reader found that drinking dark cocoa eased post-operative constipation. Scientists agree that cocoa compounds can improve bowel habits.
Can You Use Dark Cocoa to Overcome Constipation?
Hot brewed cacao drink, raw cocoa fruit, cacao beans, nibs on table

Our readers are ingenious. They sometimes discover remedies we would never have guessed. One person wrote to us recently about a novel use for dark cocoa. 

Cocoa to Help Ease Constipation:

Q. I recently had quintuple bypass surgery. Afterward, I suffered from terrible bouts of constipation.

As part of my search for heart-healthy recipes, I found one for hot cocoa using dark cocoa powder. During recent cold afternoons, I substituted that for my afternoon cup of herbal tea. You make it with a large tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa with a little honey, mixed with boiling water and topped off with a little no-fat milk.

I noticed that since I started drinking this, my bouts with constipation have eased quite a bit. I’ve seen many articles about the health benefits of cocoa but can’t find anything that lists constipation. Is the cocoa actually helping my digestive system?

What Is Special About Dark Cocoa?

A. Dark cocoa and chocolate are rich in many plant compounds (flavanols, polyphenols, quercetin, epicatechin and theobromine). A surprising amount of research suggests that both cocoa and dark chocolate can make blood vessels more flexible, enhance circulation and improve cardiovascular health (Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vo. 61, issue 3, 2021).

There are also studies showing that ingredients in cocoa powder can improve memory and cognitive performance (Scientific Reports, Nov. 24, 2020).  To our surprise, a study reported that the fiber in cocoa “promotes healthier bowel habits” (Nutrition & Metabolism, April 18, 2012). In addition, people who regularly consume cocoa rich in dietary fiber lower their blood sugar and inflammatory markers (PeerJ, Sep. 17, 2020).

More on Cocoa for Regularity:

Later we heard from another reader who has been using chocolate as a secret laxative for years. 

Q. I was surprised to read in your column that someone just discovered chocolate or cocoa could act as a laxative. I discovered that decades ago.

One of the things I routinely do if I feel my body needs a little nudge is to eat an ounce or two of dark chocolate. I am usually in the bathroom within about 20 minutes.

A. There is research to support your observation (Nutrition & Metabolism, April 18, 2012).

The authors conclude that

“regular consumption of cocoa products increases dietary fibre intake and…improves bowel habits.”

Researchers have also shown that probiotic chocolate can improve bowel function in constipated rats (Food Research International, Feb. 2019)

Cocoa flavanols in cocoa or chocolate are probably better known for their ability to improve lipid profiles and relax the lining of blood vessels (Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, June 2020). In addition, there is increasing evidence that cocoa flavanols may also protect cognitive performance (Frontiers in Nutrition, May 16, 2017).

CocoaVia, which supports our radio show and podcasts, provides consumers with a supplement that is especially rich in flavanols. You can get a healthy 25% discount on 1-month orders of CocoaVia if you use the code PEOPLES25 when you check out. You can also get an additional 10% off already-discounted 3- and 6-month orders with code PEOPLES10. Limit one use per customer.

For a limited time, CocoaVia is having a site-wide sale with discounts up to 35% off. Check it out between April 20, 2021 and May 4, 2021.

Other Ways to Fight Constipation:

Products made from cacao are also good sources of magnesium, which can also help ward off constipation. You will find additional remedies in our eGuide to Overcoming Digestive Disorders. Dietary fiber from flaxseed or psyllium are especially popular. Like dark cocoa, they can lower cholesterol at the same time that they improve digestion. If constipation troubles you frequently, you may want to listen to our discussion with Dr. Robynne Chutkan. It is Show 1115: How You Can Conquer Constipation.

If you have found effective ways to ease constipation, feel free to share them in the comment section.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Azad BJ et al, "Chronic and acute effects of cocoa products intake on arterial stiffness and platelet count and function: A systematic review and dose-response Meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials." Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, vo. 61, issue 3, 2021. DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1733484
  • Gratton G et al, "Dietary flavanols improve cerebral cortical oxygenation and cognition in healthy adults." Scientific Reports, Nov. 24, 2020. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-76160-9
  • Sarría B et al, "Effects of regularly consuming dietary fibre rich soluble cocoa products on bowel habits in healthy subjects: a free-living, two-stage, randomized, crossover, single-blind intervention." Nutrition & Metabolism, April 18, 2012. DOI: 10.1186/1743-7075-9-33
  • Sarría B et al, "Cocoa colonic phenolic metabolites are related to HDL-cholesterol raising effects and methylxanthine metabolites and insoluble dietary fibre to anti-inflammatory and hypoglycemic effects in humans." PeerJ, Sep. 17, 2020. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.9953
  • Eor JY et al, "Laxative effect of probiotic chocolate on loperamide-induced constipation in rats." Food Research International, Feb. 2019. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodres.2018.09.062
  • Martins TF et al, "Cocoa flavanols protect human endothelial cells from oxidative stress." Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, June 2020. DOI: 10.1007/s11130-020-00807-1
  • Socci V et al, "Enhancing human cognition with cocoa flavonoids." Frontiers in Nutrition, May 16, 2017. DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2017.00019
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