As if we needed any more excuses for eating chocolate, British researchers have discovered yet one more health benefit to eating chocolate: it helps to suppress chronic coughs. The active ingredient, called theobromine, was shown to be nearly a third more effective than the current leading cough treatment, codeine, and without the negative side-effects such as drowsiness. Theobromine is a bitter alkaloid derived from the cocoa plant that can be found in chocolate and a few other plants, including tea leaves.
Many Affected by Chronic Coughing
The study was performed by researchers at the Imperial College in London and the results were published in the journal Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Lead researcher Peter Barnes said, "Coughing is a medical condition which affects most people at some point in their lives, and yet no effective treatment exists. While persistent coughing is not necessarily harmful it can have a major impact on quality of life, and this discovery could be a huge step forward in treating this problem."
The scientists recruited 10 volunteers for the study and gave them at various times either theobromine, codeine or a placebo. The volunteers were then exposed to capsaicin, which is used in scientific studies to induce coughing. The levels of capsaicin needed to produce a cough in those who took the theobromine was approximately a third higher than those who had taken the placebo. In addition, those who took the codeine needed only marginally more capsaicin than the placebo group to induce coughing.
People with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) usually have to deal with the effects of a chronic cough. Dame Helena Shovelton, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, found the results of the study promising. "Persistent coughing often affects lung disease patients so this could be a progressive step in terms of treating it. Also, it is encouraging to find no adverse effects," she said. "We would like to see more research done to fully understand the potential of these findings and would advise patients to speak to their GP before changing their medication or treating their cough with chocolate!"
More Effective and Safer Than Codeine
In previous studies testing the effectiveness of codeine for chronic coughs, it has proven no more effective than placebo. Barnes said, "These sorts of coughs, often lasting for weeks after a viral infection, can be difficult to treat, especially since it is not possible to give large doses of opiate-based medication to patients due to the side effects." The discovery of theobromine’s effectiveness may now allow researchers to develop cough treatments that work and do not cause unwanted side effects such as drowsiness and constipation.
Irritation of the vagus nerve is what spurs a cough. Theobromine is thought to suppress the activity of the vagus nerve, thus calming the cough. Most cough treatments currently on the market can cause dangerous side effects, to the point where experts advised parents not to give them to children under six years of age due to the FDA’s warning about their possibly "serious and life-threatening side effects."
Theobromine has no such side effects. A co-author of the study, Professor Maria Belvisi said, "Not only did theobromine prove more effective than codeine, at the doses used it was found to have none of the side effects. Normally the effectiveness of any treatment is limited by the dosage you can give someone. With theobromine having no demonstrated side effects in this study it may be possible to give far bigger doses, further increasing its effectiveness. At the same time, theobromine may not have any of the side effects such as drowsiness. This means there will be no restrictions on when it can be taken. For example, people using heavy machinery or who are driving should not take codeine, but they could take theobromine."
Although the amount of theobromine contained in a bar of dark chocolate is likely to be sufficient to calm a cough, the exact dosage needed is currently unknown. Researchers warn that people should not attempt to self-medicate with chocolate until further research is done. Even though you are not likely to get a theobromine overdose, you may end up adding more inches to your waistline than is healthy in your attempt to treat your cough.