Epidemiological and medical anthropological investigations suggest that flavanol-rich foods exert cardiovascular health benefits. Endothelial dysfunction, a prognostically relevant key event in atherosclerosis, is characterized by a decreased bioactivity of nitric oxide (NO) and impaired flow-mediated vasodilation (FMD). We show in healthy male adults that the ingestion of flavanol-rich cocoa was associated with acute elevations in levels of circulating NO species, an enhanced FMD response of conduit arteries, and an augmented microcirculation. In addition, the concentrations and the chemical profiles of circulating flavanol metabolites were determined, and multivariate regression analyses identified (-)-epicatechin and its metabolite, epicatechin-7-O-glucuronide, as independent predictors of the vascular effects after flavanol-rich cocoa ingestion. A mixture of flavanols/metabolites, resembling the profile and concentration of circulating flavanol compounds in plasma after cocoa ingestion, induced a relaxation in preconstricted rabbit aortic rings ex vivo, thus mimicking acetylcholine-induced relaxations. Ex vivo flavanol-induced relaxation, as well as the in vivo increases in FMD, were abolished by inhibition of NO synthase. Oral administration of chemically pure (-)-epicatechin to humans closely emulated acute vascular effects of flavanol-rich cocoa. Finally, the concept that a chronic intake of high-flavanol diets is associated with prolonged, augmented NO synthesis is supported by data that indicate a correlation between the chronic consumption of a cocoa flavanol-rich diet and the augmented urinary excretion of NO metabolites. Collectively, our data demonstrate that the human ingestion of the flavanol (-)-epicatechin is, at least in part, causally linked to the reported vascular effects observed after the consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa.
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