Natural health with Megan Sheppard

I have read a lot recently about the link between intestinal health and mental wellbeing. Can you please throw some light on this somewhat dubious connection?

There has indeed been a lot of research into the gut-brain connection, particularly during the past decade or so, and in fact the ‘second’ brain in the gut is known as the enteric nervous system (ENS).

The gut-brain connection is very real. When we are developing and growing in our foetal states, our gut and brain are formed from the same tissue, with one section becoming the central nervous system (CNS), and the other becoming the enteric nervous system. Both are connected by the vagus nerve (beginning in the brain stem and ending in the abdomen).

These two systems don’t play the same role, but there is a communication link between the brain and the ENS. The main function of the ENS is to control the various steps involved in digestion, including swallowing, enzyme release, nutrient absorption, and elimination.

We already know that gut health largely determines our general wellbeing. Most natural health practitioners work to achieve optimal intestinal health in a patient, regardless of the illness. Factoring in the information that there is a link between the gut and brain, prioritising intestinal health makes good sense.

More than half of all children with autism, for example, have issues with food allergies, gastrointestinal disorders, or digestion and nutrient absorption problems — if we look at other common troubles such as asthma, eczema, and developmental disorders we see a definite link between gut health and brain health.

One of the most beneficial things you can do to help the gut-brain connection is to ensure that you have a healthy gut — taking a high quality probiotic is the best place to start. Fermented foods are also a wonderful way to address an imbalance in gut bacteria. If your gut bacteria is out of balance (too many ‘bad’ bacteria, not enough ‘good’ bacteria) this will impair the digestion and absorption of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids, which in turn impacts on brain development, immunity, and physical progress. Any overgrowth of pathogenic organisms (bacteria, fungus, yeast and viruses) will in turn increase the toxic burden on the system.

There is still much to be learned about the gut-brain connection, and how it affects cognition, mood, and behaviour. Fortunately, researchers are currently investigating further so that we may know more about how this link works, and most importantly, how we can use this information to improve our health.

I mostly eat well, but chocolate is one of my guilty indulgences. I have switched to dark chocolate as I have read that it is better for you than milk or white chocolate. How much is an acceptable amount to eat in order to get the health benefits.

Switching to dark chocolate is a good decision. Chocolate that is listed as being 70% or higher in cocoa is ideal. Scientists have looked at how the compounds found in the cacao/ chocolate bean (Theobroma cacao) interact with our internal systems and have found that not only does cacao help to prevent blood platelet aggregation and benefit heart health, it also provides some protection against cancer. The reason being is that minimally processed dark chocolate contains the highest amount of anti- oxidants called polyphenols, which help reduce inflammation in the circulatory system, decreasing the risk of heart disease. These polyphenols also assist in the metabolism of glucose and blood pressure regulation, fighting cell damage that can lead to tumour growth.

Cacao contains between 300 and 400 distinct chemicals, which explains why we can feel relaxed and upbeat after eating even the smallest amount. Researchers have found that around 7g daily will provide all of the benefits you need.


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