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Why Fiber Is Good for Your Gut Health

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Dayna McIsaac, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Once in a while, fad diets hit on something real. Take fiber, for example. The bran-muffin craze of the 1980s may have passed, but experts still agree that eating high-fiber foods is important for the digestive system. A new study published in the journal Science explains why that might be the case—and like so many things in the gut, it all boils down to bacteria.

Our bodies are literally crawling with bacteria, inside and out, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Our skin, guts, and mouths are unique ecosystems called microbiota. And like any ecosystem, they need balance in order to thrive.

Many studies have suggested that the recent rise in inflammation-related illnesses could be related to microbial imbalances in our guts, and that those imbalances could be tied to changes in our environment and diet. One 2016 experiment found that eating the modern American diet, low in fiber and high in processed foods, could damage not only your microbiome but those of your descendants, too.

To better understand the link between these elements, scientists analyzed the way gut microbes consume, digest, and break down fiber.

Fascinatingly, they found that it's not the fiber itself that helps—it's what happens while your microbes are digesting it. As they grind up and break down chunks of fiber, they produce compounds called short-chain fatty acids. The release of these acids tells cells in the large bowel to start gobbling up as much oxygen as they can. This, in turn, decreases the amount of oxygen being released into the gut lumen, which is the open space in the intestine that comes into direct contact with digested food.

And lower oxygen levels in the lumen are a good thing. Harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli need oxygen to survive. Speaking in a statement, senior author and microbiologist Andreas Bäumler called the gut "the site of constant turf wars between microbes."

The less oxygen the pathogens get, Bäumler said, the more likely it is that helpful microbes will flourish instead.

It's an interdependent system, first author Mariana X. Byndloss explained. "The beneficial gut bacteria that are able to break down fiber don't survive in an environment rich in oxygen, which means that our microbiota and intestinal cells work together to promote a virtuous cycle that maintains gut health." 

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Live Smarter
Not Sure About Your Tap Water? Here's How to Test for Contaminants
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In the wake of Flint, Michigan's water crisis, you may have begun to wonder: Is my tap water safe? How would I know? To put your mind at ease—or just to satisfy your scientific curiosity—you can find out exactly what's in your municipal water pretty easily, as Popular Science reports. Depending on where you live, it might even be free.

A new water quality test called Tap Score, launched on Kickstarter in June 2017, helps you test for the most common household water contaminants for $120 per kit. You just need to take a few samples, mail them to the lab, and you'll get the results back in 10 days, telling you about lead levels, copper and cadmium content, arsenic, and other common hazardous materials that can make their way into water via pipes or wells. If you're mostly worried about lead, you can get a $40 test that only tells you about the lead and copper content of your water.

In New York State, a free lead-testing program will send you a test kit on request that allows you to send off samples of your water to a state-certified lab for processing, no purchase required. A few weeks later, you'll get a letter with the results, telling you what kind of lead levels were found in your water. This option is great if you live in New York, but if your state doesn't offer free testing (or only offers it to specific locations, like schools), there are other budget-friendly ways to test, too.

While mailing samples of your water off to a certified lab is the most accurate way to test your water, you can do it entirely at home with inexpensive strip tests that will only set you back $10 to $15. These tests aren't as sensitive as lab versions, and they don't test for as many contaminants, but they can tell you roughly whether you should be concerned about high levels of toxic metals like lead. The strip tests will only give you positive or negative readings, though, whereas the EPA and other official agencies test for the concentration of contaminants (the parts-per-billion) to determine the safety of a water source. If you're truly concerned with what's in your water, you should probably stick to sending your samples off to a professional, since you'll get a more detailed report of the results from a lab than from a colored strip.

In the future, there will likely be an even quicker way to test for lead and other metals—one that hooks up to your smartphone. Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old from Colorado, won the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge by inventing Tethys, a faster lead-testing device than what's currently on the market. With Tethys, instead of waiting for a lab, you can get results instantly. It's not commercially available yet, though, so for now, we'll have to stick with mail-away options.

[h/t Popular Science]

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