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Why Does Coffee Make You Poop?

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iStock/Photo illustration by Lauren Spinelli

Coffee can give you more than just a caffeine buzz. For a large number of people—about one-third of the population—it also prompts a run for the bathroom. While this effect is widely documented, scientists aren’t exactly sure what’s behind it.

“It’s widely understood that coffee has a laxative effect on some people,” the American Chemical Society’s Reactions series noted in a 2015 video, but it’s complicated to tease out which part of coffee causes it.

It’s not just the caffeine, because decaf coffee can inspire the same, um, urgency. And people don’t run to the bathroom immediately after swilling a Coke. So what's happening inside your gut that makes you bolt for the commode just after finishing your morning cup o' joe?

Coffee has been found to stimulate your large intestine within just four minutes of ingestion, and drinking it increases the levels of certain digestive hormones in the gut. Coffee's laxative properties might also have something to do with its acidity, which helps your stomach produce more gastric acid to break down proteins. A compound in coffee called chlorogenic acid boosts stomach acid levels. This applies whether your coffee is caffeinated or not. As a 1986 study found, both decaf and regular coffee cause significant stimulation of gastric acid. (Both may also promote acid reflux, unfortunately, though the research is a bit contradictory.)

But that doesn’t mean all coffees are alike when it comes to spurring an increase in stomach acid. Research presented to the American Chemical Society in 2010 found that N-methylpyridinium, a chemical compound created in the roasting process, blocks the stomach’s ability to produce acid, meaning that dark-roasted coffees might actually be a bit easier on irritable stomachs than light-roasted varieties.

Some studies have found that coffee can accelerate gastric emptying—meaning the rate it takes for your stomach contents to empty into the small intestine—but this, too, is controversial, and some studies say coffee doesn’t impact gastric emptying at all. Since coffee only makes a portion of the population poop, though, it might just be that smaller studies (one only looked at 12 individuals) happen to not include any people whose bowels are really affected by coffee.

But the fact of the matter is, of the many chemical compounds contained in coffee, scientists aren't entirely sure which one is the poop perpetrator.

Poop is not just a byproduct of coffee drinking, either. Sometimes, it’s a vital part of the production process. Civet coffee, or kopi luwak, is known as one of the most expensive coffees in the world. It’s made from partially digested beans harvested from the feces of a civet. Because the beans have already passed through one stomach (the animal’s), the resulting coffee is much less acidic, meaning it’s a much smoother tasting—and feeling—experience for the humans who later drink the civet’s castoffs.

If you’re one of the many people whose coffee habits land them in the bathroom, know that all that post-brew pooping might not be a bad thing. Studies find that most people in the U.S. don’t eat enough fiber in their diet, so it may be a blessing that the average American drinks three cups of coffee a day. Otherwise, they’d have to change it to “land of the free and home of the blocked.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
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Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

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Health
6 Ways Technology Can Help Mental Health Disorders
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Today is World Mental Health Day. Mental health issues affect hundreds of millions of people around the globe; according to the World Health Organization, some 300 million suffer from depression, and another 260 million grapple with anxiety disorders. While researchers haven't developed any breakthrough mental health drugs in nearly three decades, new technological innovations are helping some patients connect with a therapist, get diagnosed, track moods, manage or mitigate symptoms, and stick to treatments. Here are just a sampling of them.

1. APPS FOR EVERYTHING FROM PTSD TO ADDICTION

The "there's an app for that" slogan is now true for the complex world of mental health care. There are thousands. Some apps are targeted at users with specific conditions, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, or depression, and are designed to assuage and manage symptoms, track moods and thoughts, or help individuals stick with treatments. Others are aimed at improving memory, coping, and thinking skills, or managing stress through meditation or mindfulness. There are also apps for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and addiction. The list goes on.

Mental health apps have plenty of benefits, including convenience, anonymity, and a low price. But experts caution prospective users against using them as a stand-in for professional treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Most aren't backed by peer-reviewed research or clinical trials, partially because tech development moves faster than traditional scientific testing. Confidentiality is also a major issue, as many of these apps don't adhere to standard healthcare privacy guidelines.

Yet some preliminary studies have shown that they can yield patient improvements. Vet any app you're considering with a doctor or therapist, focusing on ones that rely on evidence-based treatment such as cognitive behavior therapy. Double-check the app developer's credentials before downloading: The most trustworthy are typically affiliated with academic research institutions or government agencies, according to the American Psychological Association. And choose one with an intuitive interface; it will be easier to stick with, so you might see better outcomes.

To learn more about the pros and cons, visit the NIMH's comprehensive report on the subject.

2. ONE-ON-ONE THERAPY THROUGH VIDEO AND TEXT

With a shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S., online or mobile therapy appears to be a good solution for prospective patients who can't find an available one in their area. It's also promising for those who simply don't have the time or resources for in-person appointments, or are afraid of stigma.

Some services or platforms allow users to connect with therapists via voice or video on a computer or phone. Others are text-based and allow patients to send unlimited messages via their phones, 24/7, for a flat monthly fee.

3. BEHAVIOR TRACKERS THAT MAY INDICATE AN IMPENDING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

While some mental health apps are designed to deliver outcomes (an improved mood, lessened anxiety), researchers are also working to harness mobile technology to detect suicidal inclinations, burgeoning manic episodes, or depressive episodes before they manifest.

One such scientist is Dr. Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist and former head of the NIMH. After a stint with Verily, the life sciences unit of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Insel left the tech giant to co-found a start-up called Mindstrong. Both organizations, he told CNBC, are working on apps that monitor users' smartphone behavior—with permission from the user.

For example, if a user starts typing more rapidly than normal, their syntax changes, or they indulge in impulsive shopping sprees, that might be an indicator that they're manic. If they don't respond to texts from family and friends, they might be depressed. Together, this data collection could create what Insel calls a "digital phenotype," which could be described as a personalized mental health map. This could help users or their loved ones mitigate any potential crises through preventative treatment.

This line of research is promising, but Insel noted that it's still unclear whether the approach will yield long-term outcomes for patients—or if the tech itself is fine-tuned enough to observe behavior changes.

4. SMART SOFTWARE THAT FINDS AT-RISK PATIENTS IN MEDICAL RECORDS

Some insurance companies are now using cloud-based software platforms to review electronic medical records and insurance claims data to identify patients at risk for developing mental health conditions like depression. Then, they connect them with appropriate treatments through a network of behavioral health specialists.

5. VIRTUAL-REALITY TREATMENTS

In addition to treating PTSD with medication, therapy, and exercise, some physicians use a technique called exposure therapy, which is designed to help patients relive trauma-related phenomena in a controlled, safe environment, such as a doctor's office. This helps patients get habituated to the memories so they no longer trigger flashbacks and anxiety. Scientists have tested VR as a tool for exposure therapy in clinical trials, and a handful of clinicians around the U.S. are now trained to use it in their practices.

Headsets whisk patients back in time using a combination of images and sounds. While wearing the headsets, subjects discuss past experiences with therapists until they become desensitized to the triggers before them.

Meanwhile, researchers like Yale scientist Sarah Fineberg are using computer games and VR to understand feelings of social rejection in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a complicated condition in which sufferers have a hard time regulating emotions, have a distorted sense of self, and are prone to extreme mood swings, especially towards the people in their lives. 

6. A GOOGLE SCREENING THAT LETS YOU KNOW IF YOU'RE DEPRESSED

Google recently teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nationwide grassroots mental health advocacy group, to offer a mental health screening questionnaire to U.S. residents who search for "depression" on their mobile phones. The top result is a box called a "knowledge panel," which has information on depression, its symptoms, and potential treatments. To get screened, click the option "Check if you're clinically depressed" to take a confidential, medically backed self-assessment quiz.

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