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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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Health
New Test Can Differentiate Between Tick-borne Illnesses
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Time is of the essence in diagnosing and treating Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Fortunately, one new test may be able to help. A report on the test was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Ticks and the diseases they carry are on the rise. One 2016 study found deer ticks—the species that carries Lyme disease—in more than half of the counties in the United States.

The two most common tick-borne illnesses in the U.S. are Lyme disease and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Although their initial symptoms can be the same, they’re caused by different pathogens; Lyme disease comes from infection with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. We don’t know what causes STARI.

"It is extremely important to be able to tell a patient they have Lyme disease as early as possible so they can be treated as quickly as possible," microbiologist and first author Claudia Molins of the CDC said in a statement. "Most Lyme disease infections are successfully treated with a two- to three-week course of oral antibiotics." Infections that aren't treated can lead to fevers, facial paralysis, heart palpitations, nerve pain, arthritis, short-term memory loss, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

But to date, scientists have yet to create an accurate, consistent early test for Lyme disease, which means people must often wait until they’re very ill. And it’s hard to test for the STARI pathogen when we don’t know what it is.

One team of researchers led by experts at Colorado State University was determined to find a better way. They realized that, rather than looking for pathogens, they could look at the way a person’s body responded to the pathogens.

They analyzed blood samples from patients with both early-stage Lyme disease and STARI. Their results showed that while all patients’ immune systems had mounted a response, the nature of that response was different.

"We have found that all of these infections and diseases are associated with an inflammatory response, but the alteration of the immune response, and the metabolic profiles aren't all the same," senior author John Belisle of CSU said.

Two distinct profiles emerged. The team had found physical evidence, or biomarkers, for each illness: a way to tell one disease from another.

Belisle notes that there’s still plenty of work to do.

"The focus of our efforts is to develop a test that has a much greater sensitivity, and maintains that same level of specificity," Belisle said. "We don't want people to receive unnecessary treatment if they don't have Lyme disease, but we want to identify those who have the disease as quickly as possible."

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Google Can Warn You When Your Allergies Are About to Go Haywire
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How much allergy medication are you going to need today? Google can tell you. Well, it can give you a forecast, at least, as The Verge reports.

Google announced on August 16 that the search engine will now auto-populate search results for pollen and allergy information with allergy forecasts from The Weather Channel. The integration will include the most recent pollen index and allergy forecast data, showing a 5-day forecast detailing whether you’re likely to feel seasonal allergy symptoms throughout the week.

An animation shows a scroll of Google’s search results for pollen with allergy forecasts.
Google

If you have the Google app, you can set it to send push notifications when the pollen count is notably high that day, so you know to sequester yourself safely indoors. Hopefully you don't live in a city like Jackson, Mississippi, which in 2016 was named the worst city in the U.S. for allergy sufferers. There, your phone may be pinging every day.

While you can already find this information on sites like Pollen.com, having it show up immediately in search results saves you a few extra clicks, and frankly, it’s far more readable than most allergy and weather forecast sites.

Too bad a search engine can't cure our sneezes and watery eyes, though. Time to stock up on Kleenex, get a jumbo bottle of allergy meds, and maybe buy yourself a robot vacuum.

[h/t The Verge]

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