Why Fiber Is Good for Your Gut Health

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

Pandemic vs. Epidemic: What’s the Difference?

If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
If scientists can't develop a vaccine for a new virus quickly enough, an epidemic can turn into a pandemic.
doble-d/iStock via Getty Images

As the new coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the words epidemic and pandemic are showing up in news reports more often than they usually do. While the terms are closely related, they don’t refer to the same thing.

As the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) explains on its website, “an epidemic occurs when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people.” Usually, what precedes an epidemic is an outbreak, or “a sudden rise in the number of cases of a disease.” An outbreak can affect a single community or several countries, but it’s on a much smaller scale than an epidemic.

If an epidemic can’t be contained and keeps expanding its reach, public health officials might start calling it a pandemic, which means it’s affected enough people in different areas of the world to be considered a global outbreak. In short, a pandemic is a worldwide epidemic. It infects more people, causes more deaths, and can also have widespread social and economic repercussions. The spread of the Spanish influenza from 1918 to 1919, which killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world, was a pandemic; more recently, the H1N1 influenza created a pandemic in 2009.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky: There’s no cut-and-dried classification system for outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics. Based on the definitions above, it might seem like the current coronavirus disease, now called COVID-19, falls into the pandemic category already—according to a map from the World Health Organization (WHO), there are more than 80,000 confirmed cases in 34 countries, and nearly 2700 people have died from the disease. It’s also beginning to impact travel, stock markets, and the global economy as a whole. But WHO maintains that although the situation has the potential to become a pandemic, it’s still an epidemic for now.

“It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN earlier this month. “I think you could have people arguing each end of it. Pandemics mean different things to different people.”

[h/t APIC.org]

Scotland Could Become the First Country to Provide Universal Period Products to Citizens

emapoket, iStock via Getty Images
emapoket, iStock via Getty Images

Fears over where to find—and how to afford—sanitary products before their next menstrual cycle may no longer be an issue for people in Scotland. Earlier today, as the BBC reports, Members of Scottish Parliament passed the first part of a bill that would make items like pads and tampons free to the public.

The Period Products Bill was first put forth in 2017 to address period poverty, which affects people who are unable to afford essential menstrual hygiene products. Pads, tampons, and some reusable menstrual items are currently available to students in primary schools and universities in the country. The Scottish government has also expanded the program to include additional public places and sports clubs, but this new bill goes even further. If passed, Scotland would become the first country to provide free period products to citizens on a universal scale.

Ministers in the Scottish Parliament were initially concerned about the bill's £24 million ($31 million) annual price tag, but earlier this month, members of all parties in the government came out in support of the legislation. Though the bill passed through the first stage of parliament today, February 25, the BBC wrote that "The government is expected to put forward a raft of amendments to address their 'significant' concerns about the legislation," including the aforementioned cost.

Period poverty is an issue that's felt around the world. In America, many lawmakers are fighting to end the "tampon tax": a sales tax that's added to sanitary products and waived from other hygiene products deemed essential in many states, like dandruff shampoo.

[h/t BBC]

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