TIME medicine

Minnesota Takes Half Step Toward Legalizing Marijuana

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Pills and oils are approved, but smoking marijuana remains prohibited

Minnesota eased a statewide ban on medical marijuana products Wednesday, approving the use of pills and oils for seriously ill patients, while upholding a ban on products that can be smoked.

Under the new law, users will be able to use liquid and pill extracts of marijuana plants, provided they are suffering from serious conditions such as epilepsy, HIV and cancer, the Associated Press reports. The law also restricts sales to only eight dispensaries within the state.

While legalization advocates hailed the new rules as a step forward, they argued that Minnesota’s approach was unusually restrictive, potentially excluding patients living in rural areas or on tight budgets from obtaining the drugs.

[AP]

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Strange Link Between Junk Food and Depression

TIME.com stock photos Food Snacks Candy Chocolate
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Some—but not all—sugars were associated with depressive disorders

Of our many modern diseases, one of the biggest burdens on society is an unexpected one: depression, according to the World Health Organization. And what we eat may be contributing, finds a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

James E. Gangwisch, PhD, assistant professor at Columbia University in the department of psychiatry, wanted to find out whether foods with a higher glycemic index (GI)—a scale that ranks carbohydrate-containing foods by how much they raise your blood sugar—would be associated with greater odds of depression. “When I was a kid, I was almost like a candy junkie,” Gangwisch says. “I noticed for myself, if I eat a lot of sugar, it makes me feel down the next day.” Gangwisch says he stopped eating added sugar years ago but remained curious about whether a junk food diet could make people depressed.

He and a team of researchers looked at data from food questionnaires and a scale that measures symptoms of depressive disorders from postmenopausal women in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. The data came from roughly 70,000 women, none of whom suffered from depression at the study’s start, who had baseline measurements taken between 1994 and 1998, and then again after a three-year follow-up.

Diets higher on the glycemic index, including those rich in refined grains and added sugar, were associated with greater odds of depression, the researchers found. But some aspects of diet had protective effects against developing depression, including fiber, whole grains, whole fruits, vegetables and lactose, a sugar that comes from dairy products and milk that sits low on the glycemic index.

Added sugars—but not total sugars or total carbohydrates—were strongly associated with depression.

Though the authors couldn’t pinpoint a mechanism from this study—it was associative—they note that one possibility is that the overconsumption of sugars and refined starches is a risk factor for inflammation and cardiovascular disease, both of which have been linked to the development of depression.This kind of diet could also lead insulin resistance, which has been linked to cognitive deficits similar to those found in people with major depression.

Further research is needed, Gangwisch says, and it’s not yet known whether the results would translate to a broader group of people, including men and younger women. But even now, diet may be worth discussing with people who suffer from depression, Gangwisch says—even though doing so may be difficult. “It’s hard enough to get the general public to avoid those kinds of foods, but it’s even harder to get someone who suffers from depression to avoid them and give them up,” he says. “You don’t want people to feel guilty either…to say, ‘Your diet’s bad and you should change it,’ would take kind of a soft sell approach.” Still, he believes the effort is worth it. “I think it’s important and I think it has a big effect on your mood and how you feel and your energy level,” he says. “If it’s something that people can change, they really would benefit from it.”

TIME Infectious Disease

California Lawmakers to Vote on Tougher Vaccine Measures

The bill would end exemptions from vaccinations for personal beliefs

California lawmakers are expected to vote Monday on a measure that would require most children in public schools to get vaccinations.

The bill, which is headed for a final vote in the California state Senate, would end exemptions from vaccinations for personal belief, and would excuse only children with serious health issues from vaccines, reports the Associated Press. Other unvaccinated children would need to be homeschooled.

An outbreak of measles at Disneyland in December infected over 100 people in the U.S. and Mexico, largely due to pockets of unvaccinated Californians.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not said whether he would sign the bill. If it becomes law, California, Mississippi and West Virginia would be the only states with such strict vaccination requirements.

[AP]

TIME Diet/Nutrition

5 Delicious Banana-Free Smoothie Recipes

From strawberry basil to fudgesicle

Bananas are ubiquitous in smoothie recipes, but don’t go bananas if you’re allergic to the tropical fruits, don’t like them, or just don’t have any on hand: You don’t have to miss out on good-for-you shakes. Just blend up one of these banana-free treats and sip away.

A few notes:

For all of these recipes, combine the ingredients in a blender—preferably high-speed, like the Vitamix ($382, amazon.com)—and blend until smooth. If the smoothie is too thick, add water a bit at a time until it’s the consistency you like.

We gave suggested serving sizes, but remember that smoothie calories add up. Have a larger serving if the smoothie is a meal. If it’s a snack, pour it into a smaller cup and sip slowly.

Don’t leave out the pinch of salt. Your smoothie won’t be salty, but it will have a brighter flavor.

If you’re going to use almond milk, beware of packaged brands with fillers and sweeteners. One way to avoid all that is to make your own; it’s super-easy to DIY.

  • Strawberry Basil Smoothie

    strawberry-basil
    Beth Lipton

    Serves: 1

    1 cup milk (dairy, almond, rice, coconut) or plain yogurt

    1 cup frozen strawberries

    1/2 cup frozen spinach

    ¼ cup fresh basil leaves

    2 Tbsp. hemp seeds or almond butter

    1 Tbsp. honey

    ½ tsp. vanilla extract

    Pinch of salt

     

  • Peachy-Green Smoothie

    peachy-green
    Beth Lipton

    Serves: 1

    1 cup milk (dairy, almond, rice, coconut) or plain yogurt

    1 1/2 cups frozen peach slices

    1/2 cup frozen spinach

    2 Tbsp. flax-chia or flax-hemp blend (such as Carrington Farms, $6.50 for 12 oz., amazon.com)

    1 tsp. greens powder, optional (I like Sunfood Sun Is Shining, $40 for 8 oz., amazon.com)

    1 Tbsp. pure maple syrup or honey

    ¼ tsp. ground ginger, optional

    Pinch of salt

     

  • Mighty Mango-Coconut Smoothie

    mango-coconut
    Beth Lipton

    Serves: 1

    1 1/4 cups frozen mango chunks

    1/2 cup frozen spinach

    1 cup full-fat coconut milk

    2 Tbsp. hemp or chia seeds, or flax-chia or flax-hemp blend

    1 Tbsp. maple syrup or honey

    Pinch of salt

  • Fudgesicle Smoothie

    fudgesicle
    Beth Lipton

    Serves: 2

    1 cup milk (preferably coconut, but dairy or almond will work. Rice is too thin)

    1/3 cup raw cacao powder (such as JoyFuel, $18 for 1 lb., amazon.com)

    ½ cup frozen spinach

    ½ avocado, peeled and pitted

    3 Tbsp. maple syrup or honey

    pinch of salt

    1 cup ice cubes

  • AB&J Smoothie

    abj
    Beth Lipton

    Serves: 2

    1 cup milk (dairy, almond, rice, coconut) or plain yogurt

    1/2 cup frozen spinach

    1 cup frozen mixed berries

    ¼ cup almond butter

    ¼ cup oats

    1 Tbsp. honey or maple syrup

    Pinch of salt

    This article originally appeared on Health.com

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TIME medicine

This Drug Brought Pigment Back for Woman With Vitiligo

skin pigmentation arthritis
Dr. Brett King/Yale

A case study shows promise

Scientists have discovered an existing drug may be able to restore pigment into the skin of people with vitiligo.

Vitiligo is a disorder that causes the skin to lose its pigment, and few treatments are consistently effective. The late singer Michael Jackson is a well-known person who had the disorder.

In the study, which was recently published in the journal JAMA Dermatology, researchers gave a 53-year-old patient with vitiligo who had white spots covering her face, hands and body a drug called tofacitinib citrate, which is currently used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

After just two months, pigment had partially returned to the woman’s face, arms and hands, and after five months white spots on her face were almost completely gone. She had a few spots that remained on other parts of her body.

The findings are encouraging, especially considering she experienced no adverse side effects while taking the drug. Since the study was only conducted with one woman, more research will need to be done to confirm efficacy and safety.

“While it’s one case, we anticipated the successful treatment of this patient based on our current understanding of the disease and how the drug works,” said study author Dr. Brett King, assistant professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine in a statement. “It’s a first, and it could revolutionize treatment of an awful disease.”

TIME Exercise/Fitness

6 Moves That Burn More Fat in Less Time

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Here's everything you need to know about plyometrics

 

There’s an in-vogue specialized training method that many people are using to get crazy results, and it is one of the fastest methods to get fit in a short amount of time: plyometrics.

Plyometrics are explosive movements that combine power, speed, and strength by working several body parts at once. Since they recruit more muscles than your average exercise—compare a bicep curl, which isolates only that one muscle, with a move that activates your arms, legs, and core simultaneously, like many of the ones below—you burn more calories not only during your workout, but up to eight hours after you’ve finished.

While plyometrics are well-known in the world of sports as a way to help athletes improve their game, they’re starting to take the rest of the fitness world by storm, and for good reason: In addition to toning and sculpting your legs, booty, arms, and abs, plyometrics help to build strength, increase balance and coordination, and improve cardiovascular health.

Before you jump off the couch and head to the gym, make sure you’re ready to handle plyometrics; since the difficulty level is somewhat advanced, being able to perform a proper basic squat and lunge first is important. Once you’ve mastered those moves, you’re ready to move on. Here are 6 plyometrics that will burn fat in no time:

Squat Jumps

Start by getting into the bottom of a squat position. Your legs should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and slightly turned out. Your chest should be out, shoulders back, and core engaged. From here, explode straight up in the air, allowing your feet to leave the ground. Make sure to land softly on your toes when you come down. Doing this will protect your knees and hips. Complete 10-15 squat jumps.

Lunge Hops

Start in a lunge position with your right foot in front and left foot behind you with your left knee about an inch from the floor. From here, explode straight up out of the lunge, switching your legs mid-air and landing softly on your toes. You will now have your left leg in front and right leg behind you. Repeat this until you’ve completed 10 total lunge hops.

Skaters

Start at the bottom of a squat position. Jump to the left, landing on your left leg, while bringing your right leg behind your left ankle. From here, jump to the right side with your right leg, bringing your left leg behind your right ankle. This completes one rep. Complete a total of 30 skaters.

Toe Taps

Find a stable medicine ball, step, or bench. This will be your base for the toe touches. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms by your sides. Bring your right toe to the edge of your base. From here jump and switch your feet so that your left toe is at the edge of the base and your right foot is now back on the floor. Repeat this for a total of 30 toe taps.

Medicine Ball Squat Thrusts

Grab a medicine ball and stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hold the ball at belly-button height and slowly squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor or lower. (Do not let your knees extend past the tip of your toes.) From here, explode upwards and toss the medicine ball straight in the air. Keep your eye on it so you can catch it and drop right back into the squat position. Do 12-15 medicine ball squat thrusts.

Medicine Ball Burpees

Grab a medicine ball and stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Squat down to the floor and place the medicine ball between your feet while keeping your hands on the ball. From here, jump back into a pushup position, making sure your hands are placed securely on the ball. Jump your feet forward until you are at the bottom of a squat again, then stand up straight. Try to do 10-12 medicine ball burpees.

Liked these moves? Check out A 5-Move Workout To Get Your Butt In Shape

This article originally appeared on Health.com

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TIME A Year In Space

6 Ways Medicine in Space is Completely Different from on Earth

Preparing to make a house call: Scott Kelly, currently aboard the space station for a one-year stay, checks out spacewalk suit of space doc Kjell Lindgren, who blasts off next month
NASA Preparing to make a house call: Scott Kelly, currently aboard the space station for a one-year stay, checks out spacewalk suit of space doc Kjell Lindgren, who blasts off next month

Everything's different in zero-g

You may or may not want to go to space, but here’s something certain: you definitely don’t want to get sick there. Ask the crew of Apollo 7, the 1960s mission in which the commander contracted a cold, spread it to the other two astronauts and all three of them spent the entire mission trapped inside a cramped spacecraft, sneezing, hacking and griping at the ground.

And that was just 11 days in Earth orbit. What about a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS)? What about a two-and-a-half-year mission to Mars. And what about something a wee bit more serious than a cold—like appendicitis or a heart attack or a severe injury? Zero-gravity plays all manner of nasty games with the bones, muscles, organs, eyeballs, the brain itself—never mind the infectious risks that come from sealing half a dozen people inside a self-contained vessel, where a virus or bacterium could simply circulate ’round and ’round, from person to person indefinitely.

These are some of the things that will be on the mind of rookie astronaut Kjell Lindgren, who will spend nearly six months aboard the ISS when he lifts off in late July as part of the station’s next three-person crew. Lindgren is not just a well-trained astronaut, but a specialist in aerospace and emergency medicine—just the kind of expert who will increasingly be needed as the human presence in space becomes permanent.

“If we want to go to Mars some day,” Lindgren said in a recent conversation with TIME, “if we want to get further and deeper into the solar system, we need to start thinking about these things, thinking about the capabilities we need to do an appendectomy or take out a gall bladder.”

There will be no gall bladder or appendix takings while Lindgren is aloft. For now, he and the ISS flight doctors back on Earth are taking only space-medicine baby steps, learning the basics about the radical differences between medical care on the Earth and medical care off it. Here are a few of the most vexing problems they have to learn to solve:

1. Where is that kidney again? On Earth, your organs settle into predictable positions. A doctor palpating your liver or thumping your chest knows exactly where things ought to be. In zero-g, not so much. “The organs may be displaced a little bit,” says Lindgren. “They tend to shift up a little more. The heart may have a little bit of a different orientation, which may be reflected on an EKG.” Other kinds of shifting or compression—of the lungs, stomach, bladder and more—can cause problems of their own.

2. Your bones hate space: Without the constant tug of gravity, your skeleton doesn’t work nearly as hard, which causes it to weaken and decalcify. Astronauts spend many hours a week exercising to counteract some of that, but nothing can reverse it completely. When Russia’s Mir space station was still flying, newly arriving cosmonauts were warned not to exchange traditional bear hugs with crew members who had been there for a while. The risk: broken ribs.

3. Your eyes do too: Astronauts who have been in space for long-term stays often find that their vision grows worse, and it doesn’t always bounce completely back when they return to Earth. The problem is caused by fluid shifting upward from the lower body into the head, compressing the optic nerve and distorting the shape of the eyeball. Eye infections and irritation are more common too—for decidedly ick-inducing reasons. “Dust doesn’t settle in the vehicle like it does on Earth,” says Lindgren. “So things that are liberated, little pieces of metal from equipment or maybe dead skin just float around and cause eye irritation.”

4. But your feet will thank you: You know all of those callouses that you’ve built up on your heel and the ball of your foot after a lifetime of walking around? Say goodbye too them. They serve a purpose, which is to cushion your foot against the shock of walking, but since you’re not walking in space, you don’t need them. Just beware when you remove your socks. The callouses don’t tell you when they’re going to slough off, so the wrong move at the wrong time could leave unsightly chunks of you floating around the cabin. (See, e.g., “ick-inducing,” above.)

5. Try not to need stitches: Suturing wounds is one of the most basic things doctors and other medical caregivers learn how to do, but it will take a little extra work in space. On Earth, sutures are simply laid on a tray along with the other equipment. In space, that’s not possible. “Instead of your sterile suture thread laying in a sterile field, now it’s floating around and running into everything,” says Lindgren. While aloft, Lindgren plans to experiment with different techniques to address this problem; no word on which of his five crewmates will volunteer to be the patient.

6. Eat your roughage: Easily the least glamorous part of space travel is the simple business of, well, doing your business. The space toilets aboard the ISS and the shuttle have come a long way from the bags and tubes of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era. But the human body hasn’t changed much in that time, and when it comes to keeping the intestines operating, a little gravity can help. One lunar astronaut who, for the sake of legacy and dignity will not be identified here, claimed that one of the best parts about landing on the moon was that things that hadn’t been working at all when he was in zero-g, got moving right away in the one-sixth gravity of the moon. History is made by mortals, and no matter where they are, mortals gotta’ do what mortals gotta’ do.

TIME

Looking To Stay On Your Partner’s Insurance? It May Be Time To Get Married

Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield health benefits cards are arra
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield health benefits cards are arranged for a photograph Tuesday, September 27, 2005.

Domestic partner benefits may become a lot less common.

It’s official. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of legalizing gay marriage across the U.S., opening up the rite of commitment to any person regardless of their sexuality.

It’s a historic moment–and the last thing that’s on many peoples minds is insurance. (Though, quick reminder! The Supreme Court also made an important decision yesterday to uphold Obamacare subsidies.)

But, now that the right to marry is extended to everyone, many companies could start streamlining their benefits packages and take away the perk of insurance coverage for domestic partners, according to analysis by Aon Hewitt. If you want to stay on your significant other’s employer-sponsored insurance policy, now may be the moment to pop the question.

Such a move could affect both gay and straight couples who may opt to be committed partners but not marry, which is more common for the Millennial generation. Nearly 9.2% of Millennials co-habit with a partner, nearly twice the rate of Gen Xers at the same age, according to the Pew Research Center.

About 77% of employers currently offer same-sex domestic partner health care coverage, according to data from Aon Hewitt. Such benefits were a way for companies to even the benefits playing field for couples who couldn’t legally wed. But many companies could opt out of that offering, streamlining their benefits (and costs) to only cover spouses–now that all people have equal access to marriage.

Some companies, including Delta Air Lines and Verizon Communications, had already started to eliminate domestic partner benefits in states where gay marriage was legal prior to the Supreme Court ruling. Those policies will likely be extended now that marriage is widely accessible, making insurance benefits available only to legal spouses–gay or straight.

“The main idea is to make things fair for everyone,” Verizon spokesman Ray McConville, told the Wall Street Journal. “Currently, if you’re a guy living with a longtime girlfriend or vice versa, you don’t have the ability to get health insurance for your partner.”

Streamlining benefits helps companies ease the cost of administrative functions, especially when it comes to applying different standards to employees in various states, said Aon Hewitt.

Other companies, like Google, IBM and Dow Chemical, offer domestic partner benefits to all couples and don’t envision getting rid of the perk anytime soon. They see it as a way to attract top talent, recognizing that some people simply prefer not to marry.

TIME the brain

Why You’re Pretty Much Unconscious All the Time

Nobody's home: There's less of you here than you think
Getty Images Nobody's home: There's less of you here than you think

A surprising new paper argues that consciousness is just a bit player in the human brain

Your body has a lot of nifty parts, but it’s the brain that’s the it organ of the summer. The brain’s all-the-rage moment is mostly a result of the box office hit Inside Out, from Pixar, the animation company that had previously limited itself to such fanciful questions as “What would happen if your toys could come alive?” or “Are there really monsters in my closet?” With Inside Out, the filmmakers raised their game, taking on a rather more vexing issue: How does the brain work?

The answer—which involves five colorful characters living inside your head and operating a giant control panel—was perfect at a lot of levels, equal parts fairy tale, metaphor, and sort-of, kind-of, pretty good science. But no sooner did the problem get solved, than the real scientists came along and spoiled the party. And they did it in a big way.

In a new paper published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a group of researchers led by associate professor of psychology Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University, took on the somewhat narrower question of exactly what consciousness is—and came up with a decidedly bleaker view: It’s pretty much nothing at all. Never mind the five characters controlling your thoughts, you barely control them. It’s the unconscious that’s really in charge.

Morsella’s paper was not based on any breaking experimental work. There were no new brain scans or questionnaires or subjects being asked to respond to flashing lights or flickering images on a computer screen. Rather, the work involved little more than a group of really, really smart people thinking really, really hard about things. That, for better or worse, is how most questions about consciousness have been answered since humans began considering them, and the answers have often been pretty compelling.

The one Morsella and his colleagues came up with is something they call “Passive Frame Theory,” and their provocative idea goes like this: nearly all of your brain’s work is conducted in different lobes and regions at the unconscious level, completely without your knowledge. When the processing is done and there is a decision to make or a physical act to perform, that very small job is served up to the conscious mind, which executes the work and then flatters itself that it was in charge all the time.

The conscious you, in effect, is like a not terribly bright CEO, whose subordinates do all of the research, draft all of the documents, then lay them out and say, “Sign here, sir.” The CEO does—and takes the credit.

“The information we perceive in our consciousness is not created by conscious thought,” Morsella said in a statement accompanying the release of the paper. “Nor is it reacted to by conscious processes. Consciousness is the middle-man and it doesn’t do as much work as you think.”

There are deep evolutionary reasons for things to work that way. Humans, like all animals, operate as parsimoniously as possible; if we could be run entirely by our reflexes and instincts with no conscious thought at all, we would. There’s a reason you don’t stop to contemplate whether you should pull your hand off a hot stove, and instead simply do it. Consciousness in that case would just slow things down.

But as we became complex, social organisms, capable of speech and emotion and tool-making and more, we needed a bit of the brain that could step in not so much to run things, but to guide the body or choose between two or three very simple options. Take the experience of holding your breath underwater or carrying a hot dish. Your musculoskeletal system wants you to take a breath in the first case and drop the dish in the second. However, the part of your unconscious brain that is aware of consequences knows why both of those choices are bad ideas. So the conflict is served up to the conscious mind that keeps you in control until you’ve reached the surface of the water or put the dish on the table.

But the unconscious mind is far more powerful and creative than that. The authors cite language in particular—a human faculty that is considered perhaps our highest and most complex gift—as one more area in which consciousness is just a bit player. You may be the world’s finest raconteur, but when you’re speaking you’re only consciously aware of the few words you’re saying at any one moment—and that’s only so you can direct the muscles that make it possible to form and express the words in the first place. All of the content of your speech is being pre-cooked for you before you say it.

Things are a bit different if you’re, say, delivering a rehearsed toast or speaking in a language that is not your own; in these cases, the conscious mind has either mastered a script or is continually consulting an inner dictionary, reminding itself to convert, say, the English cat to the Spanish gato. But the whole goal of language fluency is to eliminate that step, to think in the second language and thus, once again, put the conscious mind out of work.

Morsella goes heavy on the acronyms to make his case. The brain’s guiding principle in mediating between the conscious and unconscious is described as EASE—for Elemental, Action-based, Simple and Evolutionary-based. The system for speaking one word instead of another or holding onto a hot dish even when you don’t want to is PRISM—for Parallel Responses into Skeletal Muscle. But those utilitarian terms do a very good job of capturing the utilitarian way the human system works.

We are, like it or not, biological machines, and the simpler we keep things, the less chance there is for a mistake or a breakdown. The mind, as the most complex part of us, needs the streamlining more than anything else. None of this changes the fact that our brains are the seat of our greatest achievements—our poetry, our inventions, our compassion, our art. It’s just that it’s the unconscious rather than the conscious that should take the bow. The only thing that should have any quarrel with that is one of our lesser impulses: our vanity.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

In Defense of Fiber: How Changing Your Diet Changes Your Gut Bacteria

healthiest foods, health food, diet, nutrition, time.com stock, beets, vegetables
Danny Kim for TIME

Finally, the motivation you've been waiting for to gorge yourself on fiber

You no longer live in a world where you can pretend you’re only eating for one; the trillions of bacteria in your gut, we now know, also feed on what you put in your mouth—and they behave very differently depending on what that is.

It’s increasingly clear that the composition of your gut bacteria likely influences your risk for many health problems, from obesity and type-2 diabetes and even certain autoimmune diseases. Scientists are hard at work trying to determine how and why that’s that case, as well as which bacteria are beneficial—and how to protect them. A recent study published in The BMJ adds to the growing evidence that fiber might be a critical gut-nourishing nutrient. (Unfortunately, less than 3% of Americans eat the government-recommended amount daily.)

“You really hold the reins to guiding this community [of bacteria] through the choices you make,” says Justin L. Sonnenburg, PhD, associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of The Good Gut. Sonnenburg was not involved with this study, but research from his lab also suggests that fiber plays a big role in promoting good bacteria.

The authors of the new study wanted to look at what changes in diet do to one particular gut microbe species: Akkermansia muciniphila—a strain that’s been associated with leanness and better glucose tolerance in mice. They wrangled a group of 49 overweight and obese adults, took stool and blood samples and asked them to follow a six-week calorie-restricted diet (between 1,500-1,800 calories per day) while increasing their fiber intake. The diet was followed by six weeks of eating normally. They kept a food journal throughout, and the researchers biopsied their fat tissue.

The people who had more Akkermansia in their gut from the very start had better clinical measures after they completed the diet, compared to the people with less of the bacterium. Both groups of people lost the same amount of weight, but the high-Akkermansia group had a stronger decrease in visceral fat than the others, says study author Patrice D. Cani, PhD, professor and group leader of the Metabolism and Nutrition Research Group at Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. “We discovered that the patients who exhibited higher amounts of Akkermansia were the patients who had a very strong improvement in cholesterol, in glycemia, in waist to hip ratio and also a reduction in different parameters in both cardiovascular disease and risk factors.”

Higher levels of Akkermansia, the findings suggest, seem to have favorable effects on health.

The good news is that your initial Akkermansia levels are not your fate. People who started out with lower stores of Akkermansia had more after they followed the fiber-rich calorie-restricted diet. You can increase these bacterial populations by eating fiber, Cani’s research suggests, which acts as a prebiotic in the gut and has a beneficial effect on some bacteria.

Now, Cani says he is working on an experiment with obese and diabetic patients to administer Akkermansia alone, without any dietary modifications, to see what effect it has on insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease risk factors. “If we can improve these different parameters, that would be something great,” he says.

Here’s why fiber is so important to intestinal flora: gut your microbes feed on it and produce short-chain fatty acids, which get absorbed into the bloodstream and regulate the immune system and attenuate inflammation, Sonnenburg says. “That means if you’re not eating dietary fiber, your immune system may be existing in kind of a simmering pro-inflammatory state,” he says—the very state that predisposes us to different Western diseases. “Our diet and deteriorated microbiota are really a major piece of the puzzle in trying to understand why Western diseases are rising like crazy.”

Sonnenburg says that when researchers try on mice what many of us do on a regular basis—eat food depleted of dietary fiber—their gut microbes behave erratically. “They turn and start eating the mucus lining of the intestine,” says Sonnenburg, “because that’s also a carbohydrate source and it’s kind of a fallback food for them.” In mice on a low-fiber diet, the mucus lining thins to about half of its normal width, he says. It’s so far unclear whether the same thing happens in humans, but Sonnenburg thinks it might. “We start to see these correlates that we think over the course of decades in a human could lead to something problematic,” he says.

Loading up on fiber-fortified processed foods isn’t likely a good way to increase the kind of fiber that benefits the gut. Studies done on single fibers—those, like inulin, which are added to foods—haven’t shown to have the same effects as fiber that occur naturally in whole foods. “All of the vegetables we’re encouraged to eat by our mothers and by the government guidelines, these are all filled with fiber, and filled with a diversity of fiber, and probably the best route for encouraging a diverse microbiota,” Sonnenburg says.

Nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes and even dark chocolate are high in fiber—as are vegetables. “You can eat massive amounts of plant material and it can be incredibly good for you, you can feel really satisfied and full,” Sonnenburg says. “I find that a really nice way to eat—just kind of gorging myself on plant material.”

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