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Poop Is the Most Important Indicator of Your Health

Like it or not, our bowels are the ID cards of our bodies, charting our recent histories with terrifying accuracy. So, how do we ensure a healthy gut?

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This finding undermines the assumption that obesity is driven by laziness and easy access to cheap fattening foods.

"You can't ask the mice" why they ate more, "but how much they ate was clearly not affected by price or marketing schemes," Gewirtz says. Instead, bad bugs can promote excessive appetite and fat storage. They can also make us sick in a million other ways.

The Business of the Gut

"Good bugs form an invisible barrier preventing pathogenic bugs to take root and multiply," says Ann Louise Gittleman, a doctor of holistic nutrition who has appeared on "Dr. Phil" and authored over 30 books including Fat Flush for Life (Da Capo, 2009).

She urges us to wage "the new germ warfare" that optimizes "the balance of power in what amounts to a huge fungi kingdom. We have to, because in our bodies we have more bacteria than we have cells."

Because of their crucial role in immune function, the bad ones "can turn into a source of bad health that can affect us from head to toe," creating not just irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and Crohn's disease but conditions such as nasal congestion, itchy skin, bleeding gums, acne and depression that we might not think had anything to do with our bowels, Gittleman says. Online, she sells stool-sample testing kits that come with vials and a discreet white box printed with the address of the lab that does the analysis.

"The intestine is an unappreciated organ. It's a beautiful membrane," asserts vegan physician Michael Klaper, who appeared in the PBS documentaries Diet for a New America and Food for Thought and has served as an adviser to NASA. "Think of all the intestine does while supporting a population of alien organisms. Miraculous things happen on our gut linings."

At True North Health Education and Fasting Center in Santa Rosa, California, Klaper and his fellow doctors supervise patients undergoing water-only fasts that can last up to 40 days. "Like other organs, the gut could use a rest. We're talking about 22 feet of small intestine. Its lining is a very active membrane and it needs a holiday sometimes, too.

"The body is perfectly capable of going for weeks without food as you burn off your fat stores. Of course, it's no picnic. In the first few days, people are very energetic, as all the energy that would have been used to digest food is put to other purposes. At the end of the second week, they get very quiet, meditative. They're in a different space," said Klaper.

When it's over, "they're very light and clean, and we very gently re-feed them on highly diluted fruit juices and steamed vegetables." However long the fast lasted, refeeding takes half that long. "There's an art to it, of course," Klaper says.

How did we get so messed-up?

"In the old days, our ancestors drank water out of streams and wells. They ate fruit and vegetables harvested in gardens. They lived in close connection with the natural world, and part of the natural world would set up housekeeping in their intestines," he said.

Traditional diets lacking chemical additives kept their gut bugs in balance, "but modern life is an assault on our normal bacterial flora. We put five or six majorly disruptive substances down there every day."

The first of these is chlorine, found in tap water. "Okay, so we don't get cholera or typhoid. That's great. But every time you drink this water, you're drinking a chlorine-dilute solution," he said. That kills good bugs along with bad. Ditto phosphoric acid, a key soft-drink ingredient. "We're a nation of tea and coffee drinkers. What happens in your gut when you're constantly sloshing down a known bactericide?"

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