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Is This the Secret to Health and Happiness?

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Your digestive system is so much more than a winding tract that transports food from point A to point B. Thanks to your gut, foods you eat are broken down so you can absorb the nutrients that benefit your body from head to toe. Bacteria are crucial players in that process. And a slew of new research is finding just how big of a role the bugs that colonize your colon may have on your overall health including improved immunity, decreased risk of obesity, a happier mood, and more.

A study published this month in the journal BioEssays finds that your gut microbes may influence your cravings based on the nutrients they need to thrive (crazy, right?). Another study suggests bacteria in your bowel could influence your personality traits and mood, which may help explain why up to 80 percent of people with irritable bowel syndrome suffer from depression and anxiety. How, exactly, the microbes have such a profound effect on our health is still to be determined. One theory is the byproducts they produce travel through our bloodstream and impact our organs.

The good news? You can influence the balance of good-for-you bacteria to reap the healthy rewards. Here, a few simple strategies.

Fill Up on Fiber
"Probiotics are good bacteria that are important for your digestive health and prebiotics are anything that helps probiotics grow," says Roshini Raj, M.D., a gastroenterologist at NYU Medical Center/Tisch Hospital. "Probiotics thrive on fiber." That's because fiber travels through your small intestine without being broken down and reaches your colon where bacteria go to town. The problem: Less than three percent of Americans meet the daily recommendations for fiber, so be sure to add more fiber-rich foods, especially whole grains such as oatmeal, barley, and brown rice, to your diet to reach a quota of about 25 grams per day.

RELATED: The Not-So-Gross Guide to Your Poop

Be Pro Probiotics
While probiotics naturally occur in your gut, you can help boost the population of health-promoting flora by consuming foods containing probiotics. Among other benefits, it could help you slim down. A recent study found women who consumed probiotics lost nearly twice as much weight over 12 weeks than those who received a placebo, the British Journal of Nutrition reports. Yogurt is a popular place to start. "Probiotics are added to milk as part of the process of making yogurt," Raj says. "But since the bacteria can be destroyed during processing, make sure the label says ‘live and active cultures,' which means bacteria has been added back in." Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso are also rich sources. "Unfortunately, science hasn't quite caught up with the food industry yet in terms of recommending specific probiotics or quantities you should consume per day," Raj says. "So I recommend getting probiotics from your diet instead of supplements. I eat a probiotic yogurt every morning."

Avoid Antibiotics
Antibiotics are meant to kill disease-causing bacteria, but they're not sophisticated enough to discern between good and bad bugs. As a result, they may wipe out the bacteria that are causing your strep throat, but take out healthy germs in your intestines too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 50 percent of antibiotics prescribed are unnecessary, so talk to your doc to make sure you absolutely need them before he writes a script. If you must down the meds, load up on prebiotic and probiotic-containing grub while taking them to help replenish your good gut bugs.

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