Called the microbiome, it consists of the millions of organisms that live in and on us, said Elizabeth Corwin, associate dean for strategic and innovative research at Columbia University School of Nursing. And a healthy microbiome is a crucial part of good health.
It influences the immune system and helps synthesize important vitamins in our gut, Corwin added. Those organisms also offer protection, can help heal wounds, kill harmful pathogens and help certain drugs work better, said Sheena Cruickshank, a professor in the division of infection, immunity and respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
Taking care of your microbiome can help with many conditions, including allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases, Cruickshank said.
“What we really mean by a good microbiome is a diverse microbiome,” Cruickshank said. “Many diseases tend to be associated with a lack of variety.”
She and Corwin shared simple ways to get more microbial variety into your life.
How about a dog?
Looking for an excuse to adopt a dog? Here it is.
Studies show that dogs share their microbiome with the home, Corwin said. Growing up with a dog has been shown to reduce the chances of developing asthma and allergies, Cruickshank said.
And caring for a pet is a nice way to exchange bacteria, he added. Just having animals around can help.
“We also have a microbiome in our buildings and in the air around us,” Cruickshank said. “It suggests that rural microbiomes have a bit more variety and may be better for our lung health.”
Sorry cat people, but Corwin said that dogs seem to be the most helpful pets for the microbiome.
lower your stress
An important factor for microbiome health is how leaky, or leaky, your gut is.
Everyone’s gut is leaky to some degree, but some people’s gut leaks more than others, Corwin said. If your gut filters out healthy, helpful microorganisms, that’s fine, he added. But if you filter out more virulent microorganisms, the immune cells waiting outside will become active, which can cause inflammation.
So how does your stress come into play?
“High cortisol, which is one of our stress hormones, can actually increase the permeability of the gut,” Corwin said. “If you live with a lot of stress, your gut could leak more.”
Vary your diet
A high-fiber and varied diet is important for a healthy microbiome, experts said.
The microbiota loves high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables, Corwin said. Fiber isn’t digested well in the stomach and tends to be further broken down by microorganisms, moving through the intestine, he added.
Fermented foods can be helpful, because they often give you live bacteria, Cruickshank said. But while some studies have shown its effectiveness, it’s hard to know for sure if you’re getting beneficial bacteria from the fermented foods you eat because batches can vary so much.
Cruickshank said he’s concerned about the microbiomes of people who limit their food, either because of a restrictive diet or because they rely on high-fat but convenient foods.
“If you have a varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, that gives you a lot of different things to chew on and enjoy,” Cruickshank said. “The simplest thing we can do is have a good, balanced diet.”
What about probiotics?
Maybe. Probiotics are often the first things we think of when we talk about gut health, but the evidence on their effectiveness is mixed, Cruickshank said.
They are often recommended after an antibiotic to replenish the good bacteria that can be killed along with the bad with medication.