Called the microbiome, it is made up 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. These organisms also offer protection, can help heal wounds, kill bad pathogens and help some drugs work better, said Sheena Cruickshank, a professor in the division of infections, immunity and respiratory medicine at the University of Manchester in the UK.
Taking care of your microbiome can help treat 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.
And a dog ?
Looking for an excuse to adopt a dog? It’s here.
Studies show that dogs share their microbiome with the household, Corwin said. Growing up with a dog has been shown to reduce the risk of developing asthma and allergies, Cruickshank said.
And caring for a pet is a fun way to exchange bacteria, she added. Just having animals nearby can help.
“We also have a microbiome in our buildings and in the air around us,” Cruickshank said. “It is suggested that rural microbiomes have a bit more variety and may be better for our lung health.”
Sorry felines, but Corwin said dogs seem to be the most microbiome-friendly pet.
Reduce your stress
An important factor in microbiome health is how leaky or permeable your gut is.
Everyone’s gut is leaky to some degree, but some people’s bowels are more leaky than others, Corwin said. If your gut is leaking healthy, helpful microorganisms, that’s fine, she added. But if you lose more virulent microorganisms, the immune cells waiting outside will activate, which can cause inflammation.
So how does your stress come into play?
“High cortisol, which is one of our stress hormones, can actually increase leaky gut,” Corwin said. “If you’re living with high stress, your gut might be more permeable.”
Vary your diet
A high-fiber, varied diet is important for a healthy microbiome, experts said.
The microbiome likes high-fiber foods, like fruits and vegetables, Corwin said. Fiber is not digested well in the stomach and tends to be broken down further by microorganisms, and it moves through the gut, she added.
Fermented foods can be helpful because they often give you live bacteria, Cruickshank said. But, while some studies have shown their effectiveness, it’s hard to know for sure if you’re going to get helpful bacteria from the fermented foods you eat, because batches can vary so widely.
Cruickshank said she worries about the microbiomes of people who limit their food, either because of a restrictive diet or because they depend on high-fat but convenient foods.
“If you have a varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, that gives you lots of different things to snack on and enjoy,” Cruickshank said. “The simplest thing we can do is eat a good balanced diet.”
What about probiotics?
Maybe. Probiotics are often the first thing we think of when talking about gut health, but the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed, Cruickshank said.
They are often recommended after an antibiotic to replenish the good bacteria which can be killed along with the bad with medication.