Called the microbiome, it is made up of millions of organisms that live in and on us, said Elizabeth Corwin, associate dean for strategic and innovation research at Columbia University’s School of Nursing. And a healthy microbiome is an important part of good health.
It affects the immune system and helps synthesize important vitamins in our gut, Corwin added. These organisms also provide protection, can help heal wounds, kill harmful pathogens and improve the effects of certain drugs, says Sheena Cruikshank, professor in the Department 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, Cruikshank says.
“What we really mean by a good microbiome is a diverse microbiome,” Cruikshank said. “Many diseases tend to be associated with a lack of diversity.”
She and Corwin shared simple ways to bring more microbial diversity into your life.
How about a dog?
Looking for an excuse to get a dog? Here.
Research shows that dogs share their microbiome with household members, Corwin said. Growing up with a dog reduces the chances of developing asthma and allergies, according to Cruickshank.
And caring for a pet is an enjoyable way to share bacteria, she added. Just having animals nearby can help.
“We also have a microbiome in our buildings and in the air around us,” Cruikshank said. “The suggestion is that rural microbiomes are a bit more diverse and may be better for our lung health.”
Sorry cat people, but Corwin said that dogs are the most beneficial pets for the microbiome.
Reduce your stress levels
One important factor in the health of the microbiome is how leaky or permeable your gut is.
Everyone’s gut is leaky to some degree, Corvin says, but some people have more leaky guts than others. If your gut is leaking healthy and beneficial microorganisms, that’s fine, she added. But if you release more virulent microorganisms, the immune cells waiting outside are activated, which can cause inflammation.
So how does your stress show up?
“High levels of cortisol, which is one of our stress hormones, can increase your gut permeability,” Corwin said. “If you live under a lot of stress, your gut may be more leaky.”
Vary your diet
A varied, high-fiber diet is important for a healthy microbiome, experts say.
According to Corvin, the microbiota loves foods high in fiber, such as fruits and vegetables. She added that fiber is not easily digested in the stomach and tends to be broken down more by microorganisms and passes through the intestines.
Fermented foods can be beneficial because they often give you live bacteria, Cruikshank says. But while some studies have shown effectiveness, it’s hard to know for sure if you’re going to get beneficial bacteria from the fermented foods you eat because batches can vary so much.
Cruikshank said she’s concerned about the microbiome of people who restrict their diet either because of a restrictive diet or because they rely on fatty but convenient foods.
“If you have a varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, it gives you a lot of different things to eat and enjoy,” Cruikshank said. “The simplest thing we can do is to have a good balanced diet.”
What about probiotics?
May be. Probiotics are often the first thing we think of when we talk about gut health, but the evidence for how effective they are is mixed, Cruikshank said.
They are often recommended after taking antibiotics to replenish the good bacteria that can be killed along with the bad ones with medication.