Called the microbiome, it is made up of the millions of organisms that live in us and on us, said Elizabeth Corwin, deputy dean of strategic and innovative research at Columbia University School of Nursing. And a healthy microbiome is a crucial part of good health.
It affects the immune system and helps synthesize important vitamins in our gut, Corwin added. These organisms also offer protection, can help heal wounds, kill nasty pathogens, and help some medications 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.
It’s a dog?
Are you looking for an excuse to adopt a dog? Here it is.
Studies show that dogs share their microbiome with the family, 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 is suggested that rural microbiomes have a little more variety and may be better for our lung health.”
Sorry about cats, but Corwin said dogs seem to be the most useful pet for the microbiome.
Reduce your stress
An important factor in the health of the microbiome is how permeable or permeable 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 loses the healthy and useful microorganisms, that’s fine, he 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 gut loss,” Corwin said. “If you live with high stress, your bowels may be leaking.”
Vary your diet
A high-fiber and varied diet is important for a healthy microbiome, experts said.
The microbiota loves high-fiber foods, such as fruits and vegetables, Corwin said. Fiber is not well digested in the stomach and tends to be broken down more by microorganisms and moves through the intestines, he added.
Fermented foods can be helpful, because they often give you live bacteria, Cruickshank said. But, although some studies have shown efficacy, it’s hard to know for sure if you’re going to get useful bacteria from the fermented foods you eat because batches can vary a lot.
Cruickshank said she is concerned about the microbiome of people restricting their food, either because of restrictive diets or because they rely on high-fat but affordable foods.
“If you have a varied diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, this gives you a lot of different things to chew and enjoy,” Cruickshank said. “The simplest thing we can do is have a good and balanced diet.”
What about probiotics?
Perhaps. Probiotics are often the first thing we think about when it comes to gut health, but the evidence for how effective they are is mixed, Cruickshank said.
They are often recommended after an antibiotic to replenish the good bacteria that can be killed along with the bad ones with medication.