If you're looking to build a beautifully diverse microbiome, you'll probably want to start by eating nutrient-dense meals, avoiding processed foods, and taking probiotics daily. However, when it comes to health, what lies outside your body may be as important as what you're inviting in.
I reached out to Jack Gilbert, an expert on microbial health and author of the new book Dirt Is Good, to learn more about how our outer world shapes our inner one and how we can tweak our homes to promote a healthier microbiome. Here's what he had to say:
What does a healthy microbiome at home even look like?
"To be perfectly honest, we don't know what a healthy microbiome is, but we do know what disease-causing pathogens we want to keep at bay," Gilbert says. However, he worries that this germ-fighting mentality is robbing today's kids of a diverse, rich microbial community. "Obviously we don't want to go backward and expose children to a lot of dangerous pathogens, but we want to make sure that they come in contact with bacteria, viruses, and fungi."
How can parents expose their children to microbes in a safe way?
"We know that pets can be beneficial, so I recommend exposing your kids to animals, especially very early in life, by the age of 1. Children who grow up with a dog in their home have an almost 13 percent reduction in the likelihood of developing asthma. Plus, children who grow up on farms have an almost 50 percent reduction in the likelihood of developing asthma and allergies or other immune-related diseases."
So what does a playtime rich in healthy microbes look like? "In my own home, for example, we have rescue dogs, prepare balanced meals for the kids, and take them outside so they can play in the yard and get dirty. We're careful to protect them from dangerous pathogens, of course—we promote hand washing and common sense—but we want to make sure they get as much safe exposure as possible to train their immune systems to respond appropriately to the world they live in."
Does fostering a microbiome-friendly home become less important as we grow up?
"Definitely not. A healthy microbiome can maintain your gastrointestinal health, your inflammatory health, and even your mental health as you grow older," he says, noting exciting research on how the gut-health connection manifests across our entire lifetime. "We know that it's possible for children going through puberty to have increased mental plasticity. And early research suggests that by altering their diet and exercise regimen, which changes the metabolic activity of their gut microbes, we can effectively improve their learning potential. Then, later in life, conditions like Alzheimer's, dementia, and sarcopenia are also linked to changes in the microbial metabolic activity in your gut."
What can we bring into our homes to help our microbiomes flourish? I know plants are having a big moment right now—are they beneficial?
"Houseplants have lots of bacteria and viruses associated with them, and 99.99 percent are completely benign. They are another source of microbial exposure that can help you develop a healthy immune system and potentially reduce your risk of developing disease. So getting things like plants, dogs, cats, and other animals into your home environment can be very beneficial to your health."
What sort of cleansing routine do you recommend at home? How clean is too clean?
"Right now, there is ongoing research to create probiotic cleaning products. I think that the science is too early to support their usefulness at this stage, and I don't think people know what kinds of microbes to add in to the cleaning products to make them health-promoting. But that's definitely a research area that I'm very interested in following."
Gilbert also recommends shying away from heavy-duty, antimicrobial cleaning supplies unless you're immune compromised. "You don't need to use 10 percent bleach in your home or use Clorox wipes all the time. There is no point, and, in fact, it could be damaging in the long run. Always use common sense and ask yourself if you really need to sterilize that surface," he says. Instead, go back to the basics. "If you're going to wash your hands, wash them in lukewarm water and standard soap. If you need to clean your counters, use green, nontoxic cleaners that won't restrict microbes."