A healthy microbiome builds a stronger immune system, trimmer body, stronger heart, and happier mood.
Adopt a Daily Fitness Plan
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People who exercise three or more times a week have more diverse gut bacteria than people who hit the gym less frequently, according to research from the American Gut Project. Exercising speeds up your digestion, which means that food spends less time sitting in (and causing the inflammation of) your intestinal tract, where the lion’s share of your body’s healthy bacteria live, explains Christian Evans, Ph.D., an associate professor at Midwestern University.
The influence of exercise on your microbiome can even help keep your weight under control. Beyond torching calories, physical activity appears to encourage the growth of a specific type of bacteria that is linked to leanness while suppressing other sorts that are associated with obesity, adds Evans. In American Gut Project research, daily exercisers had the most diverse bacteria of all.
But it is possible to go overboard: Studies show that some extreme athletes (like elite marathon runners) have lower diversity. Too much exercise may overstimulate the immune system, which could have a negative effect on gut microbes. Balance your hard workouts with days dedicated to lower-intensity activities like yoga or walking. (Find out why your gut bacteria could be The Secret to Health and Happiness.)
Photo: Corbis Images
Sign Up for a Mud Run
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Or take up hiking, gardening, or any other activity that requires you to get dirty. “When you play with soil, beneficial bacteria in the environment repopulate the community of bacteria on your skin,” says gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan, M.D., the author of The Microbiome Solution. (Just hope that the mud isn't contaminated with bad bacteria.)
Without regular contact with these natural microorganisms, your own bugs can fall out of balance, resulting in a weaker immune system and even a slower metabolism. Just opening your windows when it’s nice out or getting a few potted plants can help introduce healthy outdoor microbes into your system, says Justin Sonnenburg, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University.
Use Milder Soap
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Being too hygienic can kill off your beneficial bugs, says Sonnenburg. So limit your use of soaps and body washes labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial.” They indiscriminately wipe out a broad spectrum of bacteria, which could leave you open to skin irritation and even weaken your immunity. (That's one reason there are now probiotic beauty products.)
Instead, opt for mild cleansers. They’re less damaging to your skin’s microflora and are just as effective at keeping colds and flu at bay as antibacterial versions. (It's not just soap—Processed Foods May Kill Off Bugs That Keep You Thin.)
Photo: Summer Photographer/Shutterstock
Pay Attention to Mealtimes
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Gut microbes set their schedule based on what and when you feed them, says Vanessa Leone, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago Department of Medicine. If you typically eat between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., the bacteria responsible for digesting food will learn to become more active then and turn off during the hours you’re asleep. If you suddenly start snacking at midnight or travel across time zones and begin eating at drastically different hours, your microbes won’t make that switch along with you, leading to improper food digestion. “They metabolize what you eat less efficiently, which can cause you to gain weight,” says Leone.
Maintain regular mealtimes as best you can, and when traveling, try to eat when you normally would at home. If that’s not possible because you’re in a different time zone, fill up on fiber. “Fiber fuels our good microbes and seems to help them adjust to our new eating rhythms,” says Leone. (Psst... You Need Way More Nutrients for Good Gut Health.)
Photo: Corbis Images
Become a Dog Person
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Pup owners have a more diverse skin microbiome than their petless peers, according to research from the University of Colorado, Boulder. That’s because a dog’s mouth is home to some powerhouse microbes that are rarely found on human skin. Petting your pooch, sleeping with him, and letting him shower you with doggy kisses can help transfer his healthy bugs to you, says Sonnenburg. And since the bacteria that reside on your skin are your immune system’s first line of defense, that may help ward off viruses and illness-causing bugs, explains Dr. Chutkan.
So far, it’s not clear whether cat owners enjoy the same perks, but a study in the journal Pediatrics found that babies who grew up around felines were less likely to get sick than those who didn’t.
Photo: Corbis Images
Consider a Probiotic
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The fastest (and arguably, the best) way to bolster gut bacteria? Taking a daily probiotic supplement. They deposit live bacteria and yeasts that help to improve the landscape of your digestive tract. Look for a product with at least 10 to 20 million CFUs (colony forming units; a unit of measurement for probiotic potency), since this is the common range used in clinical trials, according to Mike Roussel, Ph.D., as he explained in The Power of Probiotics. A good option: Renew Life Ultimate Flora Women’s Care Probiotic 25 Billion, which contains 10 different strains of bacteria.
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There’s a biological reason that stress can make you feel sick to your stomach, says Mladen Golubic, M.D., Ph.D., the medical director of the Center for Lifestyle Medicine Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Researchers at Ohio State University found that chronic anxiety can throw off your ratio of healthy-to-harmful gut bugs. That imbalance can cause GI issues and leave you more susceptible to illness because 70 to 80 percent of your immune cells reside in your intestinal tract. (Related: The Surprising Way Your Brain and Gut Are Connected.)
Dr. Golubic says that doing relaxing activities throughout the day—yoga in the morning, stretches or deep breathing at work, reading or listening to music before bed—can help keep stress to a minimum. The result: a happier, healthier microbiome.