(CNN) – Bacteria, viruses, yeast and parasites in your gut? It may sound like the stuff of nightmares, but this collection of microbes is actually a health necessity, experts say.
Called the microbiome, it consists of the millions of organisms that live in us and on us, said Elizabeth Corwin, vice dean of strategic and innovative research at the 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. Those organisms also offer protection, can help heal wounds, kill off bad pathogens and help certain 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.
Caring for your microbiome can help with many conditions, including allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases, Cruickshank said.
So where do you start? How do you get a better microbiome?
“What we really mean by a good microbiome is a diverse microbiome,” Cruickshank said. “Lots of disease tend to be associated with a lack of variety.”
She and Corwin shared easy ways to get more microbial variety in your life.
What about a dog?
Looking for an excuse to adopt a dog? Here it is.
Studies show that dogs share their microbiome with the household, 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 pleasant way to exchange bacteria, she added. Just having animals around can help.
“We also have a microbiome in our buildings and in the air around us,” Cruickshank said. “It’s suggested that rural microbiomes have a little bit more variety, and they may be better for our lung health.”
Sorry cat people, but Corwin said that dogs appear to be the most helpful pet to the microbiome.