Scientist Jeff Leach urges us to get down and dirty to improve our health.

Scientist Jeff Leach urges us to get down and dirty to improve our health.

For most of human history, we shared a pretty intimate relationship with germs. But modern life has scrubbed away that connection with the microbes on our planet.

The result: A lack of robust diversity that may be hindering our health.

Here are 5 simple ways you can rekindle your microbial connections – without sacrificing basic hygiene. And yes, you still need to wash your hands.

Curb antibiotics

Curb antibiotics: Antibiotics save lives and fight disease-causing infections. But they also wipe out the good and the bad guys in our body.

And we've tended to use them liberally - such as for viral infections (which antibiotics can't fight) or as prophylactic. That practice is changing, but talk to your doctor and make sure the antibiotics you're prescribed are necessary.

Open a window

Open a window: Modern architecture-like sealed windows and filtered air-has changed our microbial surroundings-and in some cases may actually increase the number of disease-causing microbes.

A national activity survey found that Americans spend more than 90 percent of their lives indoors. Opening windows helps to "re-wild our homes and indoor environments," says Jeff Leach, anthropologist and author of Bloom: Reconnecting with Your Primal Gut in a Modern World says by bringing the right kinds of germs and bacteria-hosts into your life, you can improve your overall health.

Grow a garden: Getting a little dirt (and the critters in it) under your fingernails is one way to enhance your microbial diversity. People raised on farms, for example, are less prone to asthma and allergies.

Get a pet: A recent study in eLIFE found that homes with dogs had more diverse microbes. Other studies looking at dog ownership indicate that kids raised in homes with dogs have a lower risk of developing respiratory problems. Studies looking at cat ownership support some similar benefits.

Ditch the antibacterial cleaners: To prevent the spread of infectious germs, washing with plain soap and water is just as effective as using an antibacterial soap.

More importantly, triclosan, the antibacterial agent found in these soaps and other products, may have harmful health effects, according to a variety of health studies. A study in Norway, for example, has shown that triclosan exposure is associated with respiratory allergies in children.

July/August 2014