Episode 13: Is Your Deodorant Killing Your Microbiome?
Never before in the history of humans have we had more personal care products. Deodorants, face washes, cleansers, shampoos, toners, serums...the list goes on and on. And yet, there’s a case to be made that our skin has never been unhealthier. What gives?
On today’s episode, MotherDirt president, Jasmina Aganovic, is on the show talking about how our modern day lives and products have virtually pushed certain strains of bacteria into extinction -- and how our bodies are struggling to rebound without them.
Andrea also digs into the archives of listener questions and asks Jasmina whether deodorant hurts or helps the microbiome and what ingredients are microbial death knells.
This is a fascinating episode on how our super clean, ultra-squeaky, anti-bacterial lives may be doing more harm than good. Andrea also tested out MotherDirt products for the last month and reported on her results on our Facebook page. Head to our Facebook videos to hear what she had to say.
For 25% off MotherDirt products and free shipping, shop at motherdirt.com and enter BIOHM25 at checkout.
On this show, you’ll learn:
- Jasmina’s entry into the world of the microbiome (2:16)
- The concept behind MotherDirt (3:43)
- What the MotherDirt bacteria does (5:08)
- How “expensive” skin care may be making things worse (8:20)
- How does deodorant affect the microbiome on our skin? (10:28)
- The changes brought on by the MotherDirt Spray (17:21)
- How to use the mist (20:30)
- What products won’t wash away the helpful bacteria (22:46)
- Jasmina’s skin suggestions (27:26)
Andrea Wien: You're listening to The Microbiome Report powered by BIOHM Health. I'm your host, Andrea Wien. I am nerding out over this episode today with Mother Dirt President and MIT chemical and biological engineering grad, Jasmina Aganovic. Mother Dirt is the first line of microbiome-friendly personal care products focused on restoring and maintaining the delicate balance of our skin microbiome.
We had quite a few questions last season after our episode with the spa doctor, Dr. Trevor Cates about how individual products like deodorants, soaps and hand sanitizers impact the microbiome of our skin. I was so excited when Jasmina agreed to come on the show. Mother Dirt product is unique in that it helps to restore an ammonia oxidizing bacteria back onto our skin.
This is a bacteria that used to be in abundance in our skin microbiome when we spent more time out in nature but now, it's unfortunately gone. Almost extinct in our modern day lives. Jasmina and I talk about what our current plethora of beauty products is doing to our skin.
Some of the biggest red flag ingredients we should steer clear of when buying skin care products and how things like our deodorant could be setting up an unhealthy under our microbiome that actually works against our wishes of what we hope that product would do. We also talk in more detail about the specific bacteria used in Mother Dirt product. A kind of peacekeeper bacteria that acts as a buffer to body odors and skin imbalance.
This episode was so interesting for me to record. I really think you'll find some helpful nuggets of information to take back to your everyday life and your skincare regimen. After we recorded, Jasmina also sent me some Mother Dirt to try. I give my review on using it for the last month in a Facebook Live video on the BIOHM Facebook page. Head over there to hear about my experience and check out our show notes page for a special offer from Mother Dirt.
They're offering 25% off any Mother Dirt product and free shipping when you enter BIOHM25 at checkout at motherdirt.com. Now, let's get to the show. Jasmina, welcome to the show.
Jasmina Aganovic: Thanks for having me.
Andrea Wien: Tell me a little bit about how you came to the world of the microbiome.
Jasmina Aganovic: I think the cliche is that pads are always twistier than they might seem. My background is in chemical and biological engineering. I got my degree at MIT. I chose to take my career in the direction of personal care. I've worked for a few different brands both on the natural side and also the technical side. For example, I worked at a brand called Fresh and then I also worked at a brand that came out of a lab that I worked in at MIT called Living Proof.
In essence, what I learned through these experiences is that I really enjoy taking typically more complex and technical messages and figuring out how to build a brand around them in a way that could reach more people. That was one of the things that led me to being known a little bit in Boston as the science that does beauty/personal care. I got connected with a team of people at a company called AOBiome whose core technology was this bacteria that comes from the dirt.
They were interested in pushing this concept. "Hey. Could we launch a brand as a way to talk about public health?" I got really excited about this. I joined the team. This is ultimately what ended up becoming Mother Dirt, which I launched about a year after joining or meeting them.
Andrea Wien: Tell us a little bit about the concept behind what Mother Dirt is.
Jasmina Aganovic: Sure. The core technology behind Mother Dirt, I would say twofold. It all started with this bacteria that I referenced before. It's a soil-based bacteria called nitrosomonas eutropha. It's a type of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria. It once used to exist on our skin.
However, it's so sensitive to surfactants and preservatives that essentially, the combination of our modern hygiene and the shift to indoor lifestyles has removed this bacteria from our skin, which we think has a variety of implications. Part of which is being researched on the clinical side through AOBiome. With Mother Dirt, we use this bacteria in our mist as a way to help put it back on on the skin.
The other part of our technology has to do with our biome-friendly product development platform. I won't go into too much detail now but essentially, this is the series of assays and protocols that we have to follow for all of our raw materials, packaging and manufacturing in order to create products that actually are formulated with the microbiome in mind so that they're friendly essentially to the fragile ecosystem of the skin.
Andrea Wien: That bacteria, do we think that it's protective? Does it crowd out more pathogenic strains? What's the thought behind what it's actually doing?
Jasmina Aganovic: The bacteria is referred to as a keystone bacteria, which means that it needs to be present in very small amounts to have a disproportionate impact relative to its population. It's referred to as the peacekeeping bacteria because it does have a stabilizing effect on the ecosystem.
Meaning that you start to see the population of the ecosystem shift in a rather dramatic way towards something that would look a little bit more balanced based on the science that we know right now.
Andrea Wien: In vanity and beauty terms, does that mean less acne, fewer wrinkles? What are we talking about?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. We're in the very early stages of learning the extent of what this bacteria can do. So far, we have validated its use cosmetically. I'll go through a few things that we've learned about what it does. The bacteria, when it sits on your skin, because it has an active metabolism, because it's alive, it is constantly consuming your sweat. It's converting it into beneficial byproducts. Specifically, t is consuming the ammonia in your sweat, which has a high pH.
Just by removing that ammonia, it's helping keep the pH of your skin in a more normal range, which is really important for the skin to look and feel good. Typically, higher pHs are associated with more problem skin types. On the backend of this, what it's taking that ammonia and turning it into are these beneficial byproducts called nitrite and nitric oxide that are meant to keep the skin calm and soothed. Together, these create a cascade of benefits.
People with oily skin find that their skin is less oily. People with sensitive skin find that their skin is less sensitive. People with dry skin find that their skin is less dry. People who use it in areas where they have odor issues like your armpits, they find that the odor goes away. That they can cut down or cut out on things like deodorant. From a cosmetic standpoint, that's what we've been able to demonstrate.
Andrea Wien: It almost sounds like it's the bacterial equivalent of an adaptogen. Something that would go into the body and help you regulate stress perhaps. Maybe help increase your cortisol if that's needed in certain moments and decrease it in others. It's whatever you need to be happening on your skin, this is helping to normalize that.
Jasmina Aganovic: That's a really interesting analogy. I don't think anyone has ever drawn that before. In some senses, yes. You can definitely draw that analogy. It isn't just about moving things in one direction. It's not just about moisturizing. It's not just about drying. It's not just about calming. It's really about understanding what that steady state or homeostasis is. That is a really interesting analogy.
Andrea Wien: I can almost hear some of our listeners thinking. "Well, I pay for really expensive skincare." Most of the women probably. Right?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah.
Andrea Wien: I paid for a really expensive skincare to get rid of the bacteria and dirt that I know is on my skin. How is it that we have more skincare products than ever before but we could arguably say that our skin has never been worse?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. I mean, you're pointing out one of the great ironies. It is really interesting that we're cleaner than ever. We have more products than ever. Cosmetic chemistry is actually remarkably innovative. Yet we seem to be struggling with our skin more than ever before. I won't list through all of the statistics because I think that the problem is so prevalent that a lot of listeners are nodding regardless. I was definitely one of those people.
I mean, I started struggling with my skin very early on in life as a teenager. I went through literally everything you possibly could. What that culminated in, even as my skin started to grow out of it or calm down is I have cultivated this extremely elaborate skincare routine of eight steps in the morning and eight steps in the evening. This is really what you're told you need to do in order for your skin to be normal and healthy-looking.
What's really interesting now, science is showing that we might have been missing a big piece of this whole puzzle. Probably trying to get rid of bacteria as a way to be healthy was not really the full picture. That we've probably been removing a lot of good bacteria that our skin actually needs to perform very basic functions. That this might be a contributing factor to some of the issues that we're seeing.
That all of these products that we use, the chemistry in these products unbeknownst really or unintended to the formulators or the developers or the industry is impacting this ecosystem that exists on the skin that we didn't even know existed until fairly recently as far as the industry goes. It's a moment of reckoning in some sense.
It's also a big period of reevaluation since the whole industry has now taken such an intense interest in this new organ system that we've come across.
Andrea Wien: From a microbial perspective, what are things like deodorants, either traditional deodorants or maybe the crystal roll-ons that people are using that are perhaps healthier because they don't have the aluminum or things like hand sanitizers. These were questions that we had from some of our listeners. How are those really impacting the balance of our microbiomes on our skin?
Jasmina Aganovic: Great question. I'll start with deodorant because I think that this one is actually the most interesting to me personally. We talk about a lot of what some people might perceive as gross issues but we've been completely desensitized to them. Deodorant is so fascinating because our sweat in and of itself is not really what smells.
In most cases, it's when sweat interacts with certain types of bacteria that are in that area that it generates the odor that we associate with body odor. The way that deodorants approach it is twofold. They either try and prevent you from sweating. This is what antiperspirants are. They try to remove the bacteria that cause the odor. Essentially, that's an antibacterial approach. There's no specialized way to kill specific types of bacteria and not others.
The assumption was, any bacteria, you simply want to remove. It's either kill all the bacteria or prevent yourself from sweating so that you don't feed the bacteria. Thereby starving them out and killing them anyway. It's some combination of both. Not necessarily a bad approach until you start to consider how these broader ecosystems work. These ecosystems have evolved to interact with one another. They have evolved to serve a purpose for our body.
Most of which is not yet clearly understood. By removing all of this bacteria constantly, daily, over the course of our lifetimes, we're destabilizing this ecosystem and its ability to do what it is meant to do. By destabilizing it, it is very likely that we're leaving our skin and our body and potentially even our immune system more susceptible to potential issues. What that mechanism is, scientists don't yet fully understand but it's an area of intense interest.
In the case of hand sanitizers or antibacterial hand washes, the same thing is happening. Where essentially, when you're trying to remove everything, the thing that's going to survive is probably going to be the nastiest, gnarliest worst ones. Because it's survival of the fittest. It might not lead to the best outcome. Because we're not creating balance and an ecosystem to keep everything in check.
Andrea Wien: That's so interesting. I almost think of it as if you were going on an iconic road trip through Route 66 let's say. Every town you went to had its own little interesting thing that played off. Maybe one place had the Burger Shack. The next place had the milkshakes. You got to this whole stretch of town that was just completely dead and barren and maybe a little dangerous. It's like that around the body.
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah.
Andrea Wien: Everything works together to create this experience. If one of them is off or we're killing everything off in one of them, then the rest of the tourist sites struggle.
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. I love that analogy. There are a lot of nature analogies at that scale that are being given to describe the microbiome and how it works. What I think is really poetic about these types of analogies is that the microbiome is part of nature. It's just that literally the micro scale. If you think about ecosystems at a larger scale, so your microbiome is an ecosystem at a micro scale.
If you think about other ecosystems that we're able to perceivably see with our eyes, something like the rainforest or something like a coral reef. These beautiful dynamic complex things that even those, we still don't understand how those completely interact. To use a very specific example, something like the bumblebees or honeybees. People talk about removing those from the ecosystem and how tragic that would be.
It's likely that we have done some version of that to our microbiomes. Whether it be in the gut or on the skin. We're now grappling with the domino effect of having done that.
Andrea Wien: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's pretty interesting. I've read some studies that are pretty shocking essentially saying that our skin microbiomes are pretty stubborn to change. How do we start shifting them into a healthier state? If we are someone who's been using products maybe that aren't best suited for the microbiome or we work in a hospital. My mom works as a nurse in a hospital. Every time she leaves a patient's room, she has to use Purell.
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah.
Andrea Wien: In those situations, can we really start to move our skin microbiomes into a direction that makes more sense?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. Two really important things to state upfront. First, we don't really know what a healthy microbiome is. I think a lot of people are pursuing that. That pursuit is proving to be more complex than we had originally thought. Second, an environment like a hospital or something like handwashing absolutely needs to be treated completely separately from general day-to-day.
What I mean by that is an environment that has to be sterile like a hospital because of the types of diseases that are being dealt with there because of patients who potentially have open wounds or are coming in and out of surgery. This is a case where absolutely you cannot take any risks.
However, the issue that I think we as a general public and where this starts to become an issue in public health is when we start to take these extreme sterile techniques and we apply them to the day-to-day. That's really what we're trying to change and recalibrate. It's not a complete reversal in all aspects of our lives. It's really just recognizing what the right approach is and being very pointed and deliberate about that. Your mom, for example.
She absolutely needs to continue washing her hands. I would even advocate for her maybe using wipes instead. It might be gentler on her hands. We do have a lot of people who are in the medical profession who purchase our mist. When they're at home before they go to bed, they just spray the mist on their hands. That has brought them relief in terms of having their hands just feel softer and more resilient and less dry. Yeah.
Understanding what a healthy microbiome is, is a tough problem. Hopefully, the answers to those are coming sooner rather than later.
Andrea Wien: The Microbiome Report is brought to you by BIOHM Health. Want to take action to improve your gut but don't know where to start? Take the first step with BIOHM's Gut Report. You'll receive a full measurement of the bacteria and fungi in your gut as well as actionable recommendations on exactly how to optimize your gut health from BIOHM's team of microbiome trained nutritionists.
In that same vein then of it being difficult to shift our microbiomes of the skin, does Mother Dirt…Does the spray…Have you guys found that the bacteria are more transient? Once they're there, they're doing good work similar to how certain bacteria can go through the gut but they're not really setting up shop? Is it once we inoculate ourselves with the spray, they're really building a home there and sticking around?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. A funny story to answer this question, which is absolutely the right question. It was one of the first questions that we had when we founded the business. Circa 2013 going into 2014, we had the big question of whether or not it was even possible to put this bacteria back on the skin. Because our concern was that our modern human skin microbiome had just evolved so far away from whatever its native state was.
That it was potentially hostile to this bacteria that we work with that is very sensitive. To help answer that question, we did this. It was a cosmetic clinical study. It was IRB approved. We basically had 30 people. It might've been 28. A couple arms in the study. What they did is they abandoned all of their modern, personal care products. They took water only showers. They doused themselves in our bacteria twice a day.
The study lasted if I remember correctly, four weeks. There was a wash out period as well. We swabbed them throughout the study to see how their skin microbiome might have changed or shifted. Also to answer the question whether or not the bacteria persisted and stayed there. One of the participants in the study ended up writing about her experience. This article got picked up or written about in New York Times magazine. This came out in May of 2014.
That really put our research on the map. It's a really interesting read in case any of your listeners are interested in diving a little bit more into this early stage of our research. It's called My No-Soap, No-Shampoo, Bacteria-Rich Hygiene Experiment. A pretty hilarious title written by Julia Scott. The answer is yes. We can re-engraft the bacteria.
When it is there, it shifts the microbiome to types of bacteria that are perceived to be more benign and less problematic. It doesn't mean that it kills pathogenic bacteria. It doesn't mean that it kills bad bacteria but definitely creates a shift in your skin's microbiome. With that shift, we also were able to notice improvements in people's skin, how it looked and felt.
The other thing that we noticed during the wash out period is that all it takes is one shower with soap to completely remove this bacteria. That's how sensitive it is.
Andrea Wien: Wow. That's pretty crazy. You found that it not only reinoculated the skin but also gave other beneficial strains a leg up if you will. It didn't completely knock out the pathogenic ones but it also helped create a more favorable environment overall. Secondarily, once people went back to their normal "routines" all the good was gone?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. Yup.
Andrea Wien: Okay. We'll definitely link to that article in the show notes because I think that that's so important. When you're talking about how to use the mist, are people using it all over their bodies on a daily or multi times a day treatment What does that look like?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yes. In terms of practical use, we recommend that people use the mist twice a day after any other products in their routine. One of the things that we've been able to find is that if you have to use another product, for example, an SPF, which obviously people should be wearing. You would apply the mist afterwards as the very last step so that any existing chemistry is diffused through being absorbed on your skin.
That the bacteria are able to sit on the surface and not be impacted. That's what we would recommend in terms of order. We have people who do use other conventional products. By using this as the last step, they're still able to see plenty of benefit. People use it wherever they feel like they have either problem skin or something that they want to work on. This could be the face if they have a really oily-looking skin.
This could be their skin is really dry and rough. If they're trying to cut down on deodorant, then they might just be using it on their underarm area. We have consumers who just use it all over their body because they believe that it's just a healthy thing to have as part of their skin's ecosystem.
A fun fact that I'll give is depending on what your routine is like, people will find that as the bacteria re-engrafts on their skin or starts to create shifts in their skin microbiome, that their skin can start to do better with less. They even find themselves using less of our mist with time. Maybe just using it once a day or a couple times a week and that their skin is just generally more stable on its own.
Andrea Wien: Can this help with any type of fungal infection? Can the bacteria actually create a more favorable environment that allows the body to fight off something like athlete's foot?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. Good question. We're currently doing research. By we, I mean our clinical partner, AOBiome is doing a variety of research on inflammatory skin diseases as well as things along these lines. If people want to go to aobiome.com, they can look at the different types of research that they're doing. I can't answer your question simply because we don't know the answer to it yet but the research certainly is being done on it.
Andrea Wien: Are there products then that people can use that are safe for this bacteria that won't wash it away?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yes. Part of this is our biome-friendly product development program. We originally wanted to certify other brands and products. What we realized is that we didn't have a solid grasp of really how our bacteria interacted with chemistry and other products. We knew that they were sensitive to surfactants and to preservatives. There's a whole host of other things that seems to affect them.
We decided to take it upon ourselves to formulate compatible products, which is what our biome-friendly line is. It's a specific approach through a variety of assays that we've developed and packaging, manufacturing, processing techniques, to ensure that all of the raw materials and the final formula are not going to be toxic to this fragile bacteria.
If you purchase any of our biome-friendly products, you know that they're not going to affect the bacteria. That being said, in terms of people's day-to-day, I want to reinforce that just using the mist doesn't require that you give up all other aspects of your routine. That's not the expectation. That's not what you need to do in order to see results as long as you're using it as the last step in your routine.
Andrea Wien: Are there certain ingredients that are definite red flags that people should be staying away from?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. SLS and SDS are the big ones that we point to. Just really Sodium Lauryl or laureth sulfate and sodium dodecyl sulfate. They are really strong surfactants. The things that create lathering that tend to be definitely very bad and toxic to our bacteria. That's an easy one. A lot of people think essential oils for sure are going to be good for my microbiome. Essential oils are really potent.
Especially if they are antibacterial like thyme oil or lavender or something along those lines. However, we have tested a few essential oils that have been compatible with our bacteria and even some oils that seem to promote the growth of it. It creates a very favorable, happy environment for it. This is something from a research standpoint that we're continuing to pursue.
Andrea Wien: I can really see the future of clinics or spas where you go in and then you have customized products that begin to balance out your skin woes based on your microbiome as this research continues to develop. Is that something that you see in the not so distant future?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. I think it's going to be a harder target to hit than a lot of people originally expected. I absolutely do see an opportunity for personalized treatment. Even taking it a level further, I think that there's an opportunity for personalized medicine based on your microbiome. It's going to be complex. I think that there's a really interesting opportunity and puzzle there to create some meaningful approaches for therapies and treatments.
Andrea Wien: In our episode with Dr. Trevor Cates who's the spa doctor, she talked a lot about the internal microbiome and the internal state of the body having such an impact on the external microbiome. Is that anything that you guys have looked into or begun to study?
Jasmina Aganovic: We have not studied that specifically. Although I would not be surprised if the link between those two emerges to be stronger than anyone would expect. The whole body is certainly an ecosystem. It is all much more interconnected than I think we had thought 20 or 30 years ago. I do have an anecdote to share here, which is just a little funny and definitely not scientific but a little bit logical if you think about it.
As you know, our bacteria feeds off the sweat. However, if you drink a lot, your body also detoxes the alcohol through your sweat. There were a few members on our team several years ago that noticed that evenings where they would go out and maybe have a few too many drinks that they would smell bad the next day. That basically, whatever mist they used the day before seem to have stopped working.
The funny hypothesis that we had and we did not run a study on this because yeah, I don't know that we would have gotten the support on it. Maybe drinking alcohol ends up affecting your skin microbiome. I would not be surprised if that's the case. It would actually make a ton of sense. It just was a very funny way that that came about for us.
Andrea Wien: Yeah. I would say in my 20s, I could have been in that study. I definitely would agree with those findings for sure. To wrap things up here, do you have a skin prescription let's say for people? A routine or a habit that they can really start instilling into their daily lives that's going to boost the health of their skin?
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. I'm going to start in a very nebulous way. I think that it is a fundamental shift. It's a psychological shift first and foremost. Really perceiving your relationship with your skin to be one of nurturing an ecosystem. It sounds really fluffy. Even as a science based company, it's been such an important way to change how we frame and view how we take care of the skin.
That potentially this ecosystem is the underlying platform that your skin needs in order to feel and look good. That without that, it's really hard for your skin to feel and look good. That being said, just have an objective view at the products that are in your routine. Do you really need them? Why do you use them? There's so many things that we use because society or a commercial has told us that we have to.
If you use these products because they make you feel great and you don't have issues with your skin, then keep on doing what feels good for you. For many of us, I think the narrative is that we often feel trapped by our routines because we're told to use this for this problem and then that for that problem and so on and so forth. It's a moment of awareness.
Again, taking it one step further, it's seeing what you can start to use less of or cut out from your routine. If you really want to, you're open minded and you're interested in giving any of our products a try, I'm always very sensitive about promoting what we do because you realize that we're biased clearly. If there was one thing that you would incorporate from what we're doing, it would be the mist. Putting this bacteria back on your skin.
Re-introducing it to your skin microbiome and seeing how your skin responds to that. That's the staple of my routine. It's fundamentally changed my relationship with my skin. I used to be that eight steps in the morning, eight steps in the evening type person. Now, simpler is better for me. If I don't have to use it, I absolutely don't. My skin has never been more stable or looked better.
Andrea Wien: I definitely want to give it a try. I guess one last question here just to round it out. What does clean mean to you? Because I feel like you might have a very different idea of what it means to be clean than the average person.
Jasmina Aganovic: Yeah. Clean means balanced to me. Clean needs to be reframed in a way that it also comes with healthy. We talk about this as a team. We talk about the old clean versus the new clean. The old clean elicits imagery of white, sterile, shiny bathrooms. I wouldn't say the brand name but the commercials that we typically see on the TV. Those bathrooms always look the same essentially. Is there a different type of clean that we can start thinking about and talking about?
One that seems a little bit more aligned with our natural biology? One that promotes balance and health? What does that type of clean look like? For me, it elicits very different types of imagery. It elicits imagery that is not about keeping nature out or nature separate. It integrates nature and biology into our every day. It celebrates it for the benefits that it has to bring.
Andrea Wien: Perfect. Thank you so much. If people want to check out the products, check out the research you guys are doing, how can they find you?
Jasmina Aganovic: They can go to a motherdirt.com. They can also check us out on Instagram. Our handle is just Mother Dirt.
Andrea Wien: Jasmina, thank you so much for coming on the show. It was great to have you and we hope to talk soon.
Jasmina Aganovic: Thank you so much. This was great.
Andrea Wien: Thanks for joining me today on The Microbiome Report. Don't forget. You can save 25% off any Mother Dirt product by entering BIOHM25 at checkout at motherdirt.com. I'm Andrea Wien and we'll catch you next week.
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