What is the Oral Microbiome and why is it important?

Author Dr Aushi Patel

The “oral microbiome” is a complex and diverse eco-system of microorganisms living in our mouths. 

This includes over 800 species of bacteria. These bacteria are super intelligent, have an amazing survival capacity and have been on the planet, it is believed, at least 3 billion years before us!

When the environment in the mouth is healthy these mouth bugs live quite happily together in what is known as a symbiotic relationship; a mutually beneficial  relationship with us.

When the environment of the mouth is unhealthy the balance of the oral microbiome can be upset resulting not only in dental issues, but also causing issues to arise elsewhere in the body.

 When the oral microbiome mixes with the saliva and plaque in our mouths it forms what is known as a “biofilm”. This is the sticky layer you can feel when you run your tongue over your teeth.

This biofilm coats all of the surfaces in our mouths and performs vital functions to help keep our mouths healthy. It is like a protective coating.

A healthy, balanced biofilm helps to remineralise our teeth, bringing oxygen to the gums and protects us from harmful bacteria entering the body through the mouth.

As such, there are no “good” and “bad” bacteria in our mouths. According to recent research it is rather the environment that the bacteria live in that determines their behaviour. A number of the bacteria associated with tooth decay and gum disease can actually be totally harmless when the microbiome is in balance!

 Consider a garden…

If the soil in the garden is healthy with the right balance of microbes, nutrients and moisture then the plants that grow will be healthy. Beans and garlic do not do well together, nor do tomatoes and corn.

This is the same in our mouths; we require a beneficial harmony.

In recent years a great deal of attention has been focused on a healthy gut microbiome and how important it is for general health.

After all, 70% of our immune system is located in the gut! And guess what- the mouth is the first part of the gut!

Perhaps we should be looking more towards our oral microbiome for clues to dental (and systemic) disease?

More and more research is telling us we should!

 A healthy microbiome consists of bacteria that are mostly “aerobic”- meaning they rely on oxygen to live. Teeth feel clean, gums look pink and don’t bleed and the breath is fresh.

 An unhealthy microbiome on the other hand presents as bad breath, bleeding gums, frequent tooth decay, mouth ulcers and sensitive teeth.

 Here there are more “anaerobic” (without air) bacteria- they thrive where there is little oxygen such as in the gum pockets around the teeth.

These bacteria are not only involved in gum disease and dental decay but also inflammatory diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, pregnancy complications and the list goes on. They produce harmful toxins in the mouth which can then be absorbed into the blood stream through the gums. From here these toxins can travel throughout the body creating inflammation and disease like those mentioned above. Heard of “leaky gut’? How about “leaky gums”?

It is therefore important to keep these bugs in check by keeping the environment of the mouth healthy. Here are some tips:

Manage stress.

If we are stressed our microbiome will be stressed! Have you ever noticed during times of stress, fear or anxiety your mouth feels dry?

Saliva is the lifeblood of the mouth – it washes and remineralises teeth with calcium and phosphorus. It also provides nutrients to the gums, antibacterial enzymes and important immune cells.

When the mouth is dry, the teeth and gums are dry and don’t have the protection that saliva provides, making them more vulnerable to disease like dental decay. Stress not only causes a shift to a more acidic pH in the mouth but also acidity in the body which promotes unhealthy clenching and grinding of teeth and jaw discomfort.

So, managing your stress can help towards the health of your mouth. Some ways to do this is through spending time in nature, a good sleep routine, processing one’s emotions, yoga and meditation.

 

Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet.

When bacteria feed on sugars and carbohydrates they  produce acids that eat  away at the enamel and dentine of a tooth- causing tooth decay and cavities.

A diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar can also cause a shift in the pH of the mouth  from slightly alkaline to acidic. This in turn promotes the overgrowth and harmful activity of the disease causing bacteria.

 

Ensure you have good nutrition.

It goes without saying that good nutrition is the cornerstone of health any which way you look at it.

This is a huge topic. Nevertheless, what we eat and how we eat plays a big role in the health of our mouths.

Some tips to help are:

  • Up your alkalizing, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Support your gut health with fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut.
  • Eat more “detergent like” foods- these are by nature fibrous and cleansing to the mouth such as apples, carrots etc.

Check your oral hygiene products and daily oral care routine.

What oral-care products are you using?

Detergent based toothpastes and alcohol containing mouthwashes can strip the microbiome of not only harmful bacteria but also the beneficial ones!

Consider swapping to an alcohol free herbal mouthwash or coconut oil.

Clean your tongue daily with a tongue scraper to remove toxins from the mouth (and body).

So, consider your mouth like a garden.

Keep the soil (your oral microbiome) balanced and the rest (your teeth gums etc) will be healthy and flourish!

 

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