It turns out what’s going on in your mouth has a much bigger impact on your overall health than you might think, says David Ojcius, the assistant dean of research and the chair of the Biomedical Sciences department at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, California.
The oral microbiome — made up of hundreds of different microbes that can’t be seen with the naked eye — has a profound impact on health as it can pass to your gut and to your bloodstream. Mostly made up of bacteria (but also fungi and viruses), the balance of the oral microbiome can affect oral health and has been linked to a number of diseases.
While the environment of the mouth is relatively stable compared to the microbiome of the gut, harmful microbes from the mouth can end up in the gut and cause something called dysbiosis (a medical term for when gut bacteria becomes imbalanced).
One way that oral bacteria can make its way into your insides is through saliva, which is actually a natural killer of some types of bacteria and fungi, explains David Ojcius. Some of these pathogens are resilient and aren’t affected by the powerful acids in your stomach. What’s more, he explains, is that some medications meant to reduce stomach acid and prevent reflux can actually provide a free pass for some bacteria to survive and thrive in the gut.
Once the balance of your gut bacteria is off, it can set off some reactions that are negative such as causing inflammation throughout the body.
Visiting the dentist on a regular basis has more benefits than just keeping your smile looking healthy, explains David Ojcius. It’s important to check for signs of oral health issues such as gum disease that can lead to increased bacteria making its way into the gut, he adds.
In particular, the bacteria in the mouth related to gum disease (P. gingivalis, which lends to the name gingivitis) can be swallowed or end up in your bloodstream through vessels in the mouth, leading to a number of potential health conditions.
Some diseases that have been linked to the oral microbiome include type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and even some cancers. There’s also some early evidence to suggest that an imbalance of the oral microbiome can lead to a deadly form of dementia known as Alzheimer’s disease, more specifically from gum disease. The toxins from the related bacteria have been found to accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, although more research is needed to confirm this link.
There are lifestyle factors that can affect the oral microbiome, such as smoking. But it also comes down to what you eat, explains David Ojcius.
Prebiotics, found in whole grains and bananas as examples, help encourage growth of healthy microflora, while probiotics found in many fermented foods such as yogurt actually contain living microorganisms that contribute to “good” bacteria.
While there has been a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of prebiotics and probiotics in the maintenance of gut health, there are other areas being examined such as the benefits for the oral microbiome. This is significant, as we know oral health can affect gut health and therefore your overall well-being.