Why your mouth is the gateway to health or disease in your body

In terms of health, your mouth can sometimes seem disconnected from the rest of your body. When you have a problem with your teeth or gums, you visit your dentist rather than your doctor to fix it.

But if you’re looking to improve your overall health, keeping your mouth healthy is an essential step. Your oral health influences the health of the rest of your body, and the reverse is also true. Researchers at a recent conference discussed how the mouth’s connection to the rest of the body goes way beyond chewing, swallowing and digesting food…

The power of the oral microbiome

There is such a thing as an oral microbiome — and keeping it healthy doesn’t just involve maintaining clean teeth and strong gums. Your mouth contains energy-efficient bacteria, and the environment they live in, which is rich with blood vessels, enables constant communication between the bacteria and the cells and proteins of the immune system.

Speaking at a recent science conference, Purnima Kumar, professor of periodontology at The Ohio State University, notes a growing body of evidence shows that our oral health is actually highly influential on, and influenced by, our overall health.

One example is type 2 diabetes, which increases the risk for gum disease. When examining how diabetes affects the bacteria in the mouth, researchers found that treatment for periodontitis, a serious gum disease that changes oral bacteria, also reduces the severity of diabetes.

Oral microbes also have been linked with rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, cognitive abilities and pregnancy outcomes.

“What happens in your body impacts your mouth, and that in turn impacts your body. It’s truly a cycle of life,” Kumar says.

“What is more dynamic than the gateway to your body — the mouth?” she adds. “It’s so ignored when you think about it, and it’s the most forward-facing part of your body that interfaces with the environment, and it’s connected to this entire tubing system. And yet we study everything but the mouth.”

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Kumar has led and collaborated on recent research further exploring the connection between oral health and type 2 diabetes, first discovered in the 1990s. She was the lead author of a 2020 study that compared the oral microbiomes of people with and without type 2 diabetes and how those microbiomes responded to nonsurgical chronic periodontitis treatment.

The researchers found that periodontitis allows these bacteria to determine the mix of microbes and inflammatory molecules in the mouth. By treating the gum disease, a normal relationship between host and microbiome was restored; however, this restoration happened more slowly in people with diabetes.

“Our studies have led up to the conclusion that people with diabetes have a different microbiome from people who are not diabetic,” Kumar says. “We know that changing the bacteria in your mouth and restoring them back to what your body knows as healthy and friendly bacteria, actually improves your glycemic control.”

How bad oral hygiene can upset the microbiome

Oral bacteria use oxygen to breathe and break down simple molecules of carbohydrates and proteins to stay alive. If you don’t clean your teeth for a few days, this can change the environment inside the mouth, choking off the oxygen supply and causing these microbes to ferment.

These fermenting bacteria then produce byproducts and toxins that stimulate the immune system, causing an inflammatory response and producing signaling proteins that the bacteria recognize as food. This inflammation causes pores between cells lining the mouth and blood vessels to leak, allowing what have become unhealthy bacteria to circulate throughout the body.

“The body is producing inflammation in response to these bacteria, and those inflammatory products are also moving to the bloodstream, so now you’re getting hammered twice,” Kumar says. “Your body is trying to protect you and turning against itself. And these pathogens are having a field day, crossing boundaries they were never supposed to cross.”

Keeping your oral microbiome healthy

While the complex mechanisms of the links between the oral microbiome and specific diseases are still being explored, maintaining a healthy oral microbiome is simple. To keep your teeth and gums in tiptop shape, brush your teeth at least twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, floss at least once a day and visit the dentist at least twice a year to have your teeth cleaned.

There are other steps you can take to keep your oral environment healthy…

If you smoke, stop. Smoking raises your risk of gum disease. Also avoid using smokeless tobacco products, which can increase your risk of oral cancer.

Keep your mouth from drying up. Drink plenty of water or take small sips of sugarless drinks throughout the day. Also, avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can dry your mouth out, as well as caffeine, soft drinks and acidic fruit juices. Don’t eat salty or spicy foods and try sugarless hard candy or gum to encourage saliva to form.

Try a dental probiotic. If you want to give your oral microbiome a boost, you can find probiotics specifically designed for that purpose. Make sure the dental probiotic you take is in a form that allows it to stay in the mouth for enough time to be absorbed by the microbiome. Some good delivery forms are lozenges, drinks, mouth rinses or chewable tablets.

As far as other probiotics go, there isn’t enough evidence to determine whether the probiotics you take for good gut health are also good for the oral microbiome. One study notes that at least some of the probiotic bacteria used in various probiotic products may colonize the oral cavity at the time they are in use, but it wasn’t clear exactly how these probiotics influenced the microbiome in the mouth.

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What happens in the mouth … doesn’t stay in the mouth — Ohio State News

Taking Care of Your Teeth and Mouth — National Institute on Aging

How Your Oral Microbiome Impacts Your Dental Health — Colgate

Probiotics and Oral Health — European Journal of Dentistry

Benefits of Oral Probiotics & Best Strains — Ask the Dentist

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.