Oral Health and Overall Health
The oral cavity is the starting
point of our digestive tract, masticating and breaking down our food so we can
begin to get nutrients. Beyond that, it is the first point of exposure to many
pathogens; this vulnerability means we have developed the physiology and
structure to keep us protected. We are going to review why oral health
contributes to overall health and what you can do to fortify your first line of
Our mouths and throat are designed to optimise function, meaning
improve digestion and prevent infection. Most people associate our mouths with
the mechanical digestion that occurs when we chew. Our teeth are imperative for
breaking down food into smaller pieces so that acid in the stomach, enzymes
probiotics and assist in digestion to forms and materials that can be absorbed
in out gut. So, when our teeth begin to decay due to plaque and cavities, we
risk developing some malabsorption and possible nutrient deficiencies.
For good reason it has been drilled into us that we need to
maintain healthy teeth and gums with regular brushing and flossing. This is
because we are the junction between teeth and the deeper connective tissue with
the blood supply below is particularly vulnerable to “leaky barriers”. An
infection here can travel through our blood stream very quickly, transmitting
infections to the heart tissue, kidneys, brain and more. We know this because poor oral health has been implicated as a risk factor for
premature cognitive decline and other health issues. Bad bacteria
can colonize the hard, non-shedding surfaces of the teeth, but also the continuously
shedding mucosa. Luckily, so can good bacteria, which we will get to further
down. Bacteria can colonize more easily as this environment is warm and moist,
perfect conditions for growing. Even tongues are susceptible
to overgrowth by anaerobic bacteria such as Streptococcus
pyogenes which are a primary cause of sore throat. More serious pathogens
such as Streptococcus viridans have
been linked to heart conditions such as endocarditis and valvular dysfunction.
Signs and Symptoms that indicate your oral health needs some
It is important to pay attention
to your oral health because it can be the result of an underlying issue or it
may be the issue.
For example, a number of factors
can cause halitosis, or bad breath. It may indicate a local exposure to odorous
foods, an infection, or a deeper concern. The odour itself relates to volatile
compounds that have a high sulfur content and are produced by bacteria on the
tongue, or between and around teeth. Halitosis can be short term (from sulfuric
foods, tobacco products, or dry mouth) or it can persist. A smaller percent of
persistent halitosis cases (about 10%) indicate a systemic or local infection.
Dental health can be monitored at
home with the following:
- assessing for temperature
- discomfort when chewing
- bleeding gums
- blood in your sputum (spit)
especially first thing in the morning
- rust colored sputum may be a deeper lung infection
while green or yellow may indicate local infection
- frequent sore throat
- hoarse voice or change in voice
- post nasal drip
How the oral cavity is designed
Thankfully, we have developed a number of mechanisms to protect
ourselves, starting with the fact that the mucosal lining in our mouths is
constantly being sloughed off and replaced. We also have a number of immune
complexes such as dendritic cells to help recognise harmful antigens (or
invaders) which are embedded within that connective tissue just below your
gums. More importantly, we have lymphoid tissue, lingual and pharyngeal tonsils
essentially meaning you have a defense force right on hand. Unfortunately, for
a long time the necessity of tonsils was not known thus their hasty removal was
a common occurrence.
We also produce saliva which provides enzymes to initiate
digestion, IgA for immune support, regulation of pH, ducts store vitamin K2,
and moves keeps bacteria moving.
The Oral Microbiome
The final protective mechanism in the
oral cavity is so important it deserves its own section! Over 700 different
species of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria in mouth and comprise what is known
as your oral microbiome. While much of the research over the last decade
on the benefits of probiotics has been related to the bacteria residing in the
gut- the mouth is the second most diverse microbial community. Bacteria in the
mouth and throat initiate digestion and drug metabolism, act as barriers
against infection, begins the reduction of nitrates in food to produce nitric oxide, and communicates with the immune system. These bacteria are also
integral to dental structure and health.
This microbial community is populated at birth,
usually from vaginal transference. However, the increased incidence of
c-section births, use of antibiotics, harsh mouthwashes, more sugar and
processed foods means that its harder to establish a health mix of good
probiotics in the mouth. When we threaten the diversity of microbes present in
the mouth and throat, we can develop a dysbiosis, or an unbalance that can create
an unhealthy inflammatory response or increased risk of infections.
What can you do to help your mouth?
Oral hygiene is quite simple, ensure you are keeping things moving
(i.e. support shedding and regeneration), populate your microbiome with good
bacteria, and avoid things that increase decay.
Beyond brushing and flossing regularly, make sure you are cleaning your tongue, as this can remove some of the
offensive compounds (food remnants, dead cells etc.) that the bacteria feed on
that cause bad breath and decay. You should also consider avoiding sugars,
starchy foods, carbonated pop, highly acidic food and drink and overuse of
antibiotics. When considering oral probiotics supplementation make sure you
choose the right strain AND the right delivery form. For example, Streptococcus salvaris found in Blis K12 repopulates the microbiome of the mouth
by preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and their toxic by-products. However,
for optimal colonization you need to keep the probiotics in your mouth for a
sufficient amount of time, for example do not chew or swallow too fast. Forms
such as mints, lozenges, granules or powders may help keep the probiotic at the
site of colonization.
Finally, an underappreciated vitamin for oral health is Vitamin
K2. This important vitamin is normally associated with bone health as it
ensures calcium is taken out of the blood stream and into tissue such as bone
and teeth. Vitamin K2 has a much more diverse mechanism of action in that it is important for carboxylation
reactions which basically means it can “cleave” bulky preventing plaque
formation and supplementation has been shown to reduce dental caries in
children. Further it is stored in salivary glands emphasising its benefit
in oral health.
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