What is the oral microbiome – and why does it matter?

Here at Liz Earle Wellbeing, we focus a lot on the importance of beneficial bacteria for our gut health and skin. But what about the oral microbiome?

The oral microbiome is the term used to describe the community of microorganisms that live in our mouth. That includes bacteria, viruses and fungi. And, while you may not realise it, the community living in our mouths influence a number of areas of our wellbeing.

“The oral microbiome is the gateway to the gut,” says dental surgeon, Dr Maria Papavergos. “It has links to our whole body and overall health. “For example, periodontitis (gum disease) affects 10-15% of the world’s population and is driven by several types of bad bacteria. There are direct links between gum disease and several chronic inflammatory conditions, including cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.”

Here, we explain more about the oral microbiome and what you can do to support yours.

What is the importance of the oral microbiome?

When it comes to our oral microbiome, it’s important that we maintain a harmonious and balanced relationship with the hundreds of species of bacteria in our mouths. When all is well with our oral microbiome, these bacteria can act as a protective barrier to external organisms, helping to support our immune system.

However, it’s important to remember that the oral microbiome also includes the bacteria that adhere to the surface of teeth to form dental plaque.

“By promoting a healthy oral microbiome, through both diet and removing dental plaque, we can have a positive impact on oral and overall health,” explains Maria. “Any type of disruption to the oral microbiome, including dietary changes or changes to saliva flow, can result in disease.”

What can disrupt the oral microbiome?

As mentioned previously, gum disease has been linked to a number of inflammatory conditions, including inflammation in the gut as well. Grazing throughout the day, particularly on sugar, can disrupt both our oral and gut microbiome.

“Frequent sugar intake or reduced saliva flow drives ‘bad’ bacterial selection and inhibits the growth of beneficial species,” says Maria. “Dysbiosis ensues – this is a disharmony between your oral microbes and you.

“Regular spikes in our sugar intake over time drive down numbers of beneficial bacterial species in our guts, reducing gut microbiota diversity and negatively impacting gut health. This negative effect on our blood sugar can have damaging effects on cardiovascular health as well as a fluctuating effect on our mood and energy levels.”

But that’s not all. While diet is important, our daily lifestyle can also have a huge impact on the health of our oral microbiome, as Maria explains.

“Stress can manifest in the mouth and give rise to imbalances in the oral microbiome,” she says. “Saliva flow can decrease, affecting digestion as well as swinging the balance of your oral microbiome in a negative direction.”

Symptoms of poor oral health

But just how do you know if all is well in your mouth? Luckily, there are a few tell-tale signs you can look out for, including:

  • Bleeding gums. Gum disease is characterised by inflammation of the gums, which can manifest as bleeding gums.
  • Dental plaque that’s visible on your tooth surfaces. This can calcify into the harder calculus or tartar.
  • Bad breath. This is the result of abundant odorous oral bacteria.
  • Having hot/cold sensitivity in the mouth.

How to support your oral microbiome

Having healthy bacteria in your mouth will not only benefit your oral hygiene, but will have a positive impact on your overall health too. Follow these simple tips from Maria to move towards a happier and healthier mouth:

Eat a diet rich in plant-based foods.

“A diet that includes a large variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, while being low in refined carbohydrates will help support the oral microbiome,” says Maria. “Nourish your oral microbiome with omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in oily fish.”

Know your sugars

“Indulge in intrinsic sugars and exercise restraint on extrinsic sugars,” explains Maria. “Intrinsic sugars are present in natural, whole food sources, like fruit and vegetables. Extrinsic sugars are free sugars, released from their protected form through processing, whether that be juicing, blending, drying or freezing.

“These extrinsic sugars are the ones that are potentially damaging. Identifying these hidden sugars found in fruit juices, dried fruit and fruit smoothies, as well as table sauces like ketchup and pickles, is key. Be mindful of your sugar intake and remember moderation. It’s the regular frequency of sugar intake over a period of time that impacts our oral microbiome negatively.”

Avoid dental plaque

“Essentially, we want to avoid build-up of dental plaque – the bacterial biofilm full of ‘bad bacteria’,” says Maria. “Removing plaque is key. By brushing our teeth with a fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day, and brushing, rinsing with a fluoride mouthwash, we’re supporting beneficial bacterial growth and restoring symbiosis.”

Have a break

“It’s important to wait half an hour after eating before brushing your teeth,” explains Maria. “This limits the erosive effects. Also, it’s important to use a mouthwash at a separate time to brushing to not dilute the effects of the fluoride.”

Reduce stress

“Embracing some stress-reducing lifestyle habits, such as a regular yoga, mindful exercise or meditation practice, can have a positive impact on oral health and overall wellbeing too,” says Maria.

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