Gut health and oral health are closely connected and have a lot more in common than most of us realise. Looking after your oral and gut health is crucial in reducing the risk of chronic disease, heart attack, stroke and dementia, and in promoting long-term wellness and vitality.
Making sure you have a strong and healthy gut starts by having a healthy mouth, which makes sense since everything travels downwards once we have chewed and swallowed!
Unfortunately, the mouth is one of the dirtiest parts of the body. It contains at least 20 billion bacteria which double every five hours unless we take good care of our oral hygiene.
So, if you forget to brush your teeth for just one day, there will be 100 billion bacteria roaming around your teeth and gums, and some of them will hitch a ride on your saliva and go on an adventure down to your gut.
It might be freaky to think about but inside us — especially in our mouths and guts — there are trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, microbes, fungi and parasites): our microbiome.
If our microbiome is healthy, everything runs smoothly and these “bugs” live happily together. Some are helpful (commensal bacteria, which benefit the body and the bacteria themselves!), while some can promote disease (pathogens) if they get out of balance.
Everyone’s microbiome is unique, like a fingerprint, and is first determined by our DNA. Next, we are exposed to microbes and bacteria as we are being born and in breast milk. And then, our environment and diet start to affect our microbiome, making it more robust or beginning to cause damage to our health.
If we catch certain infections, take antibiotics for a long time, follow an unhealthy diet, drink and smoke, are under a lot of stress or don’t take care of our oral hygiene, the balance of our gut microbiome gets disturbed, the pathogenic bacteria multiply and this puts our health at risk.
In the mouth, the microbiome is damaged when “bad” bacteria run rampant and start to eat away at our teeth and gums. This process is gradual and we don’t notice it at first.
If we don’t brush and floss regularly, bacteria build up and coat our teeth and gums, forming the sticky film we call plaque. This coating also hardens on the teeth as tartar, the calcified deposits that the dentist must chip off our teeth.
The coating of bacteria slowly begins to irritate the gums, causing them to become inflamed and to bleed. If left untreated, gum disease will set in, eroding the delicate gum tissue. Eventually teeth will become loose and may fall out, and gum disease can even reach the bones in the jaw, weakening them.
Damaged gums also become “leaky” and bacteria can travel from the gums into our bloodstream, potentially causing serious diseases. Periodontal disease increases the body’s burden of inflammation and this may affect many parts of the body, even including artery inflammation.
Your mouth is the gateway to your tummy; it’s like the bouncer at a nightclub. If this “bouncer” is working well, the crowd of bacteria that boogies on down from your mouth to your gut will behave and won’t get out of hand.
But if the “bouncer” isn’t on the ball, gum disease can take over your mouth and all kinds of nasty, inflammatory bacteria from your teeth and gums can travel to your gut in your saliva, in what you drink and in your food.
These bacteria then damage your gut microbiome, throw everything out of balance and can cause problems with both your physical and mental health, potentially contributing to horrible degenerative diseases such as dementia.
Studies show that oral problems such as gum disease are clearly linked to other diseases that often start in the gut. Mouth bacteria have been found in rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and even heart disease.
So, keep your mouth clean and well-cared for, and your tummy will thank you forever! In fact, taking care of your oral health can literally save your life.
Unfortunately, the reverse is also true: bacteria from your gut can also damage your oral health.
If the gut microbiome is damaged or unbalanced and there is an overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut, this can cause inflammation in the gut and even throughout the body, including the mouth.
A swollen tongue, for example, can actually be a sign of vitamin deficiency or lowered immunity. Overgrowth of certain bacteria or fungi can bring on sores, ulcers or candida infections in the mouth. Red and inflamed gums are not always caused by plaque and can indicate that minerals are not being absorbed properly in your gut. These oral health issues all point back to poor gut health.
It sounds extreme but if we don’t take care of our gum and gut microbiome, it can lead to all kinds of health problems and even put our lives at risk.
At this point, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by pathogen paranoia but take a deep breath and relax.
There are a few key steps to keeping your mouth and gut microbiome in balance so you can live your best, healthiest life with a happy, thriving microbiome!
Follow these four steps to keep your teeth and gums happy, and your oral microbiome balanced:
No matter how thorough we are, only a dentist can clean all the nooks and crannies around our teeth. Make sure you schedule a teeth-cleaning session every 3–6 months.
Whenever we eat, we’re also feeding the trillions of microbes in our oral and gut microbiomes, so it’s important to give them nutrients that make them thrive, encourage a diversity of microbes and keep them in balance. A lack of diversity in the microbiome can increase the risk of disease.
We’ve been told since we were kids to avoid sugar to protect our teeth. While this is true, sugar and starchy foods are also unkind to our mouth and gut microbiomes and reduce the diversity of microbes living there.
A mouth- and gut-friendly diet will include the following:
And remember to chew! Swallowing your food too quickly means that the “good” bacteria don’t get the chance to kick-start their work in helping food to be digested properly.
All this information about our gut and mouth microbiome can be overwhelming. To keep you on the path to great gut and gum health, here are seven steps to a happy tummy and teeth, and a glowing, gorgeous you:
Our mouth and gut are so intimately connected and this is a great reminder that everything we do matters and has an impact of every other part of the body.
Our mouth and gut microbiomes remind us that we are a home for trillions of microscopic friends, who can help or harm us, depending on how well we take care of ourselves.
Even though there are billions of bacteria in our microbiome, taking care of so many microorganisms is not that complex. In fact, our oral and gut health are happiest when we keep things natural and simple: a great lesson for all of us in the new year.